Bad, bad, bad... anything good for a change? There was of course, but the season was strange, transitory may be. Looked like a whole generation of great players went abroad, aged, and no longer benefiting the local game. The next generation was not strong enough to play first fiddle and clubs with relatively settled squads took advantage. Prime example: Partizan (Belgrade). The first half of the 1970s were dark years for the 'gravediggers', but they never fell down – they stayed among the best 5-6 teams in the league. Finally they won the 1975-76 championship. Then their star player Nenad Bjekovic went to play for OGC Nice (France) and Partizan did not have the stamina to compete for the title. They finished at 4th place, but their current squad was very young. It was talented bunch – Golac, Zavisic, Hatunic, Trifunovic, Jesic, Stojkovic, all of them 25 or younger. They got one of the best keepers at the time from OFK Beograd – the 23-years old Petar Borota. Radomir Antic was the oldest player at 28. A squad in the making, not polished yet, still rough and inexperienced to sustain whole championship – Partizan led for awhile in the fall of 1976, then faded.
Dinamo (Zagreb) were similar. They improved in the recent years and once again joined the best clubs, finishing 3rd in 1976. This season they moved a place up, enjoying silver medals,but not really challenging the champions: Dinamo finished with 9 points less, not a contender really. Improving, but like Partizan, not ready yet for something big. Dragutin Vabec was the star of the team, 26 years old. But there were two very young boys who were to play major role soon: Zlatko Kranjcar and Velimir Zajec. They were already starters. Dinamo was restoring its place among the leading clubs, but so far unripe.
Unmade teams made room for unlikely challengers: NK Rijeka finished 5th, not bad at all for the modest club, which two years ago returned from second division exile. The Croats differed from Partizan and Dinamo: not that young, but experienced and settled. They had a veteran star, who most likely revitalized them – the great goal scorer Josip Skoblar came back from France in 1974 and joined small Rijeka. With him, the team climbed up and up. For Skoblar 1976-77 was the last playing season and he retired in style at 36, but the momentum was not lost after he call it a day.
Crouching: Mohorovic, Juricic, Skoblar, Cukrov, Vujkovic.
Sometimes one player is quite enough for inspiration and improvement; sometimes collective is all that counts. Sloboda (Tuzla) enjoyed bronze medals.
Old, but small club, even more modest than Rijeka. Since their birth in 1919, Sloboda (the name means 'Freedom') never won anything. Their best performance to date was in 1971, when they lost the Yugoslavian Cup final. Forget about the whole Yugoslavia – in their native Bosnia and Herzegovina Sloboda ranked 5th at best. Playing in the first division was enough success for them, just keeping above relegation zone. And suddenly – third!
Bottom: Mesud Nalic, Caslav Jevremovic, Fuad Mulahassanovic, Petar Slavkic, Mustafa Hukic.
Not a single known name, let alone famous. Not even their coach, Dorde Gerum. Sloboda were usually suppliers of talent to other clubs – Jusuf Hatunic (Partizan) was one of the most recent examples showing promise in Tuzla, but becoming star elsewhere. It was the collective really bringing them that high and their strong season led to brief inclusion of Hukic in the Yugoslavian national team: he played 5 matches in 1977 and was not called again. May be taking advantage from the shaky state of usual favourites, but it was great for the small club and its fans.
Yet, the competition, big or small, was not really competition this season: Crvena zvezda won its 12th title after three bleak years. Bleak for their fans, that is, for they used to winning and only trophies counted. Crvena zvezda had great squad back in 1973, but it was getting a bit old. Practically the whole team was sold abroad, something Crvena zvezda was not afraid to do, for they had the means for getting whoever they fancied from the rest Yugoslavia (except the arch-rival Partizan), plus a great youth system of their own. But building a new team from scratch is devilish business even for the most resourceful clubs and three rocky years were needed until new victory. So, finally...
Sitting: B. Radovic, P. Baralic, M. Sestic, S. Stamenkovic, M. Novkovic, D. Nikolic, M. Babic.
Only two players from the last victorious squad remained – Vladislav Bogicevic and Vladimir Petrovic. Veterans... Bogicevic, 27 years old, was the oldest player in the squad. Vladimir Petrovic was 22! The 'new boys' were 22 or younger. Nikolic was already hailed as the next great Yugoslavian player, but he never lived up to expectations. The rest were just players for the future, but they won with great confidence – 9 points ahead of the second placed Dinamo (Zagreb), winning 20 matches, losing only 4, scoring the most goals in the league – 67. And Zoran Filipovic was the top scorer of the season with 21 goals. So, Crvena zvezda was akin to Parizan and Dinamo, going for young talent. And winning. May be winning because they started building new team a bit earlier than the rest and therefore had more experienced team, when the rivals still had inexperienced boys. May be winning because Hajduk underperformed. It was confident victory, but the team was not at it finest yet, they were still green, still learning – Filipovic, Savic, Sestic, Jovanovic, Muslin, Stojanovic, Lukic, they all became national team players and quite famous, but there not so yet in 1976-77. It was their first serious claim for fame – real one came few years later. Young team, full of talent, Crvena zvezda were starting new strong period. Presently, it was conquering only Yugoslavia, but just wait a year or two.