Monday, 7 November 2011

FK Željezničar 1, FK Sarajevo 0

The calm before the storm. Grbavica stadium before kick-off

Oddly, it's warmer now in Sarajevo than it was in October, when I first came here. The weekend was clear, sunny, and calm, and it is still tolerably warm even when the sun has gone done. Which was useful, as Saturday's derby match between bitter Sarajevo rivals Željezničar and FK Sarajevo, at "Željo"'s home ground, Grbavica, didn't kick off until five in the evening, with daylight a recent memory.

This, after the Partizan-Red Star rivalry in Belgrade, and maybe the Dinamo Zagreb-Hajduk Split game in Croatia, is probably the biggest derby anywhere in the Balkans. "Željo" are the older of the two teams, founded in 1921, and probably have the biggest support of any team in the country. They are a railway workers' team (Željezničar literally means "railway workers") and their blue shirt derives from the colour of a railwayman's uniform. Their opponents, FK Sarajevo, were founded just after world war two and have had a similar amount of success as their old foes in a shorter period of time. They play in maroon, so given my long experience of derby matches between teams in blue and maroon (Montrose v Arbroath), I quickly found myself rooting for Željo. These two sides, together with the "Red Army" of Velez Mostar, are the three biggest and best established clubs in BiH. At kick off, Željo lay second in the league table, just ahead of their city rivals, who lay third with an inferior goal difference.

Thunderflash smoke hangs over the Željo end
There the comparisons with the Angus derby end, though. A good crowd for a Montrose-Arbroath game is 1,500 these days; twelve thousand were packed into this rather bitty little stadium for the match, and generated quite an unbelievable atmosphere. It's meant to be a friendly rivalry this, more Liverpool-Everton than Rangers-Celtic, though apparently in recent times some young nuggets on both sides have been desperately trying to act out Green Street. As a result, the ground was ringed with Robocops in full riot gear, together with barking Alsatians, and with truncheons and pistols on prominent display. It was a show of force, as inside the ground they refused to be provoked by a seemingly endless stream of thunderflashes, echoing with a loud bang, fireworks and bog roll being thrown onto the pitch. On more than one occasion the referee had to stop the game and ask that smouldering fireworks be removed from the pitch, presumably so that the players could actually see through the thick clouds of smoke, that hung over the arena like a dead jellyfish on the surface of the sea. The astonishing noise and display was much more worthy of the 10 mark entrance fee (£4.70) than the actual game itself.

Željo try and mount an attack early in the game
Grbavica is a strange, quite unique ground. Like many former Communist stadia the playing surface is a giant, open bowl; the main stands (visible in the picture above) are small, hole and corner affairs. The lungs of the ground are the singing terraces at either end; Željo's fans gather on an open terrace at the North End of the ground, which was absolutely rammed full, and also take part of the Southern stand, which is the only modern part of the ground; Sarajevo's fans, as the away team, were penned into the opposite corner of this structure. There was also the dramatic jagged outline of the mountain behind the goal to look at, with a minaret, lit up for the coming festival of Eid, prominent.

Crowds are rather different here. In an Angus derby, there is of course lots of singing, but it is spontaneous and largely dependent on the (usually large) quantities of alcohol imbibed before hand. The singing is broken up by absolutely murderous abuse directed at opposition players, and vitriolic character assassinations of the match officials, usually involving unflattering comparisons with traffic wardens, blind men and cuckolds. In this derby, there is very little abuse of opponents, and the singing is much more orchestrated; a gigantic chorus, spurred on by two or three bellowing alpha males, continues unabated throughout the game, regardless of what's actually happening on the pitch. The only time the singing actually stops is when there is an attempt at goal, paradoxically.

Overall, it was a poor spectacle on the park. Derby games of course are notorious for being nervous, error-ridden, scrappy affairs and this was a very good example of the genre. Sarajevo had a couple of early chances, forcing the Željo keeper to save smartly on one occasion, the other being hit wide of the post. The home team seemed consumed with the occasion and struggled to string two passes together for the first fifteen minutes. However, as the game wore on, the roles reversed; Sarajevo began to really struggle, particularly in midfield, whereas Željo found some sort of rhythm. The game's only goal arrived just after the half hour, when a retreating Sarajevo defender, under pressure from an opponent, turned a cross high into the net past his own goalkeeper.

Željo's fans celebrate their team's goal. Good grief. Such displays in the UK would be met with an instant declaration of martial law.
The North terrace immediately erupted in an absolute frenzy. A gigantic roar pummeled the ears. A massive red flare was immediately sparked in the South stand, causing punters to scramble away from the thick, choking white smoke that billowed upwards. To the north, the terrace lit up like the warning lights on a Lada's dashboard. From one end to the other, brilliant yellow and red flares popped up, with the silhouettes of fans dancing and jumping about dementedly in their light, like a dubstep video on a youtube. Smoke rifted across the ground and it wasn't possible to see the goal at the far end for a good few minutes. Sarajevo's fans answered the gloating of their rivals with non stop chanting that lasted until half-time. Some cretin amongst the Sarajevo fans set fire to a Željo scarf, producing another dense cloud of white smoke, and was met with armour-piercing stares from the gathered riot cops.

In the second half, Željo largely dominated, mounting wave after inconclusive wave of attack on the Sarajevo goal. Sarajevo were reduced to the odd hit and run raid on the Željo goal, and utterly lacked penetration; their two forwards looked as menacing as the infamous non-scoring Graeme Sharp-Andy Gray Scotland front line c. 1986. Eventually, Željo were awarded a penalty after one of the maroon centre halfs clumsily entangled with a forward right under the referee's nose, and was red-carded for his pains. However, Sarajevo goalkeeper Adi Adolivić, whose brother Eldin plays in midfield for Željo, made a terrific save low to his right, and the score stayed the same. The Sarajevo fans celebrated their reprieve with a ferocious cannonade of thunderflashes and fireworks, some of which landed alarmingly close to the police contingent.

In the last ten minutes, the game rather petered out. Sarajevo clearly could have played until 6.30 on Sunday and not scored; Željo had done enough. At the final whistle, an enormous roar once again echoed around the ground as the players celebrated with the home fans, and the defeated maroon hordes scuttled for the exits (with a cheery "See you later Bitches" from the Željo fans echoing in their ears). All told, this was a pretty poor game with no real individual standing out from either team, though it wouldn't surprise me if both Adilovićs moved onto bigger things in the next few years. Overall, the standard of the match was maybe the same as something like St. Mirren against Dunfermline in the lower reaches of the SPL. The atmosphere, however, was crackling and I'll remember that long after the details of this scrappy affair have slipped my mind.

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