OFK Beograd: A Romantic Club Tells History of Serbia and Yugoslavia
The 20th century was the most turbulent period in Balkan’s modern history and OFK Beograd is encapsulating the falls and the rises of a monarchy, socialist federation and a republic. Nebojša Marković is narrating the story of a club witnessing it all.
OFK Beograd is one of those football clubs that has never occupied the front pages of newspapers, or needed a large trophy room. It is, above all, a club which reveals turbulent times and the genetic code of a nation. The history of Serbia and its predecessor countries, the socialist Yugoslavia and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, is being met through the history of a certain romantic club from the capital city of several quite different countries.
OFK Beograd was founded in 1945, in the dusk of the World War II, but its unconventional and complicated history begins more than three decades ago. Belgrade Sport Club or BSK, was established in the summer of 1911, in the era of pre-war Kingdom of Serbia. Belgrade was, as a capital of a young, developing country, eager to show its progressiveness by getting its own football club, following the examples of bigger European cities, such as Madrid, Milan or Amsterdam.
Belgrade’s Blues – as they were fondly called due to their dark blue-light blue kit colours – were growing rapidly. Already in 1913 and 1914, BSK were playing international matches, ironically, against Austro-Hungarian clubs from Vojvodina, a territory which will belong to Serbia once the Great War and the losing side’s dismemberment end. During the World War I, the club was dissolved and football was forgotten amidst enemy attacks. BSK’s stadium was demolished soon after the war began, the same way Belgrade was burned to the ground so many times throughout the history.
Right after the World War I, the Kingdom will expand both its borders and its name. It will become Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and with it, BSK will continue its growth as well. In 1919, the football association of the Kingdom was founded in Zagreb under the name Jugoslovenski Nogometni savez. The very same year, it was admitted into FIFA and with that, BSK and Serbian football started growing. The old stadium was renovated and the club continued playing at it in the following decade.
The championship of Belgrade is being established a year later and BSK were dominating it regardless of the growing number of teams competing. Yet, the most successful club in Belgrade will have to move to a new, bigger stadium, so that the increasing number of fans could support their beloved team. Transition to Topčider Hill was quite symbolic for two reasons. It marked a new beginning for BSK in 1929, right when the King Alexander Karađorđević took a historic decision – by suspending the parliament, introducing dictatorship and renaming the country into Kingdom of Yugoslavia. And secondly, the perfect location for a stadium with the capacity to hold 30,000 spectators meant a sort of evil fate which will fall on the club 16 years later.
However, King Alexander’s dictatorship was temporary, but not the dominance BSK were having on green meadows throughout the country didn’t stop right away. The team, led by nowadays legends Blagoje Marjanović Moša, and later on Aleksandar Tirnanić Tirke, was sort of a juggernaut, winning five championships during the 1930s. That team wasn’t only powerful, but also played beautiful football. The fan base was increasing with each game, to enjoy cunning moves of charmers from Belgrade’s streets. Amazing team spirit and lightness in the game of BSK’s players were eternalized in Dragan Bjelogrlić’s movies “Montevideo, God bless you” and “See You in Montevideo”, commemorating Yugoslavia’s journey to the semi-final in 1930 FIFA World Cup, as almost half of the squad were players of BSK. Reason for that was the relocation of the national FA’s headquarters from Zagreb to Belgrade. Zagreb subassociation forbid players from Croatian clubs to play for Yugoslavia in the first ever World Cup, so the national team consisted of players based in Serbian football clubs. So Yugoslavia was handicapped as they could not select their strongest side. Yet, players mostly coming from BSK and Sports Club Yugoslavia (SK Yugoslavia) took it upon themselves to prove a point and came up with the country’s best performance in the World Cup till date.
But, the famous generation of Blues, amongst whom were Đorđe Vujadinović, Mikica Arsenijević and Vojin Božović, was interrupted by new disturbances in the Balkans.
