A League Without Worries

FK Obilic Sign

FK Obilić 5 v 1 FK Posavac Tisma (25.04.2015)

Its not every day you literally stumble across a football club with a history as dramatic as that of FK Obilić. A club that was once owned by notorious underworld criminal and war lord Željko Ražnatović (aka Arkan); and a football club that is still the only team in Serbia other than Red Star and Partizan to have won the Serbian league title since the breakup of Yugoslavia back in 1992. The exterior of the decaying 4,500 capacity Obilić Stadium proudly presents these facts. A huge ‘Champions of Yugoslavia 1997-98’ sign (strangely written in English) adorns the back of the main stand, and along the stadium perimeter walls there are many artistic murals and graffiti that depict the club’s history, including a portrait of Arkan himself.

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Artistic murals adorn the external walls to the Obilić  stadion…

But despite FK Obilić’s indifferent, and at times controversial past, the club have now well and truly slipped off the radar. So much so that in my pre trip research I’d made the assumption that this club didn’t even exist anymore. The club did not feature in any of the top three divisions of Serbian football and their club website was last updated in 2003! Unless you had a good command of the Serbian language you would do well to even locate a fixture list! On that basis I’d written FK Obilić off.

After  a morning spent visiting a few of the cities football clubs as part of a research exercise for an article I’m writing on football in the capital city, I completely chanced upon FK Obilić after stopping off at neighbouring club FK Sinđelić Beograd of the 2nd Division.

After having a quick look round FK Sinđelić’s tiny ground, I set off to head back to the city centre, but immediately noticed a sign pointing to the Obilić Stadion. Intrigued, but half expecting to come across one of those derelict stadium sites with grass and weeds growing up through the unused stands and terracing,  I was surprised when I got to the ground 200 yards later to see there was a game on!

Not being one to turn down a spot of live football, I walked through the open gate and into the stadium. The Obilić Stadium has seen better days, and is a typically run down Balkans ground that hasn’t seen investment for many years. Decrepit and decaying but with plenty of old school charm and character, this was a diamond in the rough.

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At one end behind the goal you had the view of the stunning St Sava Temple, one of Belgrade’s most famous landmarks; and at the other, stark high rise communist style apartment blocks looming high over the ground. There were a handful of supporters stood on the main stand drinking Jelen, and two stewards manning the one entrance into the ground. One steward proudly recalled those heady days in the late 90’s and went onto explain as dramatic a fall from grace as you’re likely to hear of.

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The St Sava Temple provides a scenic backdrop to the decaying Obilić Stadion…

After winning the Yugoslav Championship in 1997/98, FK Obilic were then entertaining Bayern Munich in the 1st qualifying round of the Champions League in the very next season. A 4-0 away defeat in the first leg was followed up by a creditable 1-1 draw in the second leg. A 5-1 aggregate defeat saw them exit Europe’s premier club competition at the second hurdle. The insurance policy of a place in the UEFA Cup first round handed them another mouth watering tie against Atletico Madrid. A 3-0 aggregate defeat ended a brief venture amongst Europe’s elite.  Fast forward 14 years, to the 2012/13 season, and remarkably FK Obilićfound themselves at the opposite end of the footballing spectrum – in the 7th tier, the basement of the Serbian football league pyramid.  A league which is more commonly known as the “league without worries”, as no matter how bad things have become, in this league you can’t get relegated!

In an attempt to put this fall from grace into context, this would be the equivalent of Blackburn Rovers now playing in the Northern Counties Premier League after winning the English Premier League title in 1995.

The clubs rapid rise to that short term success back in 97/98 coincided with paramilitary leader Arkan taking over FK Obilić in 1996. He quickly turned them into one of the top sides in Serbia, and within two season’s FK Obilic had won the Serbian league title, and narrowly missed out on the league and cup double after losing to Partizan Belgrade in the Serbian Cup Final. It was during this period of rapid success, that it was alleged that Arkan used tactics more akin to his underworld activities, and would regularly threaten match officials before games in order to secure more favourable decisions for his team.

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A portrait of Arkan – who was assassinated in January 2000 – outside West Stand Sector B….

Following that championship win in 1998 there was an increasing threat of expulsion from Europe by UEFA because of the club presidents underworld connections. Not wanting to jeopardise FK Obilić’s European opportunity, Arkan stepped down as president and gave his seat to his wife Svetlana Ražnatović. A glamorous woman, and one of Serbia’s most famous pop singers, she surely turned a few heads as she was pictured stood alongside the dugout. Her husband no doubt still played an influential role in the running of the club until his assassination back in January 2000. During her presidency she initially oversaw several seasons of consistent mid table finishes, but FK Obilić were unable to re-capture the heights of the championship win in 1998.

In the dug out: Svetlana Ražnatović

In the dug out: Svetlana Ražnatović

It was the 2005/6 season that signalled the start of FK Obilić incredible demise. Relegation from the Super Liga into the Serbian First League, was then followed up by another three consecutive relegations that saw them drop into the 5th tier (known as the Beogradska Prva Zona League) at the end of the 2008/09 season.

To make matters worse for the club, Svetlana Ražnatović was charged in March 2011 with embezzlement over the sale of fifteen FK Obilic players to overseas clubs and was accused by state prosecutors of taking an illegal share of transfer funds for her personal use. In addition to this she was also charged with the illegal possession of eleven firearms that were found in her home. Charges that she initially refuted, insisting her late husband was responsible for the football club and the weapons found in her home – even though he had died some 10 years previous. At the end of that same season, unsurprisingly they were relegated to the 6th tier, and quickly followed that up with another consecutive relegation in 2011/12 to the 7th tier and the basement of Serbian football.

In seven seasons the club fell from the top flight and Champions League football all the way down into the third tier of the Belgrade Zone League  – some 6 divisions below.

Although FK Obilić now play in the lower reaches of the Serbian football league, their stadium still host’s high profile matches, including that of OFK Beograd, Rad Beograd and Voždovac, who switch their home games here to host the visits of Partizan and Red Star. This tells its own story about the standards and quality of Serbian football, and highlights the plight of some of the current Jelen Super Liga clubs that lack adequate stadium facilities and the ability to attract investment to be able to host the ‘bigger games’ themselves.

But despite the Obilić Stadion still hosting top flight matches, it’s in the 6th tier of Serbian football that FK Obilić find themselves playing in today. The team appeared to me made up of mostly young players, and according to the steward that had openly talked about FK Obilić’s past, this is the best group of players the club has had for a number of years. A 5-1 win against FK Posovac Tisma seemed to back that statement up. It may be a big mountain to climb, but with the insurance of the ‘League without worries’ just below them, the only way is up now.

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The FK Obilic players acknowledge the crowds support (all 35 of them)….

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