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Tuesday, January 26

S14: Top 14 Football Clubs From Places In The Former Yugoslavia

The break-up of Yugoslavia has fascinated me greatly in recent years, probably because in my caveman-like American education system upbringing, there is white folks and there is black folks, which has been expanded to include all non-white folks. Of course I am being purposefully simplistic here, and I try to live my life (and lead my children’s lives) to minimize the effect of racial pseudo-sciences on their psyche. But as the eastern bloc of communist countries propped up by the Soviet Union came unraveled in the ‘90s, nowhere was there more chaos and conflict than the former Yugoslavia. And the reason for this is essentially that whiteness is not as simple as the American Dream (RIP Dusty Rhodes) would lead one to believe. Yugoslavia disintegrated (and actually continues to, with regards to Kosovo as well as other territories) into various shades of what we’d call “whiteness” here in America, that were all very firm in their distinctions between each other, to the point they wanted to kill the fuck out of each other. Thus, I find that interesting, as ultimately I think America will always be fucked as long as it sees things in simple black-and-white terms, both racially but really in all aspects of our culture, we tend to break it down into two polar opposites and that’s it, no in betwixt thinking allowed. “You’re either with us, or against us.”
So for this week’s Sporting 14, I decided to travel through the fourteen soccer clubs in nations that were formerly part of Yugoslavia that have had the most continental success in the past 14 years, meaning games played in either the UEFA Champions League or the Europa League. (Champions League counts double.) Most of these teams may not seem relevant when one thinks about the current heavyweight clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich and the English league’s most premier clubs, but the (at the time) Yugoslavian club Red Star Belgrade actually won the Champions Cup, which was what the Champions League was back then, in 1991.
But additionally, there is a strong football/soccer undercurrent to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Not long after Croatia had multi-party elections favoring Croatian independence in 1990, there was a big rivalry derby between Red Star Belgrade (now of Serbia) and Dinamo Zagreb (now of Croatia) which ended in conflict and riot, and in fact the captain of Dinamo Zagreb, Zvonimir Boban, kicking a cop, who were mostly Croatian, because the cop was beating a Dinamo supporter. Now understand with these teams (and many teams still in non-wealthy leagues, but especially in Eastern Europe) supporters can often mean “nationalist thug”, which is exactly what a lot of the hardcore supporters were for these two teams in that time of rising ethnic tensions, before the actual Yugoslav Wars broke out and ethnic tensions became ethnic cleansings. Some of the larger and more nefarious militias were composed of football club “supporters”, and due to lack of open space in many larger cities, it is suggested that more than a few current football stadiums in former Yugoslavian states are likely all mass graves.
So let us travel around the former Yugoslavia through it’s most successful football clubs of the past 14 years, from the nations of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovenia, which all were once Yugoslavia…

#1: GNK DINAMO ZAGREB (Zagreb, Croatia) – One of the most successful clubs in this area, both before the break-up as well as afterwards, and one that could probably be considered as national a Croatian team as is possible in league play. The actual club was formed in the late 1940s, but during the rising ethnic tensions period of the early ‘90s, they started claiming ties to Croatian clubs from before then, and have always tip-toed (stomped?) along extreme right-wing nationalist lines. Their ultras group is called the Bad Blue Boys, and is one of the most notorious in all of Europe, both for the violent intensity as well as their racist-as-fuck attitude. Still, Dinamo Zagreb has been one of the only teams from former Yugoslavia to be able to qualify for the Champions League group stage in recent years, including during this 2015-16 season. And though they’ve never advanced beyond that group stage, they did beat Arsenal during that stage this past September in Zagreb. They’ve also won the Croatian First Football League ten years in a row, and sit just barely at the top of that table again for this season. And for comparison’s sake with the rest of these teams, they won four Yugoslav First League titles, and 7 Yugoslav Cups before Yugoslavia ceased to exist.