On an April morning in 1941, Nazi Germany began occupation of Yugoslavia with unexpected bombing of Belgrade. With the arrival of Third Reich’s army, the fears from the previous war were woken among the people. Yet, football didn’t flinch completely. Brave clubs of Belgrade
The fact that the war was still happening, players of BSK were reminded in spring of 1944, when the bombs of the allied forces fell on Belgrade.
organised competitions even during the war on three occasions, two of which BSK won superiorly. The fact that the war was still happening, players of BSK were reminded in spring of 1944, when the bombs of the allied forces fell on Belgrade. Their stadium on Topčider was severely damaged once again. From that moment to the communist liberation of Belgrade in October, football wasn’t played in the city and new circumstances changed the history of Yugoslav – and European – football for good.
In December of that same year, BSK and SK Yugoslavia, two of the greatest pre-war clubs, are being mentioned only by the names of “blue” and “red”, and all footballing achievements prior to communist liberation became a taboo. In May 1945, Ministry of education announced proclamation that all pre-war clubs will be abolished, BSK among one of them. It was one of the many decisions communist authorities took, in their quest to terminate all connections with the previous monarchist history of Yugoslavia.
The very same year many other clubs were established. Among them are Red Star and The First Army team, later renamed into Central House of Yugoslav Army Partizan, modelled on Moscow’s CDKA, nowadays known as CSKA. The majestic Belgrade Sport Club ceased to exist after more than three decades of laying foundations of football in the Balkans. Some of the first professional players in the country to don the dark blue-light blue jersey and all the effort and sweat woven into numerous trophies were erased in a single moment. BSK’s stadium on Topčider Hill became property of The Yugoslav National Army and was handed over to the abovementioned FK Partizan. It is still there, 70 years since the World War II and it is still owned by Partizan.
However, the true football fans didn’t remain silent. Syndicates of a metal production company founded FK Metalac in that very year. The kit of the new team had the famous dark blue-light blue combination and two men involved in the club’s management were Milorad Arsenijević and Sava Marinković, legendary footballers of the pre-war BSK. In summer of 1950, the regime accepted the club’s decision to change its name to Belgrade Sport Club. The old name was back and the new crest had uncanny resemblance to the old one. Only a small red star was added, as a symbol of the socialist Yugoslavia. From that moment on, all historic connections with the forbidden club were restored.
Around that time, when Yugoslavia started growing and developing rapidly, setting up its planned economy on solid grounds, BSK bloomed into a big club once again. Yugoslavia’s industry was gradually flowering. Destroyed infrastructure was being rebuilt in labour actions, unemployment was low and the educational level of working class started growing. BSK was growing as well. In 1953 and 1955, BSK won two Yugoslav Cups and both times it was the mighty Hajduk from Split that was beaten. For those successes, among others, three players were particularly responsible – Stanoje Jocić and Predrag Marković as clubs’ best goal-scorers, and Tomislav Kaloperović, the player who will later join Partizan and play over 250 matches in the famous black-and-white jersey.
Just a couple of years later, in summer of 1957, BSK found themselves in a bad financial situation. They had to fuse with the football club Šumadija, a team from the lower ranks, and the club changed its name once again. This time, the club was named Omladinski fudbalski klub Beograd (shortly OFK Beograd), which translates into “Youth’s football club Belgrade” and the new club colours were blue and white. The reason for that name was the official ideology, as BSK Šumadija would sound “anti-regime” to the authorities, and also because Belgrade got its first great club to use the city’s name in it. The prefix omladinski was added for political reasons as well, as one of requirements for getting a new stadium whose name had the same word in it – Omladinski stadium.
With the new home, which could squeeze in 28,000 people, OFK Beograd could concentrate on the events on pitch. There were no more rents to pay for playing in someone else’s stadium, nor were there lawsuits for not paying the rent. With club now standing on solid foundations, it became recognizable around the country primarily for their lovable football. In 1962, OFK won the newly founded competition, Marshall Tito Cup (the Yugoslav Cup), after beating Spartak Subotica. The team from Belgrade’s neighbourhood Karaburma wins not only the trophy but the nickname as well – Romantičari (the Romantics) – and they will carry it proudly for decades to come. Lead by the tandem duo of Sava Antić and Josip Skoblar, OFK Beograd quite often played for the crowd. As the mighty Ajax wanted to show artistic traits of Amsterdam through the “art” on the pitch, OFK’s players were the personification of a romantic and an enthusiastic nation. The reveller spirit, so characteristic for the pre-war BSK, remained present in the legs of the new boys. While Red Star, Partizan, Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split were sharing championship titles between them, OFK was reminding everyone of football’s essence.
While Red Star, Partizan, Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split were sharing championship titles between them, OFK was reminding everyone of football’s essence.
They were playing eye-catching football. Every true fan thought of them with sympathies and their craftiness shined at the international stage, as well. In 1963, OFK Beograd qualified into the semi-finals of Cup Winners Cup, where they lost 5-2 on aggregate to eventual winners Tottenham Hotspur. OFK’s greatness mirrored not only in victories, but in defeats as well, especially next year when they fell short of becoming champions of Yugoslavia. It was a club that was seldom challenging for the league title and it would be wrong to judge the club’s successes based on the number of trophies they have won. It is also about the times when OFK Beograd was close to making history by winning the league, and in 1964 they were the closest, finishing as runners up behind Red Star.
Lethal goal-scorer Skoblar – who was also part of another golden generation of Yugoslav football, playing for the national team in 1962 FIFA World Cup where the Plavi finished fourth, was pouring goals in every corner of the country and his successor, Slobodan Santrač, emerged by his side. The famous duo Joška-Sani was everything socialist Yugoslavia represented – a force in the making. They were loved and appreciated; fearsome for their opponents charming for the crowd.
Skoblar and Santrač played together only during the 1965-66 season, just to show the world what could’ve happened if the “call” of Europe didn’t separate them, as five years older Skoblar left OFK and joined German side Hannover. OFK Beograd reached another Cup final and their rival was Dinamo. The glorious Blues from Zagreb were storming towards new trophy, but the amazing tandem confronted them sternly. Joška and Sani both scored twice, with as many goals from Spasoje Samardžić, and Dinamo left the capital ashamed with half a dozen goals in their net, in a legendary 6-2 final. Ever since, the romance settled alongside the beautiful blue Danube, and the fans will be buzzing about the famous thrashing of Dinamo for the next half of century. Unfortunately, it was OFK’s last cup final appearance till date.
Slobodan Santrač, the greatest goal-scorer Karaburma (Belgrade) has ever seen, remained at the club for nine years. It was a different time, then. Players were allowed to leave Yugoslavia for foreign clubs only after turning 28 and the league had many powerhouses competing with quality players. In nine years, Santrač scored 169 goals, becoming the ‘bronze boot’ of Europe in 1971 and being league’s top scorer on four occasions between 1968 and 1973. With a tally of 218 goals, he still holds the distinction of the top scorer of Serbian top-tier league. He remained the greatest goal scorer Serbia ever had and after he died on 13th of February 2016, there were numerous proposals to name the goal scorer of the season award after him.
During those truly romantic times, Yugoslav league was among the stronger European competitions and the national team was at its peak. Yugoslavia played in European Championship finals in 1960 and 1968, losing to USSR and Italy respectively, while the joint-best result at the World Cups was achieved in Chile in 1962, where ‘Plavi’ finished fourth. Great strikers, and Santrač was one of them, were playing at home for decades, scoring goals year after year. Crafty wingers were tirelessly running along the sidelines of the very same pitches where talented footballers were maturing into star players.
Just about then, a new winger appeared. His name was Ilija Petković and he would ‘feed’ Santrač with assists for the next eight years. His nickname – typhoon from Karaburma – said enough in itself, and his terrific acceleration scared oppositions’ left-backs. Petković played for Yugoslav national team 43 times and was one of the best right wingers of his time.
OFK Beograd as well as Yugoslavia were at their peak in the 1960s and 1970s. Many national team players wore blue-and-white jersey and the club had a great fan base. Fascination with romantic football, played on the right shore of Danube, travelled so far that in 1971 a football club was established in West Germany’s city of Stuttgart, named OFK Beograd-Stuttgart.
Yugoslavia of Josip Broz Tito enjoyed the greatest reputation during the 1970s. The Non-Aligned Movement – one of whose founders was socialist Yugoslavia and which fought for distancing from both leading political blocks of USA and USSR – was in its full power and included countries from five continents. Still, the following decade was a turning point in every aspect of Yugoslav society and football was an important part of it. Tito, the president of the country, passed away on 4th May, 1980 and adversities started soon thereafter. Despite forcing fluttering football, OFK failed to remain at the level where it was in the previous decades and in 1983 they were relegated into the second division. After two years, the club was promoted back, but they stayed in the first division for a single season. OFK will spend the following five years in the second division, marking the most turbulent years in the history of post-war Yugoslavia. It was the era of “The silent fall”.
Riots fuelled by nationalistic aspirations were frequent and more serious during the second half of 1980s. Economic situation in the country was unstable and disagreements inside of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia grew. Federal republics alienated themselves from Belgrade and football played a big role, too. Great riots happened at Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, on 13th May, 1990 just minutes after the match between Dinamo and Red Star started. Fans confronted each other in a bloody conflict, making obvious that nationalistic bigotry grew beyond all limits. Even before the year ended, Federal Republic Slovenia declared independence. The disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia had started.
In the 1991-92 season, football championship of rump Yugoslavia was being played without Croatian and Slovenian clubs, which is why OFK Beograd reappeared in the first division, where they finished fourth, only behind of traditionally stronger sides – Red Star, Partizan and Vojvodina. Still, the brief success appeared to be futile. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia soon abandoned Yugoslavia and during the wartime events in the mid-1990s, the country was under many embargos. National team of Yugoslavia was expelled from 1992 UEFA EURO held in Sweden, and clubs couldn’t play in international competitions. Young and talented players were usually leaving poorer clubs for Red Star and Partizan. There was almost no space for smaller teams to improve and that was the reason why OFK Beograd concentrated on selling young players, especially at the beginning of the 21st century. Financial functioning became their top priority.
The first big success since socialist Yugoslavia fell apart, came in the summer of 2004, when OFK Beograd reached the semi-finals of now defunct UEFA Intertoto Cup. The pride of the romantics awakened when the world-known Atletico Madrid visited Omladinski stadium. Led by young Fernando Torres and experienced Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone, Rojiblancos extinguished the hopes of OFK Beograd, but the home team had a star player in the making.
A 20-year-old player named Branislav Ivanović played for the Belgraders. During three years at the club, Ivanović made 55 appearances in blue and white, before he signed for Lokomotiv Moscow. Two years in Russia’s capital were enough before he joined Chelsea, a team he is still at eight years later. But during the 2000s, another good player played for OFK Beograd – Aleksandar Kolarov. Today Manchester City’s first team player spent a season at the club from Karaburma, before Lazio bought him. Since then, OFK as well as Serbian football and, some might say, Serbian society on the whole has been in a constant decline.
The Omladinski stadium is falling apart these days. The stands aren’t safe for many years now and there are still no floodlights for the evening matches to be played. The stadium sits in one of the best locations in Serbia’s capital, lying on the right bank of the Danube river, just quarter of an hour away from downtown Belgrade. Yet, now it is a ruin, which holds some great memories of the club’s glorious past. You can sense that past when entering this old stadium, but it also feels like the future has no seat available for itself in its crumbling stands. The club seems as directionless as the country ever since Serbia became a democratic one in 2000.
Not to be wrong, talented kids are still arriving to the club, but only to leave it earlier than ever. Their careers become more modest – from Skoblar’s ‘European Golden boot’ in 1971 and Santrač’s innumerable goals and records, to beardless youngsters who hastily rush towards foreign clubs. And Serbia, cut into pieces and humiliated by wars, is getting satisfaction from smaller achievements. Romance has been fading with every passing year, but it won’t disappear as long as the proud club from Karaburma exists. Even now, they are fighting for staying in Superliga, Serbia’s top tier.
This club has been the best so long ago that no one admits their great history any more. But in both war and peace, in different countries and social orders, in both first and second Division, this club has been romantic. And no matter what its present situation is, feelings and memories associated with it are truly priceless.
Note – When the article was getting written, OFK Beograd got relegated for the first time in this century.