The south of Serbia, with its rich and complicated past, is something of a historical and political melting pot. Niš, the region’s most populous city, is no different. Over the years, the city bore witness to the coming and going of a multitude of would-be conquerors, each of whom recognised the city’s importance as a gateway between East and West, a metaphorical confluence of cultures, ideologies, and nations. Consequently, Niš has long been possessed of a certain flexibility of nature, an ability to seamlessly adjust to the incursion of a previously unfamiliar authority. This year, the city’s illustrious football club, Radnički, has been obliged to exhibit a similarly acquiescent character.
Since their foundation in 1923, Radnički have been closely associated with socialism and the labour movement in Yugoslavia and later Serbia. Indeed, the very name of the club translates directly as ’workers’ or ’labourers.’ Fans of Radnički, known as Meraklije, are noted for their anti-fascist outlook, something which often contrasts with the more right-wing approach taken by other Serbian supporters’ groups. One of the club’s most prominent founders, Miloš Marković, was an active communist agitator.
Radnički boast an emblematic standing within Niš, itself a city which has, in the past at least, leaned more towards the left than the right. It is largely as a result of the impact of World War II that the socialist legacy became so prominent in Niš. During the war, Yugoslavia’s first concentration camp was built by the Nazis in the Crveni Krst neighbourhood. Thousands were imprisoned in the camp, whilst more than 10,000 were executed in the nearby Bubanj forest. Subsequently liberated by communist Partisans and the Soviet Red Army in 1945, Niš maintained its status as an avowedly left-wing town until relatively recently.
Now, both the city and its iconic football club have fallen under the auspices of the Srpska napredna stranka (Serbian Progressive Party), the conservative, right-wing ruling party of Serbia. The SNS are a spin-off of the Serbian Radical Party, the leader of which, Vojislav Šešelj, is currently on trial in The Hague, accused of war crimes.
In the aftermath of severe financial difficulties threatening the very existence of Radnički, the SNS stepped forward in an attempt to prevent the disappearance of the club. Zoran Perišić, the mayor of Niš and a member of the SNS, announced the party’s intention to lead Radnički toward fiscal stability. In order to do so, Perišić installed Darko Bulatović – an SNS politician currently president of the Crveni Krst municipality – as the new Radnički supremo. As president of the club, the latter will work alongside a newly-ensconced host of similarly-inclined directors.
One of those appointed to the Radnički board by Perišić is Dragan Milenković. Coincidentally, Milenković is the owner of the construction firm responsible for the renovation of the Čair Stadium, the club’s fifty-year-old home patch. A prime contributor to Radnički’s debt accumulation was the cost of overhauling the Čair. Estimates state that the project cost almost ten million pounds, an astonishing sum given the economic status of the club. The Serbian FA and the city of Niš are said to have borne some of the burden.
The outgoing chairman of the board, Slavoljub Vlajković, also happens to be local leader of the Socijalistička partija Srbije (Socialist Party of Serbia). Vlajković and others presided over an era in which Radnički were left struggling against an onrushing tide of debt, poor performance, and player unrest. From 2003 to 2012, the team nicknamed the Real from Niš were conspicuous by their absence from Serbia’s top tier. Following promotion to the Super Liga last year, though, things seemed to be looking up. A new stadium was planned, and a squad full of locally-born talent had conquered the second level in some style.
Unfortunately, Radnički’s return to the foremost division in Serbia was marked by instability and strife. Wandering listlessly towards the brink, Radnički teetered on the edge. Without intervention, they may have simply tumbled into the abyss. Having not been paid for five months, players at the club made a public plea for help. Claiming that many of their number had not been presented with contracts, and were even expected to wash their own equipment, Radnički’s footballers appealed for change:
“We’re relying on the support of the public and all those who hold Radnički in their heart; otherwise, the future of the club is very dark.”
Upon inspection, it appears that the club’s debt could be as large as 60 million RSD – about 450,000 British pounds. Though this may not seem particularly astronomic in comparison with the dues owed by Europe’s biggest names, such a figure needs to be put into perspective; the average monthly wage in Serbia is below £300.
Financial mismanagement is a common theme in Serbia. Radnički were just one more victim of unrealistic ambition and fiscal chicanery. The price paid by Niš’s sporting icon, however, was more than just monetary in nature. With the installation of the SNS men in the directors’ box, Radnički’s long-standing identity is under threat. Ultimately, Radnički and the Meraklije have become symbols of a fallen ideology, adopted by those in the vanguard of its opposing creed. Right-wing conservatives have made themselves the saviours of one of the few remaining emblems of the country’s socialist past.
Follow Luke on Twitter @HeavyFirstTouch.