Postcards From Belgrade (Serbian Groundhop 6)

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.

TEK Sloga

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.

Graficar v Brodarac

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.

Radnik

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?Hajduk 2

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.

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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.

Grandstand Car Konstantin

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.

Vitosha

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.

TEK Sloga ticketGraficar ticketRadnikHajdukZAK ticketVitosha

 

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

The Brat Pack

A weekend in Bratislava is not usually for the faint hearted given it is a mecca for the stag weekend set but surely it has more to offer the discerning traveller?

My first port of call on this weekend involved an drive of about an hour to the north west of the capital although the historic town of Trenčín. Some would say Trenčín is famous for its superb medieval castle, but anyone into their football will know it is synonymous with the incredible lollipop floodlights that loom over the Štadión na Sihoti.

The history of Asociácia športov Trenčín can be traced to 1992 when TJ Ozeta Dukla Trenčín were formed and entered into the third tier of Czechoslovakian football. A year later the club merged with the town’s traditional club, Trencsény Torna Egyesület Trenčín whose lineage began in 1904. The club has had various name changes and were called Araver a Synot Trenčín when in 2015 they merged with a local handball team and changed the AS to its’ current version.

The stadium dates from 1960 and originally held 22,000 mainly in uncovered terracing. In 2015 the club began demolishing the old terracing with a view to building a new modern arena around the existing main stand, luckily the iconic floodlights are to remain in situ for the new stadium. Levelling work has taken place and for this season on the main stand has been open as well as a small section of crumbling terrace for any away fans. Once the current season is finished the rebuild will start in earnest and the club will spend much of the 2018/19 campaign playing in Myjava.

The stadium has had an artificial surface since 2005 so the clubs’ under 19 games also take place here. Today’s game is against their academy counterparts from Podbrezová. A reasonably entertaining 1-1 draw eschewed but really a visit to na Sihoti invariably means you are looking skywards to those floodlights and the stunning castle. For anyone this stadium and its’ setting will make it a bucket list, must visit, venue.

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Saturday May 19th 2018 – Slovakian Under 19 Liga

AS Trenčín U19s 1 (Cibula 9)

FK Železiarne Podbrezová U19s 1 (Ončák 39)

Att:68 Free entry, free teamsheet

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Back in the capital in good time for the 4pm kick off at the Štadion Pasienky for the game between Slovakia’s most successful club, ŠK Slovan Bratislava, and MŠK Žilina. Slovan were formed in 1919 and have won 20 Czechoslovakian and Slovakian league titles.

Originally the club played in Petržalka but nearly all sports facilities were destroyed following Nazi occupation. Their new stadium was built in the Tehelné pole area and was opened in 1940. In its’ pomp it held 50,000 people. The club vacated the Tehelné pole in November 2009 as there was a need to build a UEFA compliant stadium for not only Slovan but for international matches too. However, the €68m project was hugely delayed and since 2009 Slovan have been playing at the Stadion Pasienky, close by but hated as it was the traditional home of Slovan’s bitter rivals FK Inter.

The stadium is currently being boycotted by the Slovan fans and particularly their ultras groups Belasá šlachta and ŠK Slovan Pressburg. This is is an interesting choice of name, Pressburg being the Austrian/German name of the city before 1919. The boycott is likely to remain in place until the new Tehelné pole is opened towards the end of 2018.

A spartan crowd gathers for an important game in the race for Europa League places. The scoreline suggest a close encounter but it wasn’t the case as Slovan took the points comfortably thanks to an outstanding performance by their Serbian striker, Aleksandar Čavrić, formerly of OFK Beograd.

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Saturday May 19th 2018 – Fortuna Liga

ŠK Slovan Bratislava 3 (Holman pen 18, Čavrić 33, 56)

MŠK Žilina 2 (Kaša 11, Mráz 64)

Att:1,365 Entry €10 (main stand) €4 (other stands), programme €0.50

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Sunday begins early with a 10.30am kick of in the III.Liga (Bratislava region) between FC Petržalka Akadémia. The club has had a long and chequered history which dates back to 1898 and the formation of Pozsonyi Torna Egyesület. It has undergone no less than seventeen name changes, the most significant being the 1993 change to Artmedia Petržalka following a hook up with an advertising company. The club won two Super Ligas in the 2000’s as Artmedia Bratislava and famously held Rangers to two draws in the Champions League.

By 2009 Artmedia pulled out of their sponsorship with the club which left them in dire straits. Now rebranded as MFK Petržalka the club fell rapidly and in 2012 lost its Štadión Petržalka home, demolished despite only being 22 years old. The new stadium, Stadium FC Petržalka 1898, opened the same year and currently has 800 seats with plans to increase this to 1,500.

In 2016/17 FC Petržalka won their division of the IV. Liga and have also stormed through the third division this season losing only once, to the reserves of Slovan Bratislava. Today they put FK Vajnory to the sword and could have easily scored more than the six they managed. Similarly to Slovan, Petržalka’s ultras sang songs referencing the old German name of the town, Engerau. The place has a good vibe about it and it is great to see the club recover from financial disaster.

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Sunday May 20th 2018 – TIPOS III.Liga (Bratislava)

FC Petržalka Akadémia 6 (Turčák 3,38,77, Polonyi 17, Kondrlik 50, Hitka 72)

FK Vajnory 0

Att:800 Entry €3

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The final match of the weekend was in the sleepy village of Bernolákovo, a twenty minute drive from the city and close to the airport. The Športový areál Jána Popluhára is a surprisingly good venue with substantial cover on both sides of the pitch. The venue is dedicated to Ján Popluhár, who was born in the village, and won 62 caps for Czechoslovakia.

The club were formed in 1921 as Cseklészi amatéri torna egyesület, the village being called Čeklís in those days and have spent most of their existence in the regional leagues. On a very hot afternoon the game is very much a stalemate with few chances of note but it is a friendly club with a cracking food and bar facility.

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Sunday May 20th 2018 – TIPOS III.Liga (Bratislava)

ŠK Bernolákovo 0

ŠK Slovan Bratislava II 0

Att:263 Entry €1

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