Serbia has been called Europe’s best “producer” of young athletic talent in the past. Back in the day of the former Yugoslavia, with other countries in the region, we formed some of the most successful national teams in the world. Yugoslavia had a population of some 23 million, but even with the little over 8 million population it has today, Serbia can still put together a team that countries eight times its size couldn’t buy, much less muster up.
Although numerous teams and individuals have had great international success: the Men’s Waterpolo National Team, Men’s Basketball National Team, Jasna Šekarić, and now Novak Đoković, Jelena Janković, Janko Tipsarević, Ana Ivanović, Milorad Čavić and others, football (soccer) is still the biggest jewel in Serbia’s crown of sports. I suppose that’s why we call it the most “important irrelevant thing in the world” round these parts. Sure, there are many Serbs who aren’t football fans. But ask them what they’re doing when the boys in blue, waht we call the Serbian National Football squad, are playing. My bet is they’re watching along with the rest of us. If you’re ever in Belgrade when the boys in blue are playing a game (anywhere) or the city derby between FC Partizan and FC Red Star is on, you’ll see, hear and feel it. And here’s how it all started.
In the spring of 1896, just some twenty years after the first official international football match ever, Hugo Buli, a young Belgrade Jew, returned from his studies in Germany. Among other things, Hugo brought a new shiny ball with him – a football. He soon reconnected with old friends and brought the ball with him when he went to see his friends at Soko Belgrade Sports Society. By May of the same year, Soko had an official football section. The Serbian Football Society was founded just a year later, again on the initiative of Hugo Buli. The first President of the Society was Mr. Feti Bey, Turkish Consul to Belgrade and the respected Belgrade attorney, Mihailo Živadinović served as the first Vice-President. The first official clubs were Bačka from Subotica (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and Šumadija from Kragujevac, founded in 1901 and 1903 respectively. Things just took on a life of their own after that. The game almost plays itself here. Almost.
The Serbian national squad played their first international match against HAŠK (Croatian Academic Sports Club, founded in 1903) from Zagreb in May of 1911 and lost by 0:8. Clubs and matches continued to develop throughout the region and, after WW I, the Yugoslavian Football Association (Jugoslovenski Nogometni Savez) was formed and football gained much of the form it still has in the region. The state championships were first held in 1923 and came to a standstill in 1940, by which time the YFA headquarters had been moved to Belgrade. Over that period, 7 championship titles were taken by Serbia’s best clubs, mostly dominated by BSK (Belgrade Sports Club). Matches and competitions remained unofficial throughout the period of WW II, although they were played.
BSK was “reconstructed” after the war and renamed Metalac in 1945. Just years later it received the name it still carries today, OFK Beograd (Youth Football Club of Belgrade). OFK Beograd has become renowned over the years for the afore mentioned “production” of young talent and great contribution to the success and particular style of football played in Serbia over the last century. Many of the great European clubs, such as Napoli, Feyenoord, Panathinaikos and Juventus, fell to the blue and white squad that the fans had dubbed “the Romantics”. They played the game for the sheer love of it and it seemed to work. For a period of some 20 years, up untill the late 1990’s, OFK lost some of it’s former glory. Its influence had not been forgotten, however, and since then they have been making a nice comeback to the football stage. With the coming of OFK’s second century of existence, I believe there may be a new golden era in store for them.
The same year the reformation of OFK began, FC Red Star was founded in March and FC Partizan in October, both in Belgrade. For over 50 years now, these two rivals have been battling it out on the national scene and helping each other achieve greatness on the international scene. Many young players transferred to both clubs from OFK over the decades. Together, these three clubs are the Holy Trinity of Serbian football.
Over the past 50 years, Red Star Belgrade has won 25 National Championships, 22 National Cups, been UEFA Champions League semifinalist twice and Champion once (1991). Red Star Belgrade also took the 1991 FIFA Club World Cup in 1991 (Intercontinental Cup) and the independent World of Soccer Cup in 1977, defeating Celtic in the finals (who would take the Cup the next year). The club saw troubling times during the 90’s, partly due to the ban enforced on all Serbian sports at the time, but mostly due to horrendous management by the club’s self-serving officials. (Yes, I just called out Dragan Đajić and his merry men. Damn straight.)
In the meantime, FC Partizan should be praised no less. Partizan was the first Eastern European club ever to play in the UEFA Champions League (European Champions’ Cup) in 1955 and the first to reach the finals in 1966 (against Real Madrid). The club was first established as the Yugoslav People’s Army football club, but became independent just a few years later in the 1950’s. Partizan holds 21 National Championship titles, 11 National Cups and has been tremendously active on the European scene throughout their history and in recent years. Perhaps the best proof of this longstanding tradition is the recent confirmation by UEFA that FC Partizan has the second highest ranking youngster school in Europe, right after Ajax Amsterdam.
We’re back on the subject of breeding young talent. I believe even most Serbian die-hard football fans are unaware of what we have growing in the back yard, or rather the Serbian second and third divisions. Want to watch some real football being played? I suggest roaming the smaller Serbian cities and towns and catching a match while you’re there. Or just drop by one of the local football fields in Belgrade on the weekends Awesome moves, smooth plays, old school footwork, these boys play the game for the unadulterated joy of it. The win is just the icing on the cake.
Yes, I am one of those die-hard fans. It’s a genetic thing. I hope you all enjoyed this post as I’ll be writing more on the subject, including the up and coming culture of Women’s football in Serbia. We’ll be seein’ you in South Africa come 2010. 😉