In the flat desert lands of Qatar a behemoth will rise from the horizon. Over 86,000 seats, numerous restaurants, executive lounges to rival suites in swanky Monaco hotels, and a cool $45billion dollar price tag to accompany it. That would be Qatar’s Lusail Iconic Stadium, planned for the 2022 World Cup. Many fans, who have invested a lifetime of bitter pain for few moments of sweet glory into their local clubs, would argue that it’s nothing more than an empty, soulless structure, built on the back of borderline slave labor in pursuit of capitalist modern football.
Where is the heart that makes a stadium more than an arena and a venue? Is money the tell-tale sign of a club’s greatness, or the size of it’s stadium? All questions that are better left for political discourse as globalization touches everything around us. Some fans, however, would argue it’s neither.
In the late 1940s, local neighborhood children carried food and water to the thousands of volunteer workers that had shown up for construction. FK Željezničar, the railway workers’ club, was building its home. A new stadium was under construction, without government financing, private loans or the support of any particular class within the city. It had to be built through the labor of its fans.
Unlike their city rivals FK Sarajevo, this club was cut from a different cloth. This wasn’t a fine bordeaux colored silk, this was ordinary cotton, dripping with the sweat of the workers it represented. Named after the city, Sarajevo was viewed as the club of the elite, with a top notch stadium and financial backing to boot.
Some 70 years later, not much has changed. Yes, the supporter base and the dynamics behind it have balanced and morphed, but the clubs are still in similar situations. Sarajevo is funded by Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan, of tucked-in kit and chameleon color change fame. Željezničar, meanwhile, remains in the hands of a public trust. In order to construct additional seating to qualify its iconic Grbavica Stadion for European match eligibility, the club had to depend on an old friend. The club sent out a request for help from ordinary fans, and it came flooding in from all directions. Donations large and small were offered by groups of supporters all over the world. Former players, athletes, and local celebrities offered their help. Only the technology has evolved, but the good will and love of the fans stood perennial against the test of time.
Fudbalski klub Željezničar (Football club Railway Worker), or simply Željo, is one of the two main football clubs in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, Sarajevo. It was formed in 1921 by a sports organization of railway workers in the former Yugoslavia. The logical color scheme was blue, because of the association to the rail in this part of Europe. The club is one of the most successful Bosnian sides, having won the Yugoslav League in 1971-72, and reaching the final of the Yugoslav Cup in 1980-81, only to lose to fellow Bosnian side Velež.
In 1984-85, Željo reached the semi-finals of the predecessor of the UEFA Europa League (the UEFA Cup). Hungarian side Videoton came to Grbavica carrying a 3-1 advantage. Željezničar managed to take a 2-0 lead in front of a packed house thanks to goals from two Edins (Bahtić and Ćurić), but cruelly conceded a goal in the 86th minute. As legend would have it, all of Yugoslavia wept that night for the blue club from Sarajevo. One fan remembered the sheer silence. The shock of the moment. Many of the players remained int he locker room for hours after the match. Many cried. To make matters worse, the grand Real Madrid was waiting for them in the final.
It was one of the club’s greatest achievements, despite the loss. In the 1980s, Željezničar was the cult favorite of rock bands like Bombaj štampa and other musicians like Tifa (Mladen Vojičić) who wrote their own love ballads towards like the club. Two of the most popular songs were Grbavica, and Željo, to je moj tim (Željo, that’s my team). Popular slogans like Mi smo Željini, Željo je naš, (We are Željo’s, and Željo is ours) were born. The decade saw the Olympics come to town in 1984 and some of the best derbies played between Željo and Sarajevo, led by Safet Susić.
The stadium even had its fair share of well-known visitors. In 1976 Grbavica Stadium saw English side Arsenal come to town for Željezničar’s 55th birthday celebration. In 1987, a Yugoslav national team fixture was also played, against Northern Ireland. Ivica Osim’s men celebrated with a 3-0 score line.
Following the war, the club lifted six domestic top flight trophies, and five cup victories. It played some memorable European football as well, facing Newcastle, as well as Spanish side Malaga, although they were not played at Grbavica, as the stadium did not meet UEFA specifications for European matches.
Željezničar produced some top players over the course of its long history. Yugoslav legends like Josip Katalinski, Josip Bukal, Mišo Smajlović, and others. One of its most famous sons, Ivica Osim is considered the godfather of Bosnian football, being a star player for the club, and later managing it, along with the national Yugoslav side. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s current manager, Mehmed Baždarević, along with the captain and star player, Edin Džeko are also products and former players of FK Željezničar. The club always carried the reputation of producing talent, rather than buying it. This still stands today. Often, the most promising players have to be sold just to keep the club afloat financially.
Its rich history is never forgotten by its fans who have stood by their beloved club through the ages. The Manijaci (Maniacs) as they are locally known, have been through everything, together with the club and its city. Many participated in the defense of the city of Sarajevo during the siege, arm in arm with their rival supporters the Horde Zla (Sarajevo’s ultras). Even former players like Edin Džeko (Roma) have never forgotten the city nor the club that shaped their love for the beautiful game, regularly coming to watch matches and show his support.
In 1993, heavy shelling of Sarajevo commenced as a result of the Serb aggression on the city. It was the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. Some 14,000 people were killed through relentless bombardment and cold-hearted sniping of civilians. Hospitals, schools and public spaces were routinely targeted. Željezničar’s house of blood, sweat and tears became exactly that. Grbavica didn’t escape the damage, just like everything else in the city.
The stadium had become a death trap of rubble with every sniper in the locality with his sights set on anyone that might dare to venture in. Gone were the glory days of European nights and the roar of the Sarajevo Derby. It had been replaced by the roar of howitzers on the mountains surrounding the city.
The damage to the stadium was catastrophic. It took years of repairs both large and small for the venue to be able to host football matches again. The fans were there once again, pitching in, as always. Over the years, the club has made smaller scale improvements to Grbavica. The stadium was once again a home for its loyal fan base, and hosted the Sarajevo Derby in all of its diminished glory. Even reflectors were installed for night matches. For the club’s 90th birthday, a friendly match against the Bosnian national team was also played. However, the stadium was never up to UEFA home ground specifications for European matches. Željezničar were forced to play on the ground of their hated rivals, the Olympic Stadium Koševo.
Today, much like the rest of the Premijer Liga sides, the club finds itself in difficult times. Domestic football in Bosnia and Herzegovina is no cash cow. The city has also not been willing to cooperate on possibly funding some sort of larger restoration of the ground that would allow for international competitions to be played there.
Despite everything, the club has looked towards an old ally, someone they have always depended on. The fans. Donations keep rolling in. A European Grbavica might actually rise from the ashes of war. Is it money that makes a club great, or perhaps the grandeur of its home ground? Everyone has their own opinion. For Zeljo’s Maniacs, they know the answer. It’s found in their popular slogan. "Mi smo Željini, Željo je naš"
Albinko is @albinkohasic.