#2: FK PARTIZAN (Belgrade, Serbia) – Partizan is another regional heavyweight, though this club didn’t have as prominent a spot in obvious break-up of Yugoslavia as their top Serbian rival, Red Star Belgrade, did. But Partizan was the first Balkan (thus Yugoslavian, and actually in all of Eastern Europe) club to make the Champions Cup final, losing to Real Madrid. The club was formed initially by military officers, and in fact the name itself Partizan refers to a Communist military formation. They are still only the second-most popular Serbian club, but enjoy a lot of support in Serbian pockets of Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina (which includes an autonomous Serbian region still, called Republika Srpska). Their supporters are called Grobari, which means the Gravediggers, and actually there is an alternate crest for Partizan featuring a shovel. And though the Grobari have had their fair share of notable moments of hooliganism, they pale in comparison to Red Star Belgrade, and lack the same ultra-nationalist history. The club has won the Serbian SuperLiga 7 of the last 8 years, and they’ve made group stage of the Champions League twice in the past 14 years, and the Europa League multiple times, but never gotten beyond that, except for 2005 when they made it all the way to the round of 16 in the Europa League knockout stage (still called UEFA Cup then). And during the dissolving period between 1992 and 2005, they won 8 league titles in whatever assortment of countries were still aligned, plus 11 Yugoslav First League titles before then, as well as 5 Yugoslav Cups.

#3: NK MARIBOR (Maribor, Slovenia) – Maribor is the top club from Slovenia, having won the Slovenian First League six years in a row, and 13 times total. The biggest accomplishment they had when in the full Yugoslav football system was making a Yugoslav Cup semi-final in 1968, and winning the Second League in 1966-67. They sort of break away from the ethnic militarism of other clubs from former Yugoslavia (I guess sort of like how Slovenia as a nation has done) by wearing purple (instead of traditional blue or red war colors) and being not afraid to bring in foreigners, including from South America and Africa. In fact, their current captain is a Brazilian player, Marco Tavares, who is their all-time top goal-scorer, and has been with the club since 2008, and in fact gained his Slovenian citizenship a few years back. (The whole “citizenship” of football players is a completely sketchy subject that could occupy a thousand Sporting 14 lists itself, and also makes Abby Wambach’s anti-“foreign guys” statement at her retirement so fucking stupid.) Unrelated to anything but really fucking scary sounding is the fact the President of NK Maribor right now is named Drago Cotar.

#4: RED STAR BELGRADE (Belgrade, Serbia) – It’s no coincidence that Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb were involved in a riot that many considered one of the triggering events of the break-up of Yugoslavia. More so than most clubs, Red Star Belgrade had multiple notable supporter groups, who shared the North stand in their home stadium. Some were more Italian, with the songs and fireworks shit, while others were more traditionally English (for the time) meaning they got drunk and fought people. It all sort of morphed together, and in the late ‘80s when fragmented nationalism started spiking throughout Yugoslavia after Tito’s stronghold over the country was gone, these supporters became fiercely Serbian nationalist. (Speaking of Tito – Josep Tito – it should be noted here that not only the fall of Soviet Union contributed to break-up of Yugoslavia, as Tito was President of the nation from 1953 until his death in 1980. And despite our western declarations for DEMOCRACY and how bad dictators are, Tito was able – as unquestioned authoritarian – to hold together the disparate ethnicities of Yugoslavia. Once he died, with no one of that eminence to replace him, it was only a matter of time probably, whether the Soviet Union fell or not, which of course, Croatia was declaring independence before the Soviet Union broke up.) But due to these supporters, their maintained rivalry with city rival Partizan is considered The Eternal Derby, and always a chaotic match, even with the shared ethnicity. Most all the former Yugoslavian nations have their own “Eternal Derby” but the Partizan/Red Star one is the one that maintains the most infamy and prominence, even if Red Star Belgrade has only won a pair of Serbian Super Liga titles during the current phase (since 2007), but with 5 more during the 1990s-2006 transition period, and 19 in the old Yugoslav First League. They also won the Yugoslav Cup 12 times, and were one of the most prominent clubs then, if not so much now. But as mentioned before, they are the only Yugoslavian club to have ever won the European Cup/Champions League, which given current conditions of modern football business plan, I doubt any of these teams will ever get close again, at least not until capitalism falls. (This also is one of the great things about football clubs – that the teams survive multiple regimes/governments, and the supporters end up with this notion that they own the team far more than any person who simply buys it could.)

