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Winds of change in war-torn Yugoslavia

Belgrade: One of Belgrade’s smaller soccer clubs is nicknamed The Romantics.

The tag could equally apply to fans who have stuck by Yugoslav soccer over the past decade, demonstrating an incurable affection through tough times.

Football endured the same catastrophes as the rest of Yugoslav society in the 1990s — war, poverty, hyperinflation, political turmoil, rampant crime and international sanctions.

All have left their scars on the game today. Stadiums are dilapidated. Clubs have had to sell their best players abroad to pay the bills.

‘Businessmen’ help to bankroll clubs, the origin of their wealth sometimes questionable in this mafia-ridden region. “Football has been through hell, just like everything else,” said Branko Bulatovic, general secretary of the Yugoslav football association.

It is a sad state for a country thathas supplied Europe’s top clubs for years with quality players including Sinisa Mihajlovic, Predrag Mijatovic, Dejan Savicevic and many others. But a gentle wind of optimism is blowing through the concrete terraces of the old grounds these days.

Following the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic as president two years ago, Yugoslavia is gradually becoming a more normal. Football is slowly making progress too.

The national team has made an impressive start to their Euro 2006 qualifying campaign. The two big clubs, Belgrade’s Partizan and Red Star, may have fallen at the second round of the Uefa Cup, but they defeated some quality teams to get that far.

The league this season looks to be more than a two-horse race, with several smaller clubs giving the big two a run for their money. Privatisation of state-owned clubs is in the offing, meaning injections of much-needed cash.

“Football has never been better in the past 10 years,” declared Bulatovic. “It’s changing for the better but we know it’s a long process and things can’t be transformed overnight.”

Romantics revived

OFK Belgrade, nicknamed The Romantics for a tradition of cavalier play, serve as a fair example of the trials endured by many in the club game over the past decade.

Located near the banks of the River Danube, OFK have a tradition stretching back to the years before World War II when they won five Yugoslav league titles.

Eclipsed by communist party-backed Red Star and Partizan after the war, OFK nevertheless enjoyed some success. They reached the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963 before losing to Tottenham Hotspur.

But as the old Yugoslavia fell apart in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, OFK and many other clubs descended into hard times.

Yugoslav players were being paid between 20 and 50 German marks (between $10 and $25) a month. About 500 to 600 players at all levels were quitting the country every year.

“The situation wasn’t great,” said OFK’s general manager Zvezdan Terzic, displaying a talent for understatement as he recalled the time in 1997 when he was brought in to help the team he used to serve as a player.

The club now boasts nine international players at various levels. They have big plans to renovate their stadium and build a large training complex.

Terzic has attracted investors willing to put money in OFK even though the club is still officially owned by the state. Behind the run-down stadium facade, OFK have modern offices lined with smart black-and-white photographs of the glory days.

Going Dutch

OFK’s role models are Ajax Amsterdam, a club famed for playing attractive football and developing young players.

They know they have a long way to go before their Omladinski Stadion (‘Stadium of Youth’) resembles the Amsterdam Arena.

At the moment, it does not even have floodlights or a scoreboard. The club has installed some plastic seats but most of the seating is just slabs of concrete. Fans use old newspapers in plastic bags as cushions. Other grounds are even less developed.

OFK are lucky to get even a few thousand spectators for most games. The quality of the average domestic tie does not impress Yugoslav fans, who can watch their country’s best players on television in the Italian, Spanish, German and English leagues.

Some club bosses have proposed a regional league taking in the best teams from the old Yugoslavia. With more big-name clubs, it might raise the quality of play and prove more attractive to supporters, sponsors and television companies.

Broadcasting rights are not the answer to everything, as western European clubs have recently discovered. But their money problems, caused by declines in revenue from television companies, have helped Yugoslav sides in one way.

Less transfer activity meant less cash flowing in here but teams kept talented players who would normally have been sold abroad.

(Reuters)

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