When the curtain came down on the 2015/16 Slovenian PrvaLiga, for the first time in five years the name being inscribed on the trophy wasn’t that of NK Maribor. No, for the first time since 1994/95 the winner’s name read ‘Olimpija Ljubljana’, the first capital triumph in over 20 years. It rounded off a remarkable return to the top for the famous Olimpija, undoubtedly the biggest club in the history of Slovenian football. The famous crest rose high, with the green dragon and the year ‘1911’ proudly standing on top of national soccer once again. Of course, if you’re read the title of this piece you’ll know that it isn’t all as simple as that.
Olimpija Ljubljana did indeed win the Slovenian PrvaLiga last season, finishing the season six points ahead of perennial champions Maribor. Olimpija were worthy champions, leading the table all the way from the ninth week until the end of the season. If you are an Olimpija fan then the chances are you’ll see this as a proud return to the pinnacle for a club who’s history goes all the way back to 1911 and the formation of Slovenia’s very first football club. You’d also be a revisionist.
The current incarnation of Olimpija Ljubljana was formