An Emerging Force in the Balkans

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Montenegro 2 v 2 England (07.10.2011)

Despite being one of the world’s newest international sides Montenegro are fast becoming an emerging force in European international football. Gaining their independence as recently as 2006, the small Balkan state with a population of about 700,000 is located in a region seen as somewhat of a footballing hotbed.

Only twenty years previous Montenegro was part of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that was producing household names in the early 1990’s such as Mijatovic, Mihajlovic, Stojkovic, Milosevic, Boban, Suker, Prosinecki (below), Savicevic, Katanec, Pancev….you get the picture.

prosineckiPutting history and the regions recent troubled times to one side for a moment I can’t help but think what a power house Yugoslavia could now be on the world football stage if it still remained united as one country.

Yugoslavia won the FIFA World Youth Championships in 1987, and the bulk of that squad went onto reach the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup. If that team had remained united they would have been some considerable force in Euro 92 or USA 94, but the Balkans conflict put an end to that.

Formerly consisting of six Balkan states in Bosnia & Herzogovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia they would have some pool of talent to select from.

Even today, you don’t have to be a Balkans football expert to rattle off names of current players such as Modric, Mandzukic, Vidic, Rakitic, Ivanovic, Kolarov, Pandev, Vucinic, Jovetic, Savic, Pletikosa, Olic, Handanovic and Dzeko to realise the depth of football talent this region still offers.

Montenegro’s journey to independence began after the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia back in 1992. For 11 years Montenegro remained part of a smaller Federal Republic of Yugoslavia along with Serbia, but the country was embroiled in the Bosnian and Croatian Wars during 1991-1995, and was also targeted by NATO strikes during Operation Allied Force in 1999.

It wasn’t until 2003 that the Yugoslav Federation was replaced in favour of a more decentralised state union named Serbia & Montenegro.

Serbia and Montenegro competed as an independent state for three years on the international football stage and qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Exactly a week after their 3-2 defeat to Ivory Coast in their final group game, Montenegro became an independent football nation for the first time. Unable to register in time with FIFA for the Euro 2008 qualifying draw Montenegro’s first official competition began with the 2010 World Cup Qualifying campaign.

Despite their infancy in international football the Montenegrin national team has a wealth of talented players that are playing an attractive brand of football. Players such as Savic (then Man City), Vucinic (Juventus), Jovetic (Firoentina) and Jovanovic (now Red Star Belgrade) are just a few to have caught the eye on the European stage, and have gone some way to putting Montenegrin football well and truly on the football map.

England’s trip to Podgorica was an interesting one on many fronts; not least because of its history, but mostly because this was a group defining game that would determine qualification for the Euro 2012 Championships in Poland / Ukraine. A win or draw for England would see them finish top, a win for Montenegro would see them qualify at England’s expense. Whoever finished in 2nd place would face the lottery of the play off’s.

Our trip out to Podgorica wasn’t made easier by our decision to give the direct flight option the “Cruyff, step-over, megs” routine (that works every time by the way!) in favour of the cheaper “round the houses” route instead!

Flying out on the early morning Easyjet flight from Gatwick we landed in Dubrovnik (Croatia) at about 10am. We had pre-booked seats on a fans organised coach to transfer us across the border into Montenegro and then onwards for the long scenic journey to Podgorica.

Initially there were four coach loads of England fans making the same trip and by the time we left Budva on the Montenegrin coast there were about eight coaches in the convoy en route to the capital.

Shortly after setting off from Dubrovnik you reach ‘no man’s land’ as you cross the Croatian border and approach the Montenegrin one. There was a frustrating early delay here as the four coach loads of fans passports were collected and taken off for inspection by the border police. The return and re-distribution of 50+ passports wasn’t easy for the poor lad that had organised our coach!

4923134-Lepetane_Kamenari_ferry_LepetaniThe five hour coach journey to Podgorica didn’t seem like five hours thanks to the stunning mountain scenery and coastline that the coach snaked through on our way to Podgorica. Fairly early on into the journey there was an unexpected stop for a ferry crossing, which caught most fans on the coach by surprise. There were a few bemused looking faces as the coaches were squeezed onto to a small ferry to cross the Adriatic Sea inlet at Kamenari. The short ferry crossing saves a ridiculously long 41 mile detour to get round the sea inlet to Lepetane where the ferry drops you off on the opposite side.

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An unexpected stop off for England fans on the Kamenari – Lepatane ferry!…

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The coastal road down into the resort of Budva provides stunning views across the coastline and out across the Adriatic Sea. Equally stunning, but for different reasons, was the journey on from Budva to Podgorica. The coach wound its way up into the mountains and then passed along some ridiculously narrow and slightly scary mountain roads with sheer drops a plenty. It was like an episode from BBC2’s ‘Worlds Most Dangerous Roads’ and the route back in darkness after the game would make for an interesting return journey!

With a small away allocation of about 900 tickets, I had disappointingly missed out in the original FA ticket ballot. With the trip already pre-paid ‘Plan B’ was required and that came in the shape of a trusted Serbian contact of mine who had kindly sorted me out the Belgrade 3687027.jpgderby tickets earlier the same year. Contacting him a few days before the game (more in desperation than real hope) he somehow pulled a rabbit out of the hat for me! He happened to know someone who knew the agent of the then Man City defender Stefan Savic (right), who in turn kindly allocated me a ticket for the game. My instructions were to report to the Montenegrin team hotel in Podgorica to collect it. To my surprise there was an envelope in my name with match ticket inside. Thanks Mr. Savic for your efforts in helping out a desperate England fan!

We arrived in Podgorica at about 4pm, and after a quick detour to the Montenegrin team hotel, we were more than ready for a few beers and a wander round the city centre. The centre is fairly compact and is built on a grid system basis. We had stopped off along a few of the main streets in the city centre (the area in and around ‘Bulevard Stanka Dragojevica’, ‘Njegoseva’ and ‘Slobode’) which were fairly close to the stadium.

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In the know?….This Montenegro fan keeps his ‘scorecast’ close to his chest!!….

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Top seats on the ultras coach!….

At one point a coach full of Montenegro fans pulled up outside the stadium, including some masked ultras that had clearly decided their seats on the coach should be on the roof! I’m not sure that would pass UK health and safety checks, but as the coach came to a standstill they climbed back down through the roof top sky light to disembark and join the growing congreagtion of fans on the streets.

As the afternoon wore on there was a slightly uncomfortable undercurrent building as large groups of Montenegrin fans began loitering outside the bars where sporadic groups of England fans were drinking. It was probably our own insecurities, but rather than wait to see if tensions flared we decided to move off to quieter streets to enjoy a few drinks without the impending threat of getting a bottle round your head.

MON7Close by we found what appeared to be a makeshift bar that can only be described as someone’s drive or forecourt to their house! A few small tables and chairs scattered around the family car on the drive provided a safer and even cheaper option to the already cheap high street around the corner. The bar lady (sorry homeowner) kept nipping back and forth into her kitchen to bring out cold bottles of beer for her small group of clientele! Slightly bizarre, but cheap as chips, and it did the job!

The National Stadium or Pod Goricom Stadium is also home to domestic club side FK Budocnost and has a capacity of 17,000. 900 or so England fans were given a small corner in the south stand. The Montenegro supporters created a hostile atmosphere that night; they were loud, raucous and passionate – very similar to the Serbian fan culture that I’d experienced earlier in the year out in Belgrade – and it really added to the sense and size of the occasion.

As the teams emerged for kick off the ultras unveiled an impressive choreography which included a banner with “I have a dream” in English to a back drop of colour sheets depicting the Poland and Ukraine flags. You had to admire their optimism!

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The first half got off to a great start for England and they cruised into a 2-nil lead and looked in complete control of the game. The first goal coming from Ashley Young who headed home a Walcott cross in the 11th minute. Young then turned provider for England’s second as his pass left Darren Bent to score from close range on 32 minutes. The two goal cushion was more than well deserved. But football can often throw up a surprise when you least expect it, and just as the half time whistle was approaching Montenegro managed to grab themselves a lifeline as they pulled a goal back via a deflected shot from Zverotic in the 45th minute.

That goal lifted the home fans spirits and the hostile atmosphere that had engulfed the stadium at the start of the match returned. Montenegro came out in the second half like a different team, increasing their tempo they more than took the game to England.

roonkick_1697373aA moment of Rooney petulance saw him receive his marching orders in the 73rd minute as he kicked out at Dzudovic after the defender had cleverly nipped in front of him to gain possession. That incident gave the crowd an extra impetus and put England under even more pressure for the last 15 minutes of the game.

The full time whistle couldn’t come quick enough to be honest, and if you were an England fan you were keeping your fingers crossed that they could hold out for a few more minutes. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and Montenegro snatched an injury time equaliser through Delibasic in the 91st minute. The place went mental after that – Delibasic launched himself into the stands and ended up about four rows into the crowd with his shirt off! The final whistle went shortly after the re-start and a massive pitch invasion ensued as the Montenegrin fans celebrated their team reaching the play offs for the first time.

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It was a bizarre feeling, on the one hand we were stood there gutted, annoyed that England had thrown away a 2 nil lead, and that they had played so poorly in the second half. Yet on the other hand we should have been celebrating too as we’d just won the group and had qualified for Euro 2012.

I suppose that moment summed up being an England fan. There is a generic expectation that we qualify for the major tournaments, that that’s a given – and that the disappointment of the performance we had just witnessed outweighed the fact we had just qualified in that given moment. Maybe the feeling of complete ‘knackered-ness’ (I know that’s not really a word!) from a ridiculously long journey combined with the deflation from the injury time equaliser had just taken its toll?

Our coach was already waiting for us as we exited the stadium, and our brief visit to Podgorica was over as we set off immediately for the long journey back to Dubrovnik.

With no views to take in, the journey back seemed to take forever. The only entertainment came from a middle aged woman about 3 ½ hours into the journey as she absolutely lost it on the bus in front of everyone! Her husband took it from both barrels, as she unleashed a scathing assessment of her husband’s love and commitment to following the national team.

It was a priceless moment, and you really had to be there to fully appreciate it. Those that were lucky enough to be on the same coach that night will fondly recall it, and there were too many classic quotes from her to remember them all. Her husband just sat there quietly soaking it all up as she went berserk on the bus:

“Why do we watch these c%&*s…. it’s always shit”….

“The players don’t care, all Rooney does is shag whores”….

“Montenegro’s a shit hole – we could have gone on a nice cruise instead”…..

“6 hours on a bus to watch that shit is enough to send anyone over the edge”….

Welcome to our world love – us England fans are mentally tough you know!

She then went on to take her frustrations out on the driver as he refused to let her use the toilet on the ferry crossing; and then prevented her from having a cigarette whilst waiting at border control in no man’s land. I think he’d enjoyed the outburst as much as we had!

04.30am, and we pulled into Dubrovnik airport ready for the flight back later that morning. A top trip, an exhausting itinerary, but a fantastic journey nonetheless.

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