The sixth Serbian groundhop weekend in May 2019 kicked off on the Friday evening with an enticing looking derby in the fourth level Zonska Liga Beograd. Home side TEK Sloga from the town of Veliki Crljeni were second in the table on goal difference to FK Sremčica from the neighbouring town. OFK Mladenovac were also on the same number of points in third place. Veliki Crljeni is an industrial town fifty minutes south west of the capital.
Due to heavy traffic in Belgrade, we arrived close to kick off and it was immediately obvious this was a big deal locally with a large crowd gathering. TEK stands for Thermoelectric Kolubara and Stadion TEK is adjacent to the huge power plant fired by clunking hoppers of lignite, mined in the surrounding coal basin, continuously dumping their contents into the generator. This serious piece of heavy metal provides and incredible backdrop to the small stadium which has an uncovered stand down one side of it with a sector fenced off for away fans. There are over 600 people present with around 80 in the away sector and RSD200 (£1.50) gets us into the ground for this battle for promotion to the national leagues. The home side dominate the proceedings going 2-0 up in the first half. As with a lot of games in Serbia they choose to defend their lead in the second half rather than go for more goals and nearly came a cropper when Sremčica were awarded, and scored, a very soft penalty in the final minute of normal time.
The Super Liga and Prva Liga fixtures had only been confirmed on the Tuesday before we left London but sadly all games had been fixed for 4pm on Saturday which clashed with our plans for a game in the Srpske Republic. As many of the tour party wanted to “tick” a new country with the game in Bosnia we plumped for the game at Radnik Bijeljina as they were entertaining one of Bosnia’s traditional powerhouses, FK Željezničar from Sarajevo.
With the game in Bosnia not kicking off until 5pm we had plenty of time for a morning game in Belgrade and chose the third tier Srpske Liga game between FK Grafičar and FK Brodarac. The game wasn’t being played at Grafičar’s own ground in Senjak but at the second pitch at Red Star’s Stadion Ratko Mitić. The complex behind the south stand has been significantly upgraded for Zvezda’s youth level teams and has two 3G pitches, one with a seated stand for 500 and a grass pitch with a similar stand. Grafičar have a link up with Zvezda and many young Red Star players are on loan to them so maybe that was the explanation for the change of venue. It was RSD200 admission and a Grafičar, rather than a Red Star ticket, that was issued upon entry. We were grateful for the shade provided by the new stand as the sun beat down relentlessly. Grafičar treated us to a masterclass of attacking football and dominated the game from start to finish netting five times without reply.
After some electrical problems with the bus the previous day we were all relieved that we had a large and small mini bus turn up for our Trans Balkan express to Bosnia. We followed the E-70 west of the capital which basically follows the route of the mighty River Sava which after dropping south on the M18 its the river which forms the border between the two countries with border control and customs on either side. The crossing was fairly time consuming and we arrived at the Gradski Stadion in Bijeljina about twenty minutes before kick off. Our buses were ushered into a parking area beyond the grandstand and we were told by a club official we were guests of the president and didn’t need to pay. With the Bosnian Cup Final being contested between the top two clubs in the league FK Sarajevo and Široki Brijeg our game had a potential additional Europa League place at stake with the fifth place hosts taking on fourth place FK Željezničar. The club from Sarajevo are one of the powerhouse clubs from Bosnia and are followed by feared ultras group Manijaci (Maniacs). There were two reasons why we chose this game over an above a similar distance game at Zvijezda, the first was Zvijezda weren’t using their own ground and the second was the anticipation of Željezničar bringing a decent following with them. It was therefore a little disappointing that only a handful of away fans were evident and the reason for this quickly became apparent when social media quickly showed an astounding video of a Željezničar coach been ambushed and attacked by fans of their arch rivals FK Sarajevo. The match was also a bit of a damp squib with the away side scored early then easily defended their lead.
Several years ago on a Belgrade derby weekend, I had done a game at the cracking ground of FK Hajduk Lionu, set in amid the urban sprawl of south east Belgrade. I took a few pictures at that game and in one of the shots was Aleks Peković and Stephen Carpenter, both unknown to me at the time. The roots of our Serbian Groundhop weekends lie in that chance meeting of strangers that morning. It was therefore a feeling of going full circle for the three of us to bring the hoppers to this most interesting of venues.
