The final whistle blew at the Karaburma Stadium, on 29th May 2011, bringing the season to a close for OFK Beograd and Čukarički. The game in itself lacked any real meaning for either side as OFK finished the season midtable and Čukarički had long known their fate, having been relegated long before the final round of fixtures. The result was a 4-0 win for the hosts OFK and the only significance of this fixture was that it emphasised how dreadful a campaign Čukarički had. They ended the 2010/11 Jelen Superliga season with a dismal 5 points, achieving that tally without winning a league fixture all season (their column in the league table read 0 wins, 5 draws, 25 losses, 10 goals scored and 65 goals conceded) and to put things into further perspective, they ended up 21 points behind the nearest team. This record breaking points tally confirmed their season as the worst in the history of the Serbian top flight*.
Fast forward to May of this year and Čukarički are making their debut appearance in the Serbian Cup Final against the league champions Partizan. Prior to a ball being kicked, the 2014/15 season had been a very successful one as Čukarički finished 3rd in the league, which guaranteed them a Europa League qualification berth, and making an appearance in the Cup final for the first time in the club’s history was a mere bonus. Their players clearly thought otherwise. Čukarički work rate and quality in the final third, coupled with their outstanding defensive effort, ended up paying dividends as Čukarički pulled off the upset to beat Partizan 1-0 with a lovely goal from Slavoljub Srnić to cap off a remarkable season and secure the first trophy in Čukarički’s history.
So, how did a club go from the worst team in Serbian history one of the most exciting team’s in the league that had just outplayed the best team in the country? In a word: privatisation.
Čukarički are a modest club that was founded in 1926 and they are based in the south west of Belgrade, in the nice suburban area of Banovo Brdo, and their support is largely based off of locals in this area in Belgrade. Since their first promotion to the Serbian top flight in 1995, they have been the definition of a ‘yo-yo’ club and have never really been able to solidify their status as a mainstay within the Serbian top flight. In fact, aside from a couple of brief skirmishes in European competition - in the then Intertoto Cup- in successive years in the late 1990s, Čukarički’s notable contribution to domestic football was the development of three Serbian internationals: former Dynamo Kiev and Partizan defender Goran Gavrančić, former Dynamo Kiev, Evian and Red Star midfielder Milos Ninković and, their most well known and greatest academy product, Manchester City’s current left back Aleksandar Kolarov.
After their historically bad season, things continued to go downhill for Čukarički in Serbia’s second tier both on the pitch and off of it. Instant promotion back to the Superliga was looking like a mere pipe dream as the team in a poor run of form and on the 18th November 2011, Čukarički were declared bankrupt having racked up an astonishing debt of around 1.3 bn Serbian dinars (approximately €10.8m or £7.6m). The team’s severe underperformance in the league – they were hovering around the relegation zone for the most of the season – had now taken a back seat to the grave realisation that Čukarički could cease to exist as a football entity by the end of the campaign, should their board be unable to find a solution to this issue. There was to be light at the end of the tunnel. On the 17th April 2012, Dragan Obradović – the owner of a Serbian firm ADOC – purchased the club through his firm for 10.3m Serbian dinars (approx. €93,000) and thus, Čukarički officially became the first - and at this moment in time, only - privatised club in Serbia and one of the few privatised clubs in the Balkan region. The focus shifted onto the footballing issues once more. Čukarički managed turn things around in the run in of the 11/12 season and were able to barely stay in the division, scrapping it on goal difference.
Former Red Star and Panathanaikos defender Vladan Milojević was brought in as the new manager for the following season and strengthened well in the summer leading up to the season, bringing in 31 year old experienced midfielder Igor Matic on a free transfer, who would also be handed the captain’s armband, and a trio of highly rated prospects in on loan from Red Star: Dragoljub Srnić (20), Slavoljub Srnić (20) and Filip Stojković (19), whilst they also managed to bring talented forward Nikola Stojiljković (20) in the winter transfer window from Rad for an undisclosed amount. Čukarički secured automatic promotion to the Superliga, finishing as runners up to Napredak, with Slavoljub Srnić picking up the Player of the Season award for his performances over the course of the season.
The summer and pre-season of the 13/14 Superliga season was a key one for Čukarički. Their mere status within the Superliga was enough of a comfort for the Čukarički president, Miodrag Janković, and owner, Dragan Obradović, to start thinking toward the long term future of the club and developing a plan how money would be invested in the club’s operations in the near future. They used that summer window to secure permanent deals for the Srnić brothers and Stojković for free as all three players were in a contract dispute with Red Star at the time, with being owed different amounts of money by Red Star and none of them wanted to return to the club, which ultimately resulted in a settlement being made between the parties, where all three players would become Čukarički players if they were willing to write off the debts owed by Red Star. In addition, the other main addition to the club during the summer was the 27 year old Brazilian centre back Lucas Piasentin from Uniao Madeira. The main work being done, however, was the investment in the club’s infrastructure. Investment in the youth academy and facilities had been a priority since Obradović purchased the club. Two additional pitches were built at next to Čukarički’s main training ground (which is located next to the stadium), fitted with the top of the range artificial turf, with its main use being for training of the academy and where the various youth teams in the academy would play their home games. The entire stadium’s facilities were renovated: state of the art floodlights were installed, both sets of changing rooms were improved greatly and additional seating was fitted to be able to accommodate a seated capacity of around 4,500 people, with the plan for an increase in seating annually to reach a capacity of 8,500 seats.
The trust put in from the board paid off as Čukarički’s 2013/14 Superliga campaign went better than anybody had expected as they ended up being the surprise package in the league, finishing 5th place. Most impressively, they showed that they were able to compete with the traditional heavyweights of the domestic league as they managed to beat the champions Red Star 2-0 at home, draw twice with Vojvodina (0-0 and 1-1) and to push Partizan close in their two encounters (losing 1-0 and 2-0). The key behind their success was down to Milojević creating a system which maximised his squad’s strengths and finding a balance in his side between experience and youth. Milojević settled on playing a variation of a 3-5-2 formation, a rarely used formation in Serbia (or, the Balkans for that matter), with the emphasis on the wingbacks Brežančić and Stojkovic to provide width, Matić to be the deep-lying playmaker in midfield and to use Slavoljub Srnić’s pace and energy in a free role behind Stojiljković. Stojiljković lead the team with 7 league goals, Slavoljub Srnić contributed with 3 goals and 7 assists and Matić had 3 goals and 7 assists.
Despite finishing outside of the European places in the league, Red Star were banned from the Champions League due to not complying to Financial Fair Play regulations and this meant that all the European places were moved down a spot in the league and Čukarički were granted a spot in the first phase of qualification in the Europa League. After comfortably beating Andorran side Sant Julià 4-0 on aggregate in the first phase, Čukarički were knocked out 2-5 on aggregate to Austrian side Grödig (but they did win the home leg 2-1). The disappointment of Europe proved to be a motivational tool used by the club, for the 2014/15 season. Centre backs Zoran Rendulić and Nigerian international Ugo Ukah were brought in during the summer and the 19 year old forward Stanisa Mandić was promoted to the senior team from the academy after a successful U19 European Championship with Serbia but the main change to the team was the scrapping of the previously successful 3-5-2 formation and a change to the more commonly used 4-2-3-1. Milojević had shown tactical flexibility in the previous seasons as he had used a 4-4-2 diamond formation at times but there were questions raised going into the season regarding the tactical shift that Milojević had introduced.
The 2014/15 season proved to be the most successful season in the history of the club, silencing any doubters and dismissing the notion that their 5th place finish in the prior season was merely a fluke and that it would be difficult for Čukarički to sustain that level of success, let alone build upon it. The formation may have changed, but Milojević’s philosophy remained and that was to promote a high intensity style of football, one which relied on a high work rate and moving as quickly as possible – with Matić being at the heart of this – to the youthful forwards Čukarički had. Set pieces had also become an important way in which they played, as they were a threat due to Matić’s high quality deliveries. Čukarički had maintained their success against the big teams in the league: they drew with the champions Partizan at home 2-2, they beat Red Star at home 2-0 and held them away to a 0-0 draw, beat Vojvodina away 2-1 and all this helped them achieve a 3rd place finish in the league. To demonstrate just how impressive Čukarički had been, the Superliga Team of the Season featured 5 members of the team (Brežančić, Rendulić, Stojković, Stojiljković and Matić). The icing on the cake was the impressive domination of Partizan in the Serbian Cup Final, and the scenes of celebration from the players at the end of the game were symbolic in their nature, showing just how far Čukarički had come in a span of four years – having survived being on the brink of existence to lifting their first trophy in the club’s 79 year history.
Private investment into a football club doesn’t equate to instantaneous success – modern football is littered with examples, at various levels within the professional game, which have proved as much – but with a clear long term plan and, most importantly, the willingness to spend within the club’s means and have patience, it is most certainly achievable. In Čukarički’s case, they have an annual budget of a little over €1m for the running costs of the club and have a structured hierarchy installed at all levels within the club, which has seen them reap the rewards of such approach. They are also currently the only privatised club in the country and they can also boast the fact that they are the only professional club in Serbian football that is debt free and one of the few who manage to provide their players with their wages on time. This entire culture within the club was emphasised by president Janković: ‘The ADOC company has enabled us to improve the club’s infrastructure, be assured in the club’s work, regulate working relationships [between the club, it’s players and other functions within Serbian football], achieve these results and ensure the players are happy playing for Čukarički.’
