By Rhys HartleyÂ
Itâ€™s a familiar story that clubs overspend looking for glory only to be lumbered with huge debts when that glory fails to materialise. Leeds United are only now back in the Premier League after a 16-year exodus following financial mismanagement that did see them reach the Champions League semi-final. But was it all worth it?
In Serbia, the case of clubs looking to compete with the big boys is a common one. A local businessman may take interest and pump in money for a few seasons, some larger international investors may look to make a short-term buck, but inevitably they all pull out at some point.
The case of Borac ÄŒaÄak is not quite as clear cut, but it follows a similar pattern.
Punching above their weight
Football was never the number one sport in ÄŒaÄak, and the local team, Borac â€“ meaning ‘fighter’, never made it into the top flight of Yugoslav football. In fact, they hold the record for the most amount of seasons spent in the federationâ€™s second tier.
However, the break-up of Yugoslavia brought with it new opportunities for smaller clubs like Borac. And for a city the size of ÄŒaÄak â€“ the 12th largest in Serbia with a population of over 100,000 â€“ they could now rub shoulders with the big boys like Red Star and Partizan in a more local league.
Things went well for a while. A few seasons in the top flight 1990s led to them finally being able to consider themselves among Serbiaâ€™s elite in the 2000s, especially after Montenegroâ€™s independence in 2006. In 2008, the club reached their highest ever position, fourth, and qualified for the UEFA Cup.
Two wins in qualifying against Dacia Chisinau and Lokomotiv Sofia saw them enter the first round proper, where a dream tie awaited the minnows from Central Serbia.
Four-time European champions, Ajax were the reward for reaching the UEFA Cup and the whole city licked their lips in anticipation of one of the biggest clubs on the continent coming to town.
Unfortunately, due to the poor state of the ground at the time the match had to be played in Belgrade, 140 kilometres away along a carsick-inducing, windy road.
The hosts away from home slumped to a 4-1 defeat in the first leg at Partizanâ€™s Stadion JNA and travelled to Amsterdam with nothing but pride to play for. A valiant effort saw them go down just 2-0 but that was where their European journey ended â€“ and theyâ€™ve never been back.
Knocked down again and again
They didnâ€™t immediately crumble. Borac fought valiantly in the Serbian Super Liga for many seasons. By the time Iâ€™d moved to Serbia in 2015 theyâ€™d established themselves as a regular top-flight side, and my first visit to the ground in September 2016 saw them unlucky to come away as 2-0 losers to eventual league champions Partizan.
However, that season they only managed to avoid relegation by a point, their nearest rivals, Gornji Milanovac, finishing just beneath them.
The good times were over and the next season their fate was sealed. They finished bottom of the table and were duly relegated back to the second tier, where youâ€™d have thought they may feel more at home.
But things went from bad to worse. Financial mismanagement left the club facing debts of almost â‚¬2million, including â‚¬250,000 in unpaid player wages. They were expelled from the league and declared bankrupt. Was this to be the end of Borac ÄŒaÄak?
Rising from the flames
As with clubs all over the world, but especially here in Serbia, a new club was formed almost on the spot. A city as big as ÄŒaÄak simply couldnâ€™t not have a football team and the local municipality helped re-establish a new football club â€“ Borac 1926 ÄŒaÄakÂ â€“ with their ground in exactly the same location.
They did change their badge â€“ officially anyway â€“ and they no longer have the Communist-era five-pointed star on their badge, despite the flags on the stand still showing the old logo. Now, they don an old-school football reminiscent of â€œAgainst Modern Footballâ€ stickers and banners. A conscious choice?
The new club started afresh in the third tier of Serbian football and won promotion at the first time of asking â€“ even if the season was cut short due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Back in the second division, the Prva Liga, they werenâ€™t faring too badly. Six wins, a draw, and six defeats saw them comfortably in mid-table, which is when I decided to go and see what had changed at the Stadion Kraj Moravice.
Stadion Kraj Moravice
The approach to the ground was delightful in the autumn sun. You follow the river through some done-up greenery, a city park, and then an impressive sports complex opens up, backing onto the town. Four pitches border the stadium, which, in turn, borders an impressive sports centre and athletics ground.
This was a club that looked as if it was going somewhere and the advertising hoardings emphasising the â€˜City of ÄŒaÄak’ made it clear where the backing was coming from.
