By Rhys HartleyÂ
If you know anything about football in Serbia, youâ€™ll know that itâ€™s dominated by the two big teams â€“ Partizan and Red Star. Not only in terms of success (theyâ€™ve shared 57 of the 60 league titles won by Serbian clubs since the Second World War) but also in terms of support.
Across the country, youâ€™ll see Grobari (Partizan fans) or Delije (Red Star) graffiti, and flags of supporters from villages, towns and cities across Serbia and beyond decorate the JNA and Marakana stadiums. Except, that is, for Kragujevac.
Kragujevac: A brief history
Kragujevac was modern Serbiaâ€™s first capital city â€“ a quiz question that Iâ€™m proud to say I was the only one to answer on a team full of Serbs a few years ago! Although it only held that status between 1818-1841 before the capital was transferred to Belgrade, it left a mark on the town, both literally and figuratively.
The city boasts many beautiful 19th-century buildings, among which is Serbiaâ€™s first secondary education facility, the Gimnazija that still stands today in the centre. It retained its importance up until the Second World War, as the home of Yugoslaviaâ€™s armaments factory.
During the war, it witnessed one of the most heinous crimes of the Nazi regime in the Balkans. In 1941 almost 2,800 locals, including schoolchildren and teachers, were executed as retribution for the death of 10 German soldiers in nearby Gornji Milanovac.
The site is now marked with many moving memorials and mass graves, around 200 metres from the cityâ€™s football stadium.
To this day, the armaments factory is still pumping out killing machines and is an important employer in the city. Another important industry is car manufacturing. Until 2008, the city was home to the famous Zastava factory, best known for rolling out the functional yet much-maligned Yugo (once billed as the worst car ever made). Itâ€™s now owned by Fiat.
Whether itâ€™s the cityâ€™s history, trauma or proud working-class tradition, or a combination of the three, thereâ€™s a real sense of local pride here. Everyone I know from the city waxes lyrically about its history and takes umbrage if anything disparaging is said about it.
As all football fans will know, that usually translates into vociferous support for the local football team.
RadniÄki: A proud club
The local ultras group, the Red Devils, have painted the town red, literally, and wonâ€™t stand for any black-and-white or Red Star graffiti â€“ not that the average KragujevÄanin would allow it either.
Iâ€™d heard from friends, loyal Partizan fans, that the Red Devils were among the best ultras groups in the country. However, unlike the other big fan groups in Serbia, Iâ€™d barely had the chance to come across them, as the club, RadniÄki, has fallen on hard times in recent years.
After spending most of their life in the Yugoslav second tier, theyâ€™ve been a real yo-yo club since the federationâ€™s collapse. When I moved to Serbia in 2015, RadniÄki were about to be relegated to Serbiaâ€™s third tier, staring down the barrel of a second successive relegation.
They bounced back to the second tier (the Prva Liga) right away, but itâ€™s not until this season that theyâ€™ve looked like candidates to return to the top flight.
Ever since my first visit to the city in 2016, Iâ€™d wanted to take in a game at the ÄŒika DaÄa Stadium. But following Partizan around the country, along with the journey it takes to Kragujevac, the opportunity never materialised. Until COVID hit.
With fans not allowed and my attempts to get into matches depending on the willingness of club officials to believe that Iâ€™m a foreign journalist, the first home game after the Winter Break this year gave me the impetus to try my luck.
After a quick email in my polished Serbian explaining that I, a foreign journalist, and my photographer mate would like to write something about the club, we were in. So we set off early on a Saturday morning to get what was my first football fix of 2021.
The previous day the Serbian government had announced that all cafes and restaurants would have to shut at 2pm over the weekend to help curb the spread of COVID (again), so we rushed to get to a traditional restaurant that I knew of for a quick lunch before the 1pm kick-off.
After paying the â‚¬2.50 for our meals and pint (and a coffee for me), we headed up to the ground â€“ officially Serbiaâ€™s fourth-largest.
Stadion ÄŒika Daca
There are few grounds as nicely-located as the ÄŒika Daca Stadium. You follow a large park out of the city centre towards the memorial park and the big bowl is dug into the ground, giving a sense of mystery from the outside.