As so often is the case when a smaller club breaks the usual status-quo by breaking through and having sustained success within a top division, the expectations and ambition of the club are raised and there is increased interested for the club’s players. Things are no different in Čukarički. The top scorer in the previous two seasons, Nikola Stojiljković, moved to Braga this summer for around €750k, Slavoljub Srnić returned to Red Star for a fee of €300k (with 40% of his next transfer being owed to Čukarički), Rendulić joined Red Star on a free transfer and Brežančić joined AZ Alkmaar for an undisclosed fee. This didn’t deter anybody within the club’s hierarchy as replacements were sought after and brought in – most notably, Čukarički managed to pull off the coup of bringing in Ghana international Lee Addy in for free from Dinamo Zagreb.
Čukarički’s European adventure would end prematurely at the same stage as it had done year before. After beating Domžale 1-0 on aggregate in the first qualifying phase, they faced Azerbaijan’s Qabala and took a 1-0 lead with them into the deciding leg in Azerbaijan but after an end to end game, ended up losing the tie 2-1 on aggregate. This frustration in Europe seemed to have a knock on effect on the team as they only registered one win in seven after the loss to Qabala and they were loitering around mid-table by the end of September. Milojević would depart in the first week of October to manage Omonoia in Cyprus but not after he would mastermind a fantastic 1-0 win away at Partizan (the first in the club’s history), a rather fitting parting gift from the manager. In spite of those hectic few months, with the changes that have gone in the club and the frustration of not making it further in Europe, the plan and message remains the same: patience and stability. There was to be no panicking within the club’s hierarchy. Zoran Popović was brought in as Milojević’s successor and he’s been relatively successful thus far. He endured an eight game unbeaten run to start off his reign, winning 5, before they hosted the league leaders Red Star in an end to end game in which they ended up with 10 men and losing 7-2 – prior to this game, Čukarički had conceded 7 goals all season. The loss to Red Star commenced a blip in form, in which Čukarički would go onto draw their next two games before the winter break, and not fare much better upon the restart of the league in mid February as they drew and lose their first two games. However, they managed to end their winless run last week with a 1-0 victory against Javor and things are still looking bright in terms of their league position. They currently sit in 4th position, a point behind Partizan and two behind Borac, with five games of the regular season left before the league is split into two groups – the championship group composing of the top eight teams and the relegation group with the bottom eight – mea ning that there are a total of 12 games left to be played. There is a quiet confidence that Čukarički can improve on last season’s league position and achieve an all time high of 2nd place. They are currently 4th in the league on 41 points, a point behind Partizan and two behind Borac but Partizan are going through a transitional period and are struggling for form and Čukarički’s performances against top half teams (i.e. potential opponents in the championship group) have been strong all year.
Furthermore, the future is looking bright for Čukarički. Stanisa Mandić, now a fully fledged Montenegro international, has become an undisputed starter and Matić is still there to make sure everything is clicking. This winter Čukarički decided to take a gamble by bringing in the talented 20 year old winger Nemanja Radonjić from Roma. Radonjić is considered one of the most highly rated players from Serbia in recent years, so much so that he was called up to the senior National Team - along with his then Partizan teammate Andrija Živković - back in 2013 by then manager Siniša Mihajlović. There are also major things expected of Zehrudin ‘Zeko’ Mehmedović in the Čukarički academy. The 17 year old attacking midfielder became the youngest Čukarički player (and second youngest all time) to feature in the Serbian top flight after his debut last year. He’s been dubbed as the next Dragan Stojković by some, which is as high as praise gets in Serbia, and has already gained the attention of Europe’s elite - as he’s spent time training with Manchester City and Arsenal are reportedly tracking him. That last sentence in itself shows the rapid progress Čukarički has made and whilst they are no longer the happy-go-lucky surprise package of the Superliga, now affirming their status as one of the best clubs in the country, the increased pressure and scrutiny facing the club has been welcomed as further motivation. One thing is for certain, the future of FK Čukarički is looking incredibly bright; something which nobody thought was possible back in November of 2011.
* FK Spartak Subotica finished with 4 points in the 90/91 Yugoslav First League, however they finished with 1 win and 10 draws, back when 2 points were awarded for wins and draws were decided by penalties.
Picture credit to Jovan Marković.