It’s essentially a two sided ground with flats and a restaurant tightly packed against both ends of the ground. On the nearside is a large scaffold and board stand and on the far side is steep open terracing. Sadly Hajduk legend Bogić “Bobi” Popović, who we had met at the original match, was in Germany for this weekend. He was a centre forward and is still the third top scorer in Serbian League history, his proud father is Hajduk president. Sadly Hajduk’s glory days have passed them by and they languish well adrift at the bottom of the fourth tier Zonska Liga Beograd. Today’s opponents, BSK 1926 Baćevac, put three past a hapless Hajduk who miss so many chances to score it beggared belief, where was Bobi when they needed him?
After leaving Hajduk we head north-east to Kikinda for the city derby at Stadion ŽAK between ŽAK and OFK and RSD100 (75p) gets us into their stadium, which itself is a bit of a bobby dazzler as well. It boasts a more modern version of the magnificent and protected stand at OFK, and the perimeter wall is bizarrely made up of thousands of terracotta roof slates stood up side by side. It would have taken weeks and weeks to build it. It’s the railway workers (“Željeznički Athletic Klub”) that race into the lead finding the net after just 36 seconds. OFK, though roar back and win a hugely entertaining game by four goals to two in front of nearly 600 people.
Usually the Monday throws up a televised Prva Liga fixture we can go to but with the play offs and play outs in full swing the fixture gods were somewhat unkind to us this time. What we did find was a relegation play off in the top division in Bulgaria between Vitisha Bistritsa and Dunav Ruse. Bistritsa is on the outskirts of Sofia so not too far from the southern Serbian border. The bulk of the route is on the excellent and cheap A1 toll highway albeit best part of a five hour journey. We also found an under 17 game taking place at 1pm in Niš to break up the long journey south.
We duly arrive at Stadion na Bubnju, home of third tier FK Car Konstantin and its a really unusual ground with plenty of character. On the dressing room side there is a tiny elevated stand and opposite a large grass bank and stepped terracing which actually sits outside the ground. Car Konstantin are name after the Roman Emperor Konstantin who was born in Niš when it was known as Naisus. Today we are watching FC Real Niš a specialist youth development club whose under 17 team compete in the highest level division for their age group, the Kadetska Liga Srbije, against all the big name clubs like Red Star, Partizan and today’s opponents FK Čukarički, who have Lazar Kežman, son of the former Chelsea forward, in their team. The game is relatively unexciting on a poor, rutted pitch but we are treated to three goals in the last ten minutes with the visitors from Belgrade coming out on top. It’s certainly a worthy stopover on the way to the day’s main game.
Vitosha Bistritsa’s stadium is located up a windy road from the Sofia bypass. Bistritsa itself is a modest village sited high up in foothills of Mount Vitosha, a dome shaped peak some 2,290 metres tall. The stadium is a modest two sided affair with about 20 Dunav fans behind the goal having made an equally torturous 5 hour journey from Ruse this on the northern border with Bulgaria. The first leg of the relegation play off ended goalless in Ruse but Dunav score early and then successfully defend their lead against a totally disinterested looking Vitosha side.
It’s a satisfactory end to the tour and we cross back into Serbia with no issues or delays at the borders despite seeing huge queues of lorries waiting to get through. Mainly for the benefit of our two drivers we stop at a roadside kafana for sustenance and despite it being after their closing of midnight they rustle up some cevapi, beer and coffee for a weary band of travellers.
It’s been over 3,000 miles travelled since we left Luton airport and just short of a 1,000 of those spent on the roads of Serbia, Bosnia and Bulgaria in the fantastic company of Aleks and Bogdan from Groundhopping Serbia. You couldn’t wish to meet two finer friends on the road than these two.
A much extended version of this review features in Issue 49 of Football Weekends Magazine. For news of future Serbian Groundhopping Weekends please follow @GroundhopSerbia on Twitter