Itâ€™s a traditional multi-purpose ground with big concrete banks around the entirety beyond the running track. It was renovated in 2007 with new seats put in all around, but it felt like no work had been done in decades, with the faded seats showing less than half the Cyrillic â€œÐ ÐÐ”ÐÐ˜Ð§ÐšÐ˜â€ (RadniÄki) they should.
To be fair, the club offices and changing rooms looked brand new, as did the astroturf, and grass pitches where, presumably, training sessions are held.
In the ground, as with what seems like every team in Serbia, a few club anthems were blasted out on the PA system â€“ all heavy rock, including a thumping version of Simon and Garfunkelâ€™s â€œSound of Silenceâ€. At half time, it got worse with Status Quoâ€™s â€œRocking All over the Worldâ€!
We wandered around to the other side, with the cold February wind battering us from all angles. We stopped and looked at the graffiti on the seats where the Red Devils would usually stand, and giggled at the 1312 graffiti (code for ACAB), while two policemen walked past.
As we took our seats we noticed that the wind had died down â€“ the benefit of playing in a bowl â€“ and took a quick look around, to see who else had managed to blag their way in.
To our surprise, there was a group of young men to our right holding cans of lager. On our approach to the ground, weâ€™d spotted a handful of people trying to climb the trees, presumably to get a peek at the action. With the trees now empty, we presumed these were the same people.
RadniÄki 1923 v DuboÄica
With a quick headcount indicating that 50 or so people were in, we focused our attention on the match. What could we expect?
With just one game gone since the three-month Winter Break, it would usually be difficult to make any real predictions about this one, but RadniÄki were clear favourites. They were eight points clear at the top of the Prva Liga, and their rivals this afternoon, DuboÄica, were well off the pace in mid-table.
DuboÄica, incidentally, were also founded between the wars as a working-class club. They represent the city of Leskovac in the southeast of the country, a city that also features an impressive monument park to the victims of fascism. However, itâ€™s best known for its barbecue-style meat, which you can find all over Serbia in fast food joints marked â€œLeskovaÄkiâ€.
Both sides had their chances, although RadniÄki dominated possession. The first half flashed by without many incidents of note. As we went for a wander at half-time, the cold air made us really wonder why weâ€™d gone to the effort of getting into this match.
Two changes at the break livened things up for the hosts, who played with much more intensity. Their captain was at the heart of every move, dropping deep, spraying passes, and using his skill to skip past the opposition and walk up the pitch. Poor decision-making at the edge of the final third let them down and some sloppy mistakes at the back could have cost them dearly.
As RadniÄki pushed to get a winning goal their frustration grew evident, and the referee had to react quickly to avoid losing control of the game in the last 20.
After no added time in the first half, the minutes after the full 90 seemed to drag on for an age. Despite free-kick after free-kick for the hosts, the visitorsâ€™ backline stood firm. A final chance came from a long free-kick, and the ball held up in the air â€“ the pitch not protected from the wind, as we were.
The final whistle blew and I ran off to sample the toilets before heading home. Think English non-league 1990s, and you wouldnâ€™t be far wrong. No roof, and just a wall acting as a urinal. God, how Iâ€™d missed it!
You may think it strange that the waft of urine from a sub-par toilet got me feeling nostalgic, but I felt stranger about what Iâ€™d witnessed. A 0-0 draw between two teams to whom I had no affiliation. And that in front of no fans!
I actually thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but that may just be my football-starved brain of the past few months.
Thereâ€™s no doubt that Iâ€™d have enjoyed it a darn sight more if the Red Devils had been there, to get a real feel for what this club means to the city, to the people. I hope they have also missed football as much as I have and, more importantly, that they return in their droves to watch their champions-elect when the time comes.
Iâ€™ll be back next season when Partizan visit, as seems likely given RadniÄkiâ€™s advantage at the top of the table. But theyâ€™ll need to up their game if they are to compete in Serbiaâ€™s top flight.
One thingâ€™s for sure though, theyâ€™ll give the whole city something to cheer about if they do go up. Who knows? Maybe they can attract some investment and turn the stadion ÄŒika Daca into a fortress for all KragujevÄani.