Could an Adriatic League ever work in the former Yugoslavia?

Updated: December 9, 2013
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Photo: Reuters

The last decade of the Twentieth century saw Yugoslavia rip itself apart in an orgy of violence and brutality. Ethnic tensions bound together through Marshall Tito’s Brotherhood and Unity policy were cast aside as the various republics which made up the Yugoslav nation began to pursue their own nationalist agendas.

Slovenia achieved their independence following a short war, but if Croatia and Bosnia felt that their path to independence was to be achieved with the same relative ease they were very much mistaken. Both countries had significant Serb populations who wished to create a greater Serbia and the Yugoslav National Army fought to keep a Serb dominated Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing, mass executions and enforced movements of refugees were a familiar scene on television screens until 1995 when the Dayton Accord brought relative peace to the region.

The break up of Yugoslavia also of course meant that its football infrastructure was broken up too. Internationally the country had something of a reputation as talented underachievers but in the early 90’s they had a group of players who it was felt could move up to the next level. Yugoslavia had won the 1987 World Youth Cup in Chile and they had given a good account of themselves at Italia 90, losing on penalties to Argentina in the quarter finals having played for 89 minutes with ten men.

In 1991 Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup, UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. It was felt that Yugoslavia had a golden generation of footballers ready to take the national team to the next level, though the subsequent wars and break up of the country saw that the potential was never to be realised.

The Yugoslav domestic league was in quite a strong position at the point when it was dissolved and historically could boast clubs of the stature of Partizan and Red Star Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, Hadjuk Split and FK Sarajevo. However with independence came new FA infrastructures for each of the republics (though Serbia and Montenegro maintained a co-existence firstly as Yugoslavia and then Serbia and Montenegro)

In the short term the newly established football leagues were held up by each of the former republics as proud national symbols, indeed football played a significant part in the dissolution of the country so it was only natural that new leagues were something to be genuinely enthused about. Each state had control of its own footballing affairs and had easier paths into European competition now they weren’t competing with a greater pool of competition.

However the lack of competition also began to hit some clubs hard. Teams from the smaller republics used to be able to see home fixtures against the larger clubs as an instant injection of cash brought by an increase in attendance for that fixture. Olimpija Ljubljana from Slovenia were a prime example of suffering from a new national set up. Having been regular members of the top flight in the previous Yugoslavian league structure without ever finishing higher than seventh, they were at least guaranteed regular home fixtures against the bigger Serbian and Croatian clubs.

Upon independence they suddenly found themselves as the biggest club in Slovenian football and playing some fixtures against teams that were from places which could only be described at best as villages. They won the first four titles in the Slovenian league, the domestic cup twice and had regular entry to the qualifying rounds of European football, yet in 2004 the club folded with debts of 3 million Euros.

Traditional rivalries from the old Yugoslav league had also been instantly dissolved. There would be no more Red Star v Dinamo Zagreb which was arguably the greatest and most fiercely contested fixture in the league. Instead Dinamo’s greatest rivals were now Hadjuk with whom they had previously had a fairly cordial relationship but relations now had begun to deteriorate as the two were the biggest clubs in the Croatian league. There were some though who felt that the rivalry was contrived and not as genuine as the one built up over decades between Dinamo and Red Star

Is it time therefore to seriously consider the feasibility of an Adriatic league for the former Yugoslav clubs? There exists a successful Adriatic league for Basketball. It began in 2001 with clubs from Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and one from the Former Yugoslavia (a Montenegrin club).

There were no Serb teams in the inaugural season; it was felt that there would be significant security issues in matches between Serb and Croat teams, though the first one appeared in the second season. The league now has fourteen teams including one from Hungary (there has previously been an Israeli team too). There are seven official media broadcasters and four major sponsors including Adidas and Kia Motors.

The idea has been broached with FIFA and its supporters point to the advantages that they believe an Adriatic league would bring. Primarily it would aid the gradual integration of communities who less than 20 years ago were at war. Competition between clubs would increase, thus avoiding the fate that befell Olimpija Ljubljana. An increase in the size of a clubs market would attract investment in the form of broadcasting and sponsorship. Finally, an increase in competition and quality would lead to greater progression in European competition for any clubs who would qualify from the league.

A big difference from the Adriatic basketball set up is the system of promotion and relegation. The basketball teams in the Adriatic League are franchise based so there is no promotion or relegation, could this feasibly work with football? One proposal in 2007 was an 18 team top flight with 6 lower tiers each from each republic feeding into the top tier and two teams being relegated. The main issue with that is if the teams from one particular republic are poor there could be no top tier representation from that republic. There though could be a natural progression whereby teams from the smaller republics constantly lose out to those which are bigger and there could be a top flight without representation from a particular state

Another obvious issue is security. There are those who believe that the war in Croatia began when a riot occurred as Red Star and Dinamo fans clashed at Dinamo’s Maksimir stadium in 1990. With former republics having their own leagues the rancour between fans has cooled. The World Cup qualification fixture earlier this year between Croatia and Serbia was seen largely as a security success. Though away fans were banned from both teams home legs and 7000 police guarded the Croat fans in their Maksimir stadium, the general consensus was that despite some ethnic chants both matches passed by with relative ease. This therefore leads to the question of whether tensions between the nations which made up the Former Yugoslavia have cooled enough for regular fixtures to take place.

So could the possibility of an Adriatic League be a practicality? There are those who believe that football clubs would benefit from the improved profile and financial injection that a league would give. The litmus test however would be whether the region has moved on enough for different ethnic groups to face each other on an almost weekly basis. It is less than 20 years ago since civilians were herded into football grounds by rival ethnic factions and were executed, can those same groups be prepared to face each other in similar settings and play football?

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