Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Croatians were miserable, but one Belgrade club was happy – OFK Beograd finished third. Forever in the shadows of giant Crvena zvezda and Partizan, OFK Beograd were much older club and, as almost every old club in Eastern Europe, felt oppressed by the Communist regime. Football folklore is often based on facts, unfortunately: originally founded as BSK (Belgrade Sport Club) in 1911, they were more or less the biggest club in the Yugoslavian capital until 1945, collecting 5 championships in the 1930s – the first title in 1931 and the last in 1939. Soon after came the German invasion and after Nazi Germany lost the Second World War Tito-led Communists took the power. In the domain of sports the presence of the new rulers was quickly felt – Crvena zvezda and Partizan were founded and as everywhere in Eastern Europe the pure Communist clubs were to dominate. Old clubs were destroyed either literally or by renaming and forced mergers. In 1945 BSK got new name – Metalac, supposedly representing some branch of industrial working class, as the name – Metal Worker – suggests. Metalac achieved alarming results: the old BSK fans refused to support it and the industrial working class was urged to support the ‘proper’ clubs, so by 1950 there was sufficient concern about the empty stands and the club was reverted to its original name. But already BSK meant nothing and new attempt to attract supporters was made in 1957 – a new name again: OFK Beograd. The name means Youth Football Club Belgrade and the idea was to attract especially young spectators. These preferred Crvena zvezda and Partizan, so OFK Beograd remained the third Belgrade’s club in term of popularity and success. They achieved some success in the Cup tournaments, but otherwise occupied the middle of the table, the upper half more often than not, but no more than that. OFK Beograd always had famous players – Sekularac in the 50s and Skoblar in the 60s – but never really strong squad. Unfortunately, this is the typical fate of smallish club coexisting with big ones: never able to recruit strong squad and never able to keep talent for long. Occasional success is often deadly for such clubs – and for OFK Beograd 1973 was followed by long years of struggling in obscurity: they lost their top players almost immediately and sunk down the table playing hide and seek with relegation. At the end, the most representative feature of the club is its nickname: ‘the Romantics’. It was coined in the 1950s for their pleasant technical football , but it was befitting on a larger scale – the very courage of this club to exist and try again and again against the odds.
The team going for bronze featured four noticeable players: the striker Slobodan Santrac ( 8 matches and 1 goal for the Yugoslavian national team), the full back Dragoslav Stepanovic (34 matches and 1 goal), the young and promising goalkeeper Petar Borota (4 matches), and the best right winger in the country at the time – Ilija Petkovic (43 matches and 6 goals). The success of OFK Beograd depended on them, but soon they were all gone – Petkovic to France and the rest – to the big Belgrade clubs at first and to professional European clubs later. Much, much later Santrac and Petkovic coached the national team of Serbia, when Yugoslavia was no more. However, the most interesting story belongs to Borota. He moved to Partizan (Belgrade) and got his miserable 4 caps as Partizan player – like Santrac and Stepanovic he faced stiff competition for the national jersey and was rarely called. In 1979 Chelsea got him and although he even captained the Londoners, he is not remembered fondly: Chelsea fans usually include him in the all-time worst Chelsea selection and vote him the all-time worst goalie. This is rather unfair verdict, but could not be otherwise – Borota was part of the unlucky ‘first wave’ of foreign players in England, who were judged harshly and with bias – ‘continentals’ were presumed incapable of grasping the English brand of football and every microscopic mistake served to prove beyond doubt exactly this imagined inferiority. Borota was particularly easy target because of his unusual and risky style: he played often outside the penalty area, as a sweeper, clearing and dribbling – that is, the way goalies are expected to play today, but in the late 1970s it was viewed as dangerous eccentricity. Perhaps Borota was able to correct his style, but something much more important was beyond his powers: Chelsea was in deep financial troubles and heading rapidly toward bankruptcy. As a result, the team was weak and plummeting down the table, eventually ending in the Second Division. No wonder fans did not and do not appreciate players of those dark years.
All of the above was still unimaginable in 1973 – back then OFK Beograd were bunch of happy boys. How sweet it was finishing ahead of Partizan, ahead of the Croatian clubs, ahead of 1972 champions Zeljeznicar (Sarajevo).