Yugoslavia 25 Years on Part Three: The Yugoslav First League

In 1991, the conflict brewing in Yugoslavia escalated to a full blown civil war. So much so that Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from the country, leaving Serbia and Montenegro as effectively all that was left. In football terms, this signalled the demise of the old Yugoslav First League.

History and Beginnings

The original format of the competition began in 1923 under the title “King of Yugoslavia league” and was actually held as a cup format contested by just six clubs, with now defunct Croatian side HŠK Građanski Zagreb winning the inaugural cup.

In 1927, a league format was introduced and clubs such as Hajduk Split and BSK (now OFK) Belgrade became prominent. In 1940, the league programme was interrupted for five years because of the Second World War, and many of the clubs began to play in their respective regions. Once the war ended, a single tournament was played out between these regions, which was won by Serbia.

The league programme resumed in 1946 and was renamed the Yugoslav First League. A number of the original clubs who had competed previously were disbanded under the new Communist regime, with new clubs rising out of the ashes.

A good example of this is that Red Star Belgrade emerged from the two-time winners SK Jugoslavia, taking over their stadium (although many of their fans still deny any link with the original club). Later that same year, Partizan Belgrade was formed by high ranking officers of the Yugoslav People’s Army, and so began one of the fiercest rivalries in world football. The match is known as The Eternal Derby.

Immediately following the war, the three biggest clubs from Zagreb (Građanski, Concordia & HAŠK) were also disbanded under the new regime, which decided that any club that had continued to compete during wartime would be made obsolete. A new club was formed under the name of Dinamo Zagreb and they, along with Hadjuk Split, would become Croatia’s biggest representatives in the new league programme.

The first champions of the new league system were Partizan, who also had the distinction of being part of the first ever European Cup match ever played in 1955, a 3 – 3 draw away to Sporting Lisbon. They were also the first Yugoslav club to reach the final of the competition, losing to Real Madrid in 1966.

Throughout the history of the Yugoslav First League, Red Star (19 titles) and Partizan (11 titles) were the dominant sides for much of its 46 year history. Dinamo Zagreb (7) and Hadjuk Split (4) had their share of the success, with only three other clubs lifting the title. FK Sarajevo and FK Vojvodina were twice crowned champions of the old Yugoslavia and there was a solitary victory, in 1972, for Željezničar Sarajevo.

The Break Up

Many believe that one of the things that escalated the war in Yugoslavia was an incident that occurred in May 1990, during the match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star. In the build-up prior to the match, there had been the usual pre-match tensions between rival supporters, but heightened by the recent multi-party elections which had seen overwhelming votes favouring Croatian independence.

Inside the ground, segregation did not stop the two sets of fans trying to get at each other and eventually the Zagreb fans spilled on to the pitch in pursuit of their rivals. Amidst the chaos, Dinamo captain Zvonomir Boban kicked a police officer who was attacking one of his club’s fans. Boban was thereafter seen as a national hero in the eyes of the Croatian public, although his actions earned him a six month suspension and effectively ended his chances of being selected for the World Cup that summer. To this day, this act is seen by many as the start of the Croatian War of Independence, although its seeds had been sown at the elections earlier that year.

The Yugoslav First League kept going for the whole of the 1990 – 91 season, which saw Red Star once again win the title and also claim the country’s first ever European Cup. Barely a month after this, Slovenia peacefully declared independence and Croatia did the same, although less harmoniously, later that year. Because both countries were midway through the process by the start of the 1991 – 92 campaign, all of their clubs withdrew from the SFR Yugoslavia and its league and cup competitions. This heralded the start of both the Croatian and Slovenian leagues.

Before the end of that campaign, Macedonia and then Bosnia & Herzegovina also declared independence from Yugoslavia. This meant that some of their clubs did not complete all of their league fixtures, so the final ever Yugoslav First League table looked a bit lopsided. Some clubs had played just 31 games, with Željezničar fulfilling just 17 before dropping out midway through the campaign.

