An Uphill Struggle

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Our resident Belgrade blogger Rhys Hartley shares another installment from the Serbian capital. Step forward the Serbian Cup holders!…

FK Čukarički 0 v 1 Mladost Lučani (25.09.2015)

Whilst, in Britain, we’re seeking to oust private owners and instil a fan-owned model of football ownership, in Serbia the aim is private investment and taking control of the clubs away from the state. So far, the only success story has been at Čukarički.

Aside from a brief spell in the top flight after the break-up of Yugoslavia, Čukarički have spent their history in the lower leagues. They were pioneers of sponsorship in the 2000s, changing their name to Čukarički Stankom to give their main sponsors more coverage. However, the club saw little success and in 2010 was facing bankruptcy.

Enter ‘ADOC’, a wholesale company, who purchased the club in 2011, saving it from extinction and making it the first privately owned club in Serbia. With a focus on structure and infrastructure, the owners have aimed to put the club on a more secure footing, able to soak up the shocks provided by the footballing world without suffering another collapse.

As things off the pitch succeeded, so too did the club’s fortunes on the pitch. After promotion to the Super Liga in 2013, they qualified for the Europa League in 2014. They lost to Austrian club Grödig 5-2 in the second qualifying round.

I first heard of them at the end of last season. When I decided to move to Belgrade I did some research on which club I might be most attracted to. I obviously knew the big two and had heard of Rad but Čukarički had eluded me. That was until they reached the Cup final last year.

With Partizan having won the league, losing only once, they were nailed-on favourites to beat the city’s other black and whites. As I realised that a Čuk victory would have provided another Belgrade Europa League spot, I rooted for the underdogs (little did I know, they’d already qualified through their league position).

Logo_FK_ČukaričkiIn front of only 10,000 (the overwhelming majority of whom were Partizan fans) in the 55,000-seated home of arch-rivals Crvena Zvezda, Partizan crumbled and fell to a 1-0 defeat. In their first ever final appearance, Čukarički had won the national cup.

As soon as I got to Belgrade I knew I had to pay a visit to watch the reigning holders. As one of the few grounds with floodlights, they’ve secured a semi-regular Friday night slot, making for plenty of exciting three-match weekends. Or so that was the plan.

Having been 35 degrees all week, the cold and rain had hit Belgrade hard and with nothing to do, how better a way to usher in the autumn than by being soaking and freezing in a football ground?

I had no idea what to expect. Dwarfed by the eternal rivals and without as much history or ‘infamy’ as the city’s other clubs, they aren’t known for the number or passion of their fans. Had they attracted any more on the back of last season’s success? Perhaps they had a local diehard following?

Unfortunately, nothing of the sort. The tram from town was full of commuters returning from work oblivious to the fact of a football match nearby. The streets from the tram stop to the ground? Deserted.

I noticed a couple of kids in tracksuits heading towards where the ground should be and felt some hope, but even that was quickly dashed as they headed off to the supermarket.

As is the case across most of the capital, and the country, the walls along the street leading to the ground were covered in Delije or Grobari graffiti. I didn’t spot a single piece relating to the night’s hosts – perhaps that should have prepared me.

As I walked to the ground the floodlights crept over the brow of the hill in front of me – perhaps the reference point for the club’s strange moniker – the ‘Hill Men’! As I arrived at the stadium the club house looked more like a working men’s’ club than the entrance to a top flight European football club!

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Working men’s club or top flight football club?…

‘Tamo!” (“Over there!”) I was pointed in the direction of a booth in a car park. I paid the extortionate 300 Dinar fee (£1.90) and headed to the stand. As per usual, I had to go through the rigmarole of a full body search, but this time everyone around was kitted in matching Čukarički coats, rather than makeshift bibs – an early sign of the level of funding this club receives.

I had to get across a defensive mesh tunnel for the players in order to get to the stand, something I’m very used to in the Essex Senior League. The stand however, was something else. With its brand new coat of paint glistening in the rain it was either the epitome of a club with ambition or the gift of a generous council.

As kick-off approached the crowds were nowhere to be seen and it did, indeed, evoke memories of an overambitious council project. You know, a multi-purpose, all weather athletics track with a football pitch bang in the middle. I’m pleased to say that I didn’t have to fetch the binoculars for this match.

The stand opposite, emblazoned with the club name, was all but empty. I did make out a few umbrellas in the shadows under the trees and one bloke sat on the half-way line tried his best to encourage the team at every opportunity, but other than that, it was a sorry sight.

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Čukarički die hard’s brave the elements and take shelter with the help of a local forest!…

A group of kids made their way to the corner, unfurled three small flags and banged a drum every now and then, but it was all quite tame.

On the pitch things weren’t much better. Two poor teams played out a frustrating game on a heavy pitch. Mistimed challenges saw the Serbian equivalent to St. John Ambulance cadets called on twice within a couple of minutes towards the end of the half.

The referee found himself at the centre of some controversy too as he waved on play following some half-arsed appeals from the home team in the box, before returning to give the penalty. The linesman behind the goal indicated that he’d awarded it for a tug and the hosts had the chance to brighten up what had been a dismal first half.

It wasn’t to be, as the keeper comfortably saved the tame penalty and both teams went into half-time level.

With the weather against me, I decided against going for a walk around the ground. Although, I’m not sure how possible it would have been, with the tunnel at one end and a bank of green behind a fence on the other side of the stand.

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The players tunnel!…

There was an empty, and padlocked, drinks fridge in the concourse and that was that. I ventured to the toilets and came across possibly the most pristine conveniences in football history. Unisex and, seemingly, treated accordingly, they were fully kitted out with soap and paper towels.

I took my seat for the second half, trying to eavesdrop on the local youth, (apparently injured or not selected players as they chatted to the subs) who were discussing the latest from Belgium’s Second Division. I saw from one guy’s phone that he had money on it. Gambling bringing football fans together, eh?

IMG_0260aThe game threatened to spring into life when the visitors took the lead through a deflected long-range effort, which the keeper completely misjudged. At last! It seemed to have made for an exciting climax, as the hosts pressed further and further up the pitch leaving themselves susceptible to the counter attack. It was end-to-end for about 10 minutes, as the kids in the far corner chanted ‘Hoćemo gol,’ their equivalent to ‘All we are singing is give us a goal!”

Unfortunately, the goal wasn’t to come and Čukarički seemed content with damage limitation after the visitors squandered a sitter from two yards.

I debated making an early dash to be first at the exit but thought I’d wait to see what the final would bring. Had these fans anything to say, I wondered. A poor 1-0 defeat and yet not a word from the fans. Indeed, a few called to some of the players, suggesting where to meet afterwards. The players just shrugged, slightly embarrassed.

Of course, I’d forgotten about the tunnel and had to wait until all the players and officials had cleared the pitch, which seemed to take an age, as the home manager was being interviewed on the pitch.

I reflected on my visit on the tram home and really wondered what on earth was the point of that trip? What was the point of Čukarički itself?

While the grassroots funding is certainly admirable, the lack of fans, the lack of passion and the bizarrely modern, empty ground all suggested that this is just another plaything of a businessman.

As Serbian fans apparently clamour for more models of this type, I think they should be careful what they wish for. Although, with the big two, Red Star and Partizan taking all the fans and everyone seemingly okay with that, how will football change here? Indeed, can it?

You can follow Rhys on Twitter @HartleyR27

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