Vraća se Beograd!

All photos taken by prizewinning photojournalist Stefan Stojanović. Visit his website & Instagram page for more of his work.

By Stefan Stojanovic

Don’t worry if you don’t understand the title. It will all be explained in due time. For now, just know that this is a story about Omladinski Fudbalski Klub Beograd, better known as OFK Beograd. A famous Serbian side that has produced many great players throughout its history, but has fallen on hard times in recent years. The situation was so dire, that even electricity and heating weren’t available for a while and the club was on the brink of extinction. However, there seems to be a glimmer of light at the end of this dark tunnel for the Romantics, as they are called in Serbia.

How it all began

Before we move to the present, we have to start at the beginning. OFK are considered to be the successor of Beogradski Sport Klub, or BSK, formed in 1911 and one of the oldest Serbian football teams. The club has had several name changes since then, which I won’t bore you with. The most important one came in 1957, when the club became OFK. Translated: Youth Football Club Belgrade. 

The glory years

OFK has had two very successful periods. The first was in the ‘30’s, when they were the dominant Yugoslav side as BSK, winning an impressive five titles. The second was a 20-year period, stretching from the early ‘50’s until the early ‘70’s. Four cup wins, two times runners-up in a very strong Yugoslav league and a Cup Winners Cup semi-final in 1963 against Tottenham Hotspur, who went on to win the cup. Some of OFK’s more prominent scalps were Juventus, Feyenoord, Napoli, Panathinaikos and the legendary Dukla Prague. After the glory came the sober years. The club got relegated and had to wait for the fall of Yugoslavia for their return to the highest level.

Known for developing youth

The break-up of Yugoslavia meant that the Serbo-Montenegrin teams remained, and OFK automatically became a top level side. Their best league finish came in 2010, when they ended third. OFK were a stable side, known for churning out youngsters for the nation’s youth teams and even some renowned senior internationals. Think of the likes of Branislav Ivanović, later on Chelsea and Aleksandar Kolarov, later Manchester City. 

The end of an era

In 2015/16 the club finally ran out of steam. In a season that lasted 37 games, OFK only managed to win nine of them and subsequently got relegated for the first time in 18 years. Many expected the club to bounce back as quickly as they had fallen, but things were about to get much worse. Their season in the Serbian first division would become the worst in the club’s storied history. Just three wins out of 30 league games, and so they finished last and got relegated for the second time in a row.

“After the second relegation, a truly dark era commenced. OFK officially became an amateur side and there was no money left. Not even for the basics, like electricity and heating. The players were forced to change in cold and dark dressing rooms, while the board did everything they could not to let the club fold.”

Financial woes

How could this have all happened, you ask? Well, for one, you have to understand the intricacies of Serbian football and how corruption plays a huge role in it. Transfer money disappears, there are many reports of fixed games and a host of unsavoury individuals surrounding the Serbian football teams. Long story short, OFK got into financial trouble because of such people. Too much debt, for such a small team, and the money that was brought in through transfers seemed to have vanished into thin air. To this day, the guilty parties have not been brought to justice, and they probably won’t be, ever. 

The dark ages

After the second relegation, a truly dark era commenced. OFK officially became an amateur side and there was no money left. Not even for the basics, like electricity and heating. The players were forced to change in cold and dark dressing rooms, while the board did everything they could not to let the club fold. Every day was a new struggle, and they held on by the skin of their teeth. Since then, the years have passed and OFK are now in their fifth season in the Serbian second division. Four of those seasons were forgettable, but this current one is different.

Fresh wind

It started with the elections for a new chairman at the end of 2020. Former OFK goalkeeper, Saša Stevanović, backed by the club’s veterans, fans and members of ‘the friends of OFK’, won the election with an impressive 22 out of 23 possible votes. Stevanović and company have since brought back some life to the club. Capable coaches were appointed, player recruitment was kicked up a notch or two, and the entire atmosphere within the club has changed for the better. So much so, that OFK are now in first place, after half a season. They have a four point lead over local rivals, FK Zemun. It’s not just results though, they are actually playing good football and all of this is backed by the club’s slogan: Vraća se Beograd, or ‘Belgrade is coming back’.

Long road ahead

It’s not all rosy, however. The manager, who led OFK to first place so far, has quit at the start of the winter break. Apparently he and the board didn’t see eye to eye when it came to further player recruitment. The stadium is in terrible shape and has several tribunes that could collapse. The financial situation is still dire and will probably stay that way until they bring forth some big talents on professional contracts. But that’s another issue altogether. The once famed OFK youth academy has been reduced to mediocrity, and it will take time to rebuild it.

“It’s not just results however, they are actually playing good football and all of it is backed by the club’s slogan: Vraća se Beograd!”

Promise of better days

For now, however, OFK have to concentrate on holding on to that first spot. They brought in seven players during the winter break, and the new manager will certainly need time to get his ideas across and to integrate the new signings. Chances are it will be a rocky ride, but the end goal is the most important thing here, and that’s getting OFK back where they belong. Hopefully within a few years we’ll be watching the Romantics play against Partizan and Red Star, with some talented youngsters to watch out for.

Related Articles