#5: HNK HAJDUK SPLIT (Split, Croatia) – Hajduk Split is the other big Croatian club (both of which have Croatian red and white checkerboard on their crest). The club was originally started by students at a bar, back when Yugoslavia was still a Kingdom before World War II. They’ve won six Croatian First League titles since 1992 (including in 1992), and won 9 Yugoslav First League titles before then, as well as 9 Yugoslav Cups. They form the other half of Croatia’s Eternal Derby when they play against Dinamo Zagreb.

#6: FK RABOTNICKI (Skopje, Macedonia) – Rabotnicki are one of the top Macedonian clubs, having won the Macedonian First League four times, but were not really a prominent fixture of Yugoslavian First League, having only competed in the Yugoslav First League for only two years. But even relegation back then was ethnic/regional, as the second level league they mostly competed in – and won 8 times, was a Macedonian specific league. Macedonia, though declaring independence in 1991 during the initial fracturing of Yugoslavia, maintained peaceable relations throughout most of the break-up, although during the Kosovo War in 1999, a large influx of Albanian refugees caused there an Albanian nationalist presence in the country. With Albania on one border, and Albanian-heavy Kosovo (which is working towards becoming a seventh nation carved from the former Yugoslavia, and is doing so first and foremost through football, actually trying to get UEFA recognition as its own entity in time for World Cup qualifying this spring) on the other, there’s a lot of threatening talk of the Albanian-dominant portions of Macedonia becoming part of Albania or their own nation. So that’s your future fragment of all this, potentially.

#7: FK SARAJEVO (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina) – Sarajevo is one of the most successful Bosnian clubs, with a history going back to post World War II. They’ve won the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina three times, and had won the old Yugoslav First League twice. A lot of prominent soccer rivalries in cities around the world revolve around a working class team and a middle class team. In Sarajevo, FK Sarajevo would be considered the middle class team. Their supporters, known as the Pitari (eaters of pita), have not been the most infamous of former Yugoslav clubs, but did have a highlight moment in 1986 when they threw a large painted viper snake onto the visitor’s bench during a match against Red Star Belgrade (the most hated team in all non-Belgrade games back in those days). Sarajevo was pretty fucked during the siege of Bosnia, and I guess you’d have to consider FK Sarajevo the more assimilated of the two big Sarajevo clubs (the other one comes later in this list), but that sort of assumes Bosnia has been assimilated. There’s this dude Aleksandar Hermon who won a MacArthur Genius grant a few years back, and is a noted essayist who is a fan of the club. I didn’t get knocked away by his stuff like I had hoped, but he’s a great writer to check out if you are interested in this shit, and he has an essay called “If God Existed, He’d be a Solid Midfielder” that’s a great fucking read, though I think online it might mostly be behind paywalls. BUT THERE ARE WAYS (as you hopefully already know).

#8: NK SIROKI BRIJEG (Siroki Brijeg, Bosnia & Herzegovina) – Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a multi-ethnic nation where the old Bosnian/Croat/Serb rivalries fester. Siroki Brijeg is the top Croatian club in Bosnia & Herzegovina’s national lines. They’ve won the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina titles two times, as well as five titles of the previous First League of Herzeg-Bosnia that followed Yugoslavia’s break-up.  Oddly, the team has existed since 1948, but never experienced any success of note in the former Yugoslavia, because Siroki Brijeg the city didn’t get a lot of support from the government, as a smaller city. All of its successes have happened since Yugoslavia broke-up, and partially perhaps due to the support of Croatians still living under Bosnian flag. As of today, they are third in the Premier League standings this season, just behind Zrinjski Mostar and Sloboda Tuzla.

#9: FK ZELJEZNICAR (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina) – Zeljeznicar is the other big club in Sarajevo. “Zeljeznicar” means railway worker, and were one of the best Bosnian teams during the Yugoslav First League era, actually winning the Yugoslav First League in 1971-72 season. After the break-up of the country, they became and remained a top club in Bosnia, but they’ve been known for developing talent that they end up selling off to larger clubs in other nations. They are the working class team opposed to FK Sarajevo’s more middle class support. “Zeljo is a matter of philosophy, and Sarajevo is a matter of geography” goes the mantra of Zeljeznicar supporters. Their rivalry is Bosnia’s “Eternal Derby” though the rivalry is not as violent and full of hate as its parallels in Serbia and Croatia.

#10: FK VARDAR (Skopje, Macedonia) – Vardar (named after a river, always a solid move imo) is the most popular Macedonian club, and has won the Macedonian First League 8 times since it’s inception in 1992, including 3 out of the last 4 years. Notably, they also won a Yugoslav Cup title in 1961, rare for teams outside the Serbian/Croatian stronghold clubs. Having a sizeable stadium (capacity 33,000) for the Balkan states, and regular appearances in UEFA tournaments (due to always winning in Macedonia), the club is set to maintain its position as prominent small nation super club.

#11: HNK RIJEKA (Rijeka, Croatia) – Rijeka is a top Croatian club, oddly situated in a city that was originally part of Italy before becoming part of Yugoslavia after World War II. In fact, this club’s foundation is disputed as potentially in 1946 when Rijeka became part of Yugoslavia, but also potentially much earlier as U.S. Fiumana (the city was known as Fiume while still part of Italy) back in 1926. Nonetheless, Rijeka competed in the old Yugoslav First League, and though they never won they are proud to tout they were the best-placing Croatian club three seasons during that time, and won the Yugoslav Cup twice. Unfortunately, being in the same league as Dinamo Zagreb the powerhouse means they’ve never won a league title in current Croatia, though have consistently been number two, and in fact made group stage of the Europa League two out of the past three seasons. Their rivalry with Hajduk Split, called the Adriatic Derby, is considered their most heated rivalry.

#12: ND GORICA (Nova Gorica, Slovenia) – Gorica is the second top team from Slovenia, and won the Slovenian National League four times, and has consistently competed in UEFA club competitions throughout the 2000s.

#13: FK VOJVODINA (Novi Sad, Serbia) – Vojvodina is a Serbian club from the second largest city in Serbia, called Novi Sad, which I am going to guess translates as the New Sad. Obviously if you are living in a post-Yugoslav Balkan second city called the New Sad, it’s a meager life, straddling the false promises of Communism and late capitalism. I kinda don’t even give a fuck about more specifics on this team, or the rest of this list honestly, because the whole specter of that straddling two economic eras, neither of which has been what it’s promised, makes me feel the new sad.

#14: HSK ZRINJSKI MOSTAR (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina) – Zrinjski Mostar competes in Bosnia, but is Croatian, and includes the Croat checkerboard on their crest. During World War II, there was an outlaw league that competed in the region, and once the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed after the war, all teams that had competed in it were banned, including Zrinjski Mostar. Thus they stopped existing from 1945 to 1992, due to being associated with pre-Yugoslavia nationalism. Odd that they finally reformed, proudly Croat, under Bosnian existence, and continue to do so there. The whole region is complicated as fuck, and the Bosnian Premier League actually has Bosnian and Serbian and Croatian teams all together still, so you wonder if shit won’t pop off again at some point, though during social unrest in Bosnia a few years back, those left there made street proclamations (through graffiti and banners) that it was a proud and tolerant multi-ethnic state. Time will tell though. Zrinjski Mostar has won the Bosnian Premier League three times though. 

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