The title was awarded to Red Star based on the points accumulated, although the ban on Yugoslavia that followed meant that they were not allowed entry into the European Cup.

By the start of the 1992 – 93 season, what had been a very strong league was now divided into five regions. Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia and Slovenia had all successfully declared independence, and set up their own leagues and national teams. What was left of the country was represented by the clubs of Serbia and Montenegro, in the newly established First League of Yugoslavia.

In 2006, Montenegro declared their own independence from Serbia, also setting up a national team and league programme of their own. Two years later Kosovo did exactly the same, although because their independence is disputed, they have thus far been denied entry into both FIFA and UEFA.

How it might have been different

There is no doubt that Red Star’s European Cup win in 1991 was the pinnacle of Yugoslavian football. The split that divided the country into so many different nations effectively put paid to any hopes of any Balkan club repeating that triumph.

Before the war, the Yugoslav First League was made up of the clubs that have now become the biggest in their respective leagues. From Croatia there is Dinamo Zagreb and Hadjuk Split, in Bosnia there is FK Sarajevo, Velež Mostar and Željezničar while Serbia has Red Star and Partizan. FK Vardar (Macedonia) and Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia) were regular patrons of the top flight of Yugoslavia, although the latter went bankrupt in 2004 and Maribor are now the dominant force in Slovenian football.

Today these leagues aren’t much different to most around Europe in the sense that it is usually the same two or three clubs that tend to dominate the table. This was also the case before the split, with the clubs from Serbia most definitely the dominant force in Yugoslavia, but at least there was competition in this league.

If Yugoslavia were still one country, the league would be stronger, no doubt about it, and they would probably have a bigger presence in the Champions League because the clubs would be able to hold onto the players they produce a little longer.

In the end, however, they would find themselves in the same situation as clubs from Holland, Portugal, Greece and Turkey – powerless when a big club from England, Italy or Spain came to prevent their stars from leaving. What might have happened, however, is that great players in their early thirties who are coming to the end of their best years may have chosen a Yugoslav club to wind down their careers. A good example of this would be Robin van Persie at Fenerbahce, and before him Gilberto Silva at Panathinaikos.

Yugoslavia split well before football became the money crazed game that we follow today, but even before 1991 their best players rarely played out their entire career there. This is probably best signified by the fact that only one former Yugoslav Player of the Year played his entire career in his home country; Ivan Gudelj, who retired at the age of 26 due to ill health. If they couldn’t keep hold of their best players back then, it’s impossible to imagine them being able to do it in today’s game.

What must be hard for the fans of these clubs to accept is how uncompetitive they have now become. Before their 1991 European Cup win, Red Star had previously been semi-finalists three times, and were runners-up in the 1979 UEFA Cup Final. Partizan were European Cup finalists in 1966. The European Cup Winners’ Cup had seen four Yugoslav clubs reach the semi-final stage – Red Star, Dinamo Zagreb, Hadjuk Split and OFK Belgrade. By any country’s standards that is a good record in European competition.

Since the Champions League was launched only one former Yugoslav team has made it past the group stage, Hadjuk Split in 1995. Dinamo (five times) and Partizan (twice) are the only others to even reach the group stage, and it is difficult to envisage this changing anytime soon. If they were still one country, that might be different and would earn them some much-needed extra revenue.

It is hard to imagine, however, that any players that would make up a national team would still be playing in their native country. Luka Modrić, Nemanja Vidić, Edin Džeko, Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandzukić are just a handful of the players that have emerged from the region in the last ten years and gone on to win trophies at major European clubs. This shows that the pool of talent from the countries that now make up the former Yugoslavia doesn’t seem to be in any danger of drying up. It also shows that their clubs cannot compete competitively or financially

While great clubs from less glamourous leagues such as Ajax, Benfica, Marseille and Porto still produce great players, clubs from England, Germany Italy and Spain continue to knock on their door with an open chequebook. Had the Yugoslav First League still been in operation today, their clubs would probably find themselves in the same position – but in a much more competitive environment, and probably a much more financially stable position.