Sixteen years ago, FK Obilić Belgrade became national champions of Serbia. Quite a remarkable feat when you consider it was their first ever season in the top flight, and the only time that the title has been held by a club other than Red Star or Partizan since the break-up of Yugoslavia. They remained amongst the country’s elite until their relegation in 2006, which was the start of the kind of tail-spin the poorly run clubs in Britain have got nothing on. After suffering another five more relegations over the six seasons that followed, a team that drew 1-1 with eventual finalists Bayern Munich in the 1998/99 Champions League qualifiers, now reside in Serbia’s seventh tier.
On the night of 15 May 1998, a 1-1 draw at Proleter was enough to seal the FR Yugoslavia (the state made up of Serbia and Montenegro) title over Red Star Belgrade, who stumbled to defeat at lowly Železnik. Obilić finished two points clear of their more illustrious neighbours, losing only one game in the process. They also reached that year’s cup final, losing out to Partizan Belgrade. Their instrumental midfielder Nenad Grozdić, who went on to earn eleven caps for FR Yugoslavia, felt that the key to their success was down to the club’s president Željko Ražnatović. “He has given us a winning mentality”. In truth what he gave the club was something much more sinister.
Arkan, as he’s more infamously known, was a savage paramilitary leader who cut a gory swathe through the Western Balkans in the early 90s when he founded and commanded the Serbian Volunteer Guard. Arkan’s Tigers, as they became known, were notorious for their part in the ethnic cleansing of the non-Serb population of parts of Croatia and Bosnia. Masquerading behind ideas of a greater Serbia, grand-scale looting was also common practice. The black market was big business in Serbia as a result of the UN sanctions imposed on the nation, and Arkan was head honcho. He became one of the richest people in the country. His much darker involvement in the wars led to him being indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1997 for, amongst other things, genocide.
To bring about this so-called winning mentality Arkan instilled a military discipline into the Obilić squad and claimed his players were the highest paid in the country, but in a land of riddle and deceit, that wasn’t the whole picture. His reputation alone was enough to see to it that opposition players didn’t give their all against his team, and if there was any confusion on their part, threats were made. It’s widely reported that he personally threatened to shoot a rival striker in the kneecaps if he scored, and another player claimed to be locked inside a garage when his team faced Obilić. There were even rumours of the away dressing rooms being gassed before games, a story that’s hard to believe but something Red Star took seriously enough to get changed on their team bus. They also avoided the facilities at half-time amid tales of Arkan’s tailored team talks for away teams. The once European Champions took to urinating pitch-side rather than head down the tunnel at Obilić Stadium.
Not that the atmosphere in the stadium was any friendlier. The majority of the crowd was made up of war veterans from The Tigers, many of them armed, singing catchy chants such as “we’ll break both your legs, you’ll walk on your hands” and “if you score, you’ll never walk out of the stadium alive.” The Tigers would also escort referees to matches, making suggestions as to how things should pan out. During the following season, Red Star forward Perica Ognjenović, who had played at France 98, complained “this is not soccer, this is war. I think I’d better leave this country.” He joined Real Madrid in 1999.
During the 70s and 80s Arkan was on Interpol’s radar due to his prolific record as a bank robber throughout Western Europe. He spent time behind bars in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, but each time managed to escape. He developed an almost mythical reputation as a result, culminating in a truly audacious act. After he and two associates had performed a heist on a Stockholm bank, one was captured by the police. Arkan and the remaining other, in spite of being in possession of all the day’s plunder, went in rescue of their accomplice. Six days after the job they caught news of the trial at the city’s court house. Dressed to the nines and armed with revolvers, the two men stormed Stockholms Rådhus. When the ensuing gun-fight was done, the three were driving free through the busy morning traffic after escaping out of a smashed window, and jumping down a seventeen foot drop. Not long after that it’s alleged Yugoslavia’s secret police, the UDBA, started employing Arkan as an assassin. He returned to Belgrade in the mid-80s and ran the criminal underworld with impunity thanks largely to these links.
He had originally tried to buy Red Star Belgrade, but his offer was flat-out refused by the great Dragan Džajić, the club’s record goal scorer, appearance holder, and president. Arkan had previous ties with Red Star when both state and club officials had seen to it to put him in charge of the Supporters’ Club amid fears that some fan groups were beginning to lean towards anti-government ideals. He brought all the groups together under one umbrella and trained them like an army. The Delije, or ‘hardmen’, would go on to be the beginning of The Tigers, and judging by these comments he made to a reporter, that was always the plan. “We trained fans without weapons. I insisted on discipline from the very beginning. You know our fans; they're noisy, they like to drink, to joke about. I stopped all that in one go. I made them cut their hair, shave regularly, not drink. And so it began.” Arkan and his new army were active participants in the riot at Maksimir Stadium in Croatia in May 1990 when they clashed with Dinamo Zagreb supporters. The event is seen by some as the start of the war, and by all as the beginning of the end for the once mighty Yugoslav First League.
After Džajić’s rebuff he turned his attention to FC Pristina in Kosovo, then a region of Serbia, and forever the cultural centre-piece to Serbian nationalism. His first act as owner was to sack all the players of Albanian ethnicity (Kosovo has an ethnic Albanian majority, a fact that would lead to the outbreak of war there in 1998 and the state’s declaration of independence ten years later). The team, who during the 80s had enjoyed a spell playing at the highest level in Yugoslavia, struggled as a result of his antagonistic meddling, so he discarded them like a broken toy, feeling more akin to Obilić Belgrade and their historic name.
The story goes that Miloš Obilić was a knight to the service of Prince Lazar, a medieval ruler. He fought in the Serb’s tragic Battle of Kosovo against the Ottoman Empire in 1389, a defeat that lost them their country for five hundred years. Folklore portrays him as the hero who killed Sultan Murad I, but the history books aren’t so sure. Serbian nationalism is rooted in the idea that they are the eternal victim because of an offer Lazar was made when visited by an angel of God on the eve of the battle. He was given the choice of either an earthly, or an eternal heavenly kingdom. Victory or defeat. Serbs see themselves as a ‘heavenly people’ since that defeat at Kosovo. Arkan saw himself as a modern-day Miloš Obilić.
He took over in June 1996, and changed the kit colour to yellow as a tribute to The Tigers. They were promoted after his first season, and national champions by the end of his second. By summer 1998, UEFA were suspicious. They banned Obilić from European competition for their debut Champions League season, so Arkan resigned as President and appointed his wife, Turbo-Folk singer Svetlana ‘Ceca’ Ražnatović, as his puppet. That proved enough to satisfy the ever diligent UEFA, and even quite possibly saved UEFA President Lennart Johansson’s life. In 2008 it was reported by a Serbian television company that remarkably Arkan, so incensed by the ban, sent a hit-squad to Vienna to kill the European football boss but a suitable opportunity never arose. “There's nothing you can do when somebody who has the wrong mind wants to kill you. Of course you get afraid. Of course you get upset, but what can you do because somebody has the intention?“ the Swede told the TV channel.
After the club were reinstated in the competition he cooled on the idea, and Obilić were allowed to dispose of Iceland’s ÍBV in the first qualifying phase. They met their match in Bayern Munich in the next round, and the second leg draw they achieved was a trivial footnote to a 4-0 reverse suffered in Bavaria. They’d come far enough however to receive passage to the first round proper of the UEFA Cup, and again they got to pit their wits against another of Europe’s elite, losing 3-0 on aggregate to Atlético Madrid.
Attitudes at home were starting to grow tired by this point too. Arkan’s old adversary Dragan Džajić wasn’t happy at suggestions that Obilić had an arrangement with Red Star’s bitter rivals Partizan the season before. There was some cynicism about the fact Obilić had beaten an impotent Partizan side who failed to register a single shot on goal, effectively costing Red Star the title. In return Obilić appeared to offer very little fight in their cup final defeat. In spite of all the suspicions, they were again allowed to make claims for the championship in 1999, and were undefeated with ten matches remaining when the season was abandoned due to the NATO airstrikes on the country as punishment for their actions in Kosovo. Partizan stood two points clear at the top of the league, and thus the title returned to more familiar hands.
Arkan was assassinated on 15 January 2000 in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel. The background of why still remains a mystery, but speculation suggests he was a man who knew too much as the ICTY tightened its net on war-time President Slobodan Milošević. At the time of his death the club were again at the summit of the Serbian league after just one defeat in their opening twenty games, but the intimidation factor died with him. Ceca inherited the club and a less ferocious Obilić slipped to a third place finish. One more third and a fourth place finish followed in the years to come, as well as a couple of cup semi-final appearances, but Obilić’s days philandering with the elite were done.
Ceca spent time under house arrest in 2011 for the embezzlement of 2.2million euros of the club’s transfer income, with the highest profile case being the sale of FR Yugoslavia international Nikola Lazetić to Fenerbahçe in June 2000. However, his arrival at Obilić 18 months previous was an even greater scandal. Unofficial police information claims Lazetić was kidnapped by gangsters from his club FK Vojvodina, bundled into the boot of a car, taken to Arkan, and forced into signing for Obilić. Even today, the player chooses not to comment on the reports.
Nowadays Obilić are nothing more than a youthful squad of unpaid players who act as the whipping boys of Belgrade’s regional leagues. Even their first promotion in sixteen years in 2013 offered little respite, with the sixth division again fairing too competitive for them. Next season they’ll once again find themselves back in Serbia’s seventh tier. It seems to matter little though to the hundred or so hardy fans that still turn out to watch them, and talk fondly of the time they were owned by Serbia’s most controversial national hero.
To read more from Tom you can follow him on Twitter here