Les supporters du FK Sarajevo lors du derby contre Zelzelnicar en octobre 2016. Crédit photo Pierre-Alix Pajot.

Could the former Yugoslavia be on the cusp of a football renaissance with the Balkan League?


The dream of a football competition in the former Yugoslavia is on the way to becoming a reality. Beyond its symbolic significance, the Balkan League could turn out to be a breath of fresh air for sport in the region, after its football clubs have seen their most recent trophies gather dust. The project could see the light of day as early as next year, and time is pressing.

The announcement of plans to create a Balkan Football League has hardly resonated around the football world. Yet this initiative could take Balkan football back to the future – more than 25 years back, in fact, to a time when Yugoslavia was still a united country. While its national team achieved decent results on the international stage, Yugoslavia’s club sides also lit up Europe with their performances, including Red Star Belgrade, the last club from the region to the win the Intercontinental Cup in 1991.

“Football is no exception to the rule”

For those with a sense of nostalgia for the former Yugoslavia, the Balkan League could see a renewal of hostilities between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade. The fixture could provide a chance to turn a new page on a sad story, after the last meeting between the two sides in 1990 degenerated into a brawl, as the ideologies of Serbian and Croatian nationalism encroached on the sport.

“Unfortunately, I think that the situation has barely changed. Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian supporters hate each other, so much so that their old habits haven’t disappeared. The groups of supporters are still controlled by political structures with a nationalist background,” remarks Uros, a Partizan Belgrade fan. “It worked very well for basketball because we were, and still are, very good at it,” he added.

“Inevitably, the war had an impact on all aspects of society, and football was no exception,” admits Adi, an FK Sarajevo supporter. The problem doesn’t just stem from the troubled recent history of the Balkans; it also seems to be a football issue. In European competitions, clubs from the former Yugoslavia’s performances have been terrible. Red Star Belgrade have failed to reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League for over ten years. Dinamo Zagreb, nicknamed the “Real Madrid of the Balkans”, endured a torrid time in the competition this season, losing all six of their Champions League games without managing a single goal. The Croatian club remains a world away from the Spanish giants, who boast a 40-game unbeaten run in the group stages of the competition.

24 clubs, 20 million euros from EUFA

The purpose of the Balkan League would be to reverse this downward spiral, with UEFA providing around 20 million euros for the project – about €800,000 per club, before TV rights and ticket profits. While this is small change compared to the staggering sums the giants of European football earn, it is a massive boost for clubs in the Balkan Region.

The budget would be shared between 24 clubs from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia. The 24 teams would then be split into six groups of four. According to Vasko Dojčinovski of the Football Federation of Macedonia, some finer details are yet to be ironed out. These include issues such as whether to award the winner a place in the Champions League, how much prize money to be awarded, and whether the tournament should be organised in a knock-out format, as with the Champions League. Fixture dates are also an issue, as matches would take place alongside national league games. Another issue could be how to arrange convenient dates if one or more teams are also involved in European competitions.

These questions will have to be answered soon, as the inaugural season of the Balkan League could take place as early as next year. Coincidentally, 2018 will also see reforms to the current Champions League format.

Opening projects already in place

There have even been suggestions of expanding the Balkan League. Representatives from Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Romania could be invited to join, though this proposal would require strong organisation, particularly in terms of security.

Right now, the main question is whether the Balkan League will bring peace between the various nations, or whether it will reawaken nationalist sentiments. It remains to be seen whether the initiative will finally revitalise Balkan football, or whether it is merely the latest in a long series of false dawns. Everyone has their own opinion on the plans, but in the Balkans, there aren’t many sitting on the fence.

Banner picture: FK Sarajevo fans during the derby game against Zelzelnicar in October 2016. Photo credit Pierre-Alix Pajot.



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