“We cannot go back. We all have our countries and we all want to be winners and have our teams play in Europe,” says Davor Suker, head of the Croatian FA, when he was asked about the reformation of a united Balkan league encompassing all of the former Yugoslavian countries.
The idea of a united Balkan league is not a new one. At a conference in July 2007 delegates from Slovenia, Romania, Russia and Serbia discussed the practicalities of a Central and Eastern European league and the lower league structure by which it would be underpinned by. The now disgraced Michel Platini has also been open to the idea, as he feels that such a structure could reduce the gap between the Western European elite and their eastern counterparts:
“I support this idea. Money is a key reason for it; the national leagues see the financial opportunities in it. The arguments support this idea, still the national football associations must decide about it”.
His predecessor, Lennart Johansson, was very much against the idea.
The resurgence in Balkan teams at national level has also reignited the Balkan League debate. Bosnia & Herzegovina made their World Cup debut at the last tournament and also managed to reach the playoff stage for Euro 2016, as did Slovenia. Croatia and Albania went one better and qualified for the tournament outright.
The rise of Balkan international teams could raise hopes for those who think Kosovo should have full UEFA membership. With such a diaspora of players eligible to play for Kosovo already evident but playing for other national teams - Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri being the most obvious examples - they have huge potential should they be given full recognition.
Those in favour of a combined league point to precedents both in European football and also other sports. The Royal League was a shortlived Scandinavian football tournament held between 2004 and 2007, and featuring clubs from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The tournament, though it attracted major Scandinavian teams such as Brondby, FC Copenhagen and IFK Gothenburg, was cancelled in the 2007/08 season due to high financial costs and unsold TV rights.
One of the many suggestions made in the aftermath of the tournament’s cancellation was that the offering of a Champions League place to the winner of the tournament would have sustained the interest of clubs, fans and TV companies. Any future Balkan League would have to establish how to distribute any Champions League places in order to be commercially viable.
Other sports, most notably basketball, have successfully implemented their own regional leagues. Basketball had a successful pedigree within the Former Yugoslavia with teams from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia all winning European championships at various points. The decision to reunite as one basketball league within the Former Yugoslavia was taken by the clubs themselves rather than imposed from above by sporting associations or political entities.
There was a recognition that clubs would be stronger as a collective rather than a series of individual associations. The name for the new format was the “Adriatic League”, less incendiary perhaps than “Balkan League”. The league met with predictably mixed reactions but is still in existence.
Could football feasibly follow the precedent set by basketball or would the obvious security issues be too much for a regional league to bear? Bosnian journalist Sasa Ibrulj feels that the league’s structured should be established any potential security issues are looked at. There is a case for including teams from elsewhere in Eastern Europe, not just the Former Yugoslavia. This leads to other questions about whether such a league would improve the fortunes of the richer clubs in the region. Ibrulj has concerns that, “This league would improve the situation for the biggest clubs in the region, but would be a huge blow for some old football centres that have no money or infrastructure to cope.”
One answer to this could be that each participating country has its own league further down the pyramid. Promoted teams from each of these tiers then go on to compete in the regional league. Each individual current league forfeits their current Champions League place straight to the regional league, though Ibrulj feels UEFA would not find this acceptable.
This would ensure greater competition within the top division and also keeps a widespread representation of countries within the top tier. There would be greater interest from fans across a wider area, increase the league’s competitiveness and also maintain the commitment of TV companies and the revenue that they bring.
The security questions could also be answered by the league’s exposure to television. As the league increases its popularity across the region it could also spread to Western Europe too. Balkan expatriate communities in Germany and Switzerland, for example, would likely take an interest. As BT Sport and Sky try to grab as many European leagues as possible in their quest for dominance of the UK airwaves, there could be a market for a Balkan League there too.
The better together ideal could further be strengthened by the inclusion of Greek teams. The introduction of teams such as Olympiacos and Panathinaikos would provide the Greek giants with some much needed stability as well as adding some weight to the strength of a Balkan league. Ibrulj, however, doesn’t believe that the question of geographical scope is one that can be answered at this point.
In his thesis ‘Football After Yugoslavia’ Shay Wood wrote that those wanting a regional league have often been accused of having a “Yugo-nostalgia”. They’re living in the past and not just in a footballing sense, but a cultural and political one too. Those who talk about aspects of Yugoslavian life before the break-up can be easily be beaten with the Yugo-nostalgic stick by those who wish to push for progress in their own state. Yet, in a footballing sense, it is obvious that football within the region was stronger under a federal state.
But the security concerns can’t be ignored. Violence has been a problem both in federal and post-war Yugoslavia, and ethnic tensions have been played out on the football pitch. Critics of a Balkan League point to the seemingly interwoven threads of football and ethnic violence.
Of course, there is also the presence of ultra groups such as Dinamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys and Red Star’s Delije, who need no excuse to renew hostilities. Igor Stimac and Sinisa Mihajlovic managed to negotiate a tricky fixture between Croatia and Serbia in the not-so recent past; would it be too naïve to believe that clubs such as Red Star and Dinamo playing each other more often would negate the uniqueness of these fixtures and bring about a normality, leading to less of a need for fans to express any nationalist sentiment?
A Balkan League would have advantages. There would undoubtedly be an appetite for certain fixtures. Even those against a unified league would be hard-pressed to say that they wouldn’t want to see clubs such as Dinamo and Red Star play each other on a regular basis. There would be interest from both within the Balkans and further afield, so TV companies would bring a welcome cash injection to clubs, easing the need for them to sell their most talented players and, theoretically, improving their Champions League prospects.
The ultimate truth is that, however much groups and individuals may dislike each other, clubs need to succeed at a European level and they may very well need each other.
Follow Chris on Twitter @carmband