Military surplus

One Belgrade club has floundered since the assassination of their infamous and highly feared owner in 2000. Richard Mills reports

Earlier this year Serbian pop singer Svetlana “Ceca” Ražnatović was finally charged with embezzlement over the sale of footballers and the illegal possession of firearms. These charges date back nearly ten years and relate to transfers from Obilić Belgrade Football Club. Ceca took over the running of Obilić when her husband Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović was assassinated in 2000 after an extraordinary life which included bank robberies, prison breaks, commanding a paramilitary organisation and indictment for war crimes. In death Arkan continues to be a legendary figure among Serbian nationalists, but the plight of his football club has been less well documented.

Founded in 1924 Obilić were named after a mythical 14th century knight who occupies an esteemed position in Serbian folklore. For the first 70 years of the club’s existence they were a relatively unremarkable amateur side competing in the lower reaches of Yugoslavia’s regional leagues.

In 1996, Arkan – who had become notorious both for his underworld activities and his role in Yugoslavia’s disintegration – purchased the club and set about the task of turning it into a successful brand for his own variety of gangster nationalism. Presumably he was attracted to Obilić because of their association with Serbia’s glorious mediaeval history – nationalist ties which had led to Obilić being banned briefly by Tito.

The beginning of Arkan’s tenure coincided with a staggering improvement in form, as the club won promotion to the rump-Yugoslav First Federal League in 1997, before taking the title in their first ever campaign at the highest level. This sudden leap in quality was undoubtedly facilitated by Arkan’s formidable state-level and underworld connections, while journalists have since demonstrated that officials and footballers from other teams were intimidated into capitulation by the feared owner and his paramilitary followers. Several opposing club presidents were murdered during this turbulent period. In one of the most ironic episodes in the entire saga, Arkan was photographed with the Fair Play trophy, although I suspect that few seriously believed in the “discipline” and “honesty” of his team.

During 1998-99 Obilić represented their country in the Champions League, eventually going out in a high-profile clash against Bayern Munich. Due to UEFA’s reluctance to let Arkan anywhere near the competition, he stepped aside and his wife replaced him as club president. More European football followed over the next three seasons as Obilić came second in 1999, followed by two third-place finishes. During this golden era the club appeared to be establishing themselves as a force that could compete against the Belgrade giants of Red Star and Partizan, as plans were unveiled for a state of the art 16,500-capacity stadium with futuristic curved roofs not dissimilar to those at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium. A glossy 300-page book was published to celebrate the club’s 75th anniversary, complete with a large centrefold of Arkan bedecked in an Obilić blazer, alongside the championship trophy.

However, the defining moment in Obilić’s history arguably came in January 2000, when their high-profile backer was gunned down in the foyer of Belgrade’s Intercontinental Hotel. Ceca attempted to maintain her husband’s legacy, but from that point onwards Obilić fell into irretrievable decline as players were sold off. Despite this asset stripping, the club tenaciously held on in the top flight until 2006, the same year that Serbia and Montenegro parted as independent states. After this the descent was rapid, as Obilić were relegated four times in as many seasons. They are now in the First Belgrade League, at the fifth tier of a Serbian pyramid which is divided into regional leagues from the third division downwards.

On the final day of 2008-09 I watched an already relegated Obilić take on the mighty FK IMT, the representatives of a local tractor factory. Only parts of the stadium masterplan were carried out in Arkan’s lifetime, leaving the club with a half-built grandstand which features a colossal tinted glass directors’ box, but no terracing whatsoever behind either goal. Even so, the thousands of faded plastic seats that have been installed are no longer necessary – the day after the game a hugely optimistic Serbian newspaper report gave the attendance as 50, but this figure almost certainly included both teams and the match officials.

On the walls of the stagnant ground, a mural of Arkan wearing paramilitary uniform has been painted alongside depictions of events in Serbian history. Staring out alongside the legendary figure of Obilić himself, this modern warrior has had the words “Željko lives” daubed beneath his image. An indicted war criminal who is suspected of committing numerous crimes in towns and villages across the former Yugoslavia has nonetheless become part of the Serbian legend. His football club, racked with insurmountable financial difficulties and on the verge of relegation to the obscurity of the Second Belgrade League, is also in danger of fading into the mists of Serbia’s mythical past.

From WSC 293 July 2011