In what may be the least necessary sentence written on this website, when Yugoslavia went up in flames in 1991 the Yugoslav football league went with it. The 1991/92 season saw Croatian and Slovene teams pull out before proceedings began, and the Bosnian sides quit before it ended. As a result, the 92/93 season saw the league consist of only Serbian and Montenegrin teams, and is generally considered the first season of what is now the Serbian Super League. In the 24 seasons since only three times have come out on top; Partizan Belgrade lead the way with 15 titles, whilst current champions Red Star Belgrade have taken home the trophy on eight occasions. The mathematicians among you will have already worked out that that means the third side was a one championship wonder, and the mathematicians among you would be correct. The story isn’t quite as simple as ‘surprise team wins league’ of course.
The story of FK Obilić is as fascinating to outsiders as it is regrettable to football fans in the Balkans. It comes straight out of Dystopian fiction, the story of the most wanted man on the planet who openly sat in the dugout of a fairytale football team. The beginnings of FK Obilić were far less interesting of course, the team being born way back in 1924. The team were named after Miloš Obilić (obviously), the probably mythical dude who assassinated Ottoman sultan Murad I during the Battle of Kosovo. Put simply, it is as Serbian as names are going to get.
Whilst it may be immensely disrespectful to the men who poured their heart out on the pitch for the team based in Vračar, it would be no exaggeration to say that for their first 70 years FK Obilić’s did grand total of fuck all. The team bummed around the Belgrade regional leagues up until 1988, when promotion to the third division of Yugoslav football was achieved. Somehow, quite how I’m not entirely sure, but somehow someway they made it to the final of the Yugoslav (now pretty much the Serbian) Cup in 1995, coming up short in a 4-0 final loss to Red Star Belgrade. At this point they were an unremarkable second division club with an unremarkable history, like, I don’t know, Brentford.
Everything changed in 1996, when the club was taken over by the most wanted man on the planet. His name was (he’s dead now, obviously) Željko Ražnatović, but he was known to all and sundry as Arkan. Arkan had nine children with five different women, but this is probably the least interesting part of his story. The son of a colonel in Tito’s Air Force, Arkan was arrested for the very first time as a 17 year old and his criminal career only blossomed from there. He was a true career criminal, robbing banks all over Europe. He broke out of western prisons four times, and once famously got a friend off by strolling into a courtroom and pointing a gun at the judge.
Arkan rose to true domestic prominence in the early 1990s however, when he was drafted by Slobodan Milošević (happy resignation day Slobo!) to keep the hooligans of Red Star Belgrade happy. Arkan essentially used the terraces as a recruitment ground, and from the north stand of Red Star’s Marakana stadium a fearsome fighting force were born. Arkan called them his ‘Tigers’, and the Brutes went off to commit war crime after war crime in Croatia and Bosnia during the miserable Yugoslav civil wars of the early 1990s. The fighting ended in 1995, leaving Arkan bored at home. How to loot at home? Get into football of course.
He originally wanted Red Star Belgrade, but you couldn’t just waltz into a club with a bucket of cash and take it over. As a result mobsters tended to gravitate towards lower league clubs that nobody cared about, and there has never been a more apt description for FK Obilić in 1995. Arkan took over, and unsurprisingly the club were promoted to the top tier soon after. It was either coincidence, an upturn in morale or the unexpected benefits of having a war criminal in your dugout. Back in the 90s coaching licences were issued by individual FAs, and I dare say Arkan didn’t have to pass many exams to get his.
With great optimism Obilić entered the great unknown of the Yugoslav top division for the 1997/98 season. What lay ahead? A miraculous league title, that’s what. Obilić lost only one game all season (a 2-1 reverse at home to Partizan in November), and even that was cancelled out somewhat by Partizan rolling over against them with just eight games to go. Partizan’s reward for this was a stroll in the cup final against Obilić.
So how exactly did a newly promoted team break the previously watertight grip that Partizan and Red Star had (and have had since) on the title? Well, for one they did at least have a decent defence, conceding just 19 goals all season and keeping 20 clean sheets in the process. The bigger reason for the win was the presence of Arkan though, because of course. Opposing players would receive worryingly intimidating phone calls before matches leading to them mysteriously dropping out. Arkan made a point of occasionally nipping into the opposition changing room at half time, I can only assume to wish them they best in the second half and certainly not make any threats towards knee-caps.
Officials would be greeted by Belgrade’s finest goons all decked out in military fatigues. Referee Zoran Arsić also claimed that Ražnatović once charged into his office at half time and held a gun to the poor refs head. Arsić was blackmailed to keep quiet about this, in exchange for never having to officiate an Obilić game again. The team’s previously loyal supporters abandoned the side in the face of such fishy dealings, and in their stead came hooligans and thugs fresh from the battlefields of Croatia and Bosnia brandishing their weapons. Understandably, away teams didn’t exactly put in the strongest performances in such conditions. Red Star even refused to use the changing rooms, choosing instead to spend half time out on the pitch.
Their success continued into the next year, and Obilić went unbeaten all the way up until the league was postponed due to that whole ‘illegal NATO bombing of Serbia’ thing. The International Criminal Tribunal issued an indictment against ol’ Arkan, and he was forced to stand down as owner of Obilić. The writing was on the wall for Ražnatović, after he had embarrassingly been refused permission to travel to Germany for Obilić’s Champions League qualifying defeat to Bayern Munich. He passed the reigns on to his Turbo Folk pop star and cleavage expert wife Ceca, meaning that if nothing else Obilić had the most glamorous owner in football. Sorry Ken Bates.
Arkan was shot to death in a Belgrade hotel in January 2000, filling out a betting slip as his killer slowly walked up behind him and blasted him through the skull. For such a wanted man he wasn’t afraid of keeping himself in the public eye, and such a public end was almost inevitable. This was also the beginning of the end for Obilić, who would lost six games in the last five months of the 99/00 season equally the amount they lost in total during Arkan’s reign.
It didn’t exactly go to shit straight away in truth, as Obilić stayed in the top half of the division for a few more years before relegation finally arrived in 2005/06. They would go on to suffer six more relegations in the next seven years, their results quite clearly hindered by the lack of machine guns pointed at their opponents. The Arkan and Ceca association kept them in the public eye somewhat, and a raid on Ceca’s mansion in 2011 exposed the financial side of the heist, with millions upon millions of euros embezzled from transfers during their time at the top. She released her 15th album this year, which proved to be a huge success.
So what of FK Obilić in 2016? Well, the only team to break the Red Star-Partizan grip on Serbian football dominance no longer has a men’s team, although the women still play now and then. The stadium stands across from Belgrade’s central prison, keeping alive the football club ownership dreams of Serbian criminals to this very day.