I entered and made my way to the press box â€“ a ramshackle structure above the uncovered terrace, looking out to the perfect-condition pitch and renovated stands opposite. Theyâ€™d even added seats to the concrete terrace where I stood the last time I was here.
There was a little confusion between the three other men in the box as to how to turn the speaker off as the players lined up, but they eventually managed it. Just in time for the teams to make their salutes to both sides of the pitch â€“ itâ€™s a ritual before every game at every level here in Serbia. Weird at the best of times, but simply ridiculous with no fans! And we were off.
Borac 1926 ÄŒaÄak v FK Zemun
The red-and-whites from Central Serbia were hosting a team I was pretty familiar with. FK Zemun from the northern Belgrade suburb had only recently dropped out of the top flight, rather unfortunately after a poor play-off run in 2019. However, their first campaign in the second tier was woeful, finishing twelfth out of 16 and this season they sat bottom but one heading into this match, and fielded a young team according to the locals sat to my right.
I was particularly intrigued to see the Zemun forward, Nikola RistoviÄ‡, who, it was rumoured, Partizan were interested in signing. But unfortunately, the young attacker spent most of the game chasing shadows and lost causes, as Borac dominated.
The gulf in class between these sides was clear to see from the off. Borac played silky, skilful football, while Zemun looked as though they knew that using physicality was the only way they were going to get something out of this game.
That physicality came at a cost and the numerous early fouls presented plenty of crossing opportunities for the hosts. On twelve minutes, they took their chance. Zemun tried the offside trap against a pretty risk-free free-kick from the middle of the park. Three players in red lay in wait and Stefan TeÅ¡iÄ‡ made no mistake from close range.
The goal gave Borac even more confidence and they started keeping the ball comfortably, knocking it nicely across the park. Meanwhile, Zemun were feeding off scraps, and their young winger, Filip AvriÄ‡, was the only bright spark that offered some hope down the right.
Borac continued to create chances but found a brick wall between the posts in the form of Nikola PejoviÄ‡. The 18-year-old goalkeeper was absolutely outstanding in catching crosses, tipping shots wide, and even saving one-on-ones. The hosts really should have gone in leading by more but PejoviÄ‡ made sure that the visitors still had a chance.
The second half started much like the first, with Borac dominating. They should have doubled their lead right away but another fine save from a one-on-one kept it at 1-0.
Things didnâ€™t get any easier for the young â€˜keeper, as he was thrust into the action once again. Heâ€™d blocked a shot from close range, but the momentum carried the striker forward. He may have made it to the rebound had poor PejoviÄ‡ not brought his trailing leg down, and the referee had no option but to point to the spot.
He looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him whole and it seemed as though all his hard work was going to the proverbial. However, he bounced back magnificently to parry the penalty away and beyond any of the oncoming attackers. Would this give Zemun the confidence to kick on?
The visitors did create a few breakaway chances, and Boracâ€™s â€˜keeper did well to respond to the danger having been largely a spectator for most of the match.
But it was still the hosts who were in the ascendency, combining nicely though the middle of the park with one-twos, breaking at pace down the wings and creating plenty of opportunities to get that second goal. But they were met with incredible resistance, as PejoviÄ‡ tipped shots wide, saved one-on-ones, and even reacted quickly to get his body in the way of a point-blank header.
The hosts saw out the game with relative comfort and will be asking themselves how they didnâ€™t win by more. PejoviÄ‡â€™s performance should have caught the eye of some bigger clubs â€“ if anyone was watching.
Borac look like theyâ€™re up for a fight to return to the top and if they play like that for the rest of the season, theyâ€™ll be hard-pressed to stop on their march back towards the Super Liga.
With the city seemingly ready to back the football project this is a club that could go somewhere. Will they fall prey to investors again, though? That remains to be seen and youâ€™d hope the authorities would be once bitten…
As for Zemun, they have a lot of work if they are to retain their Prva Liga status, let alone return to the top flight. If they keep hold of PejoviÄ‡, they may have a chance. But even heâ€™ll have his work cut out if heâ€™s asked to do everything on his own.
The return of Borac to the top flight would be great for me. A beautiful ground in a stunning location, with some brilliant food and drink in the city. Hopefully next time Iâ€™ll be on the terraces and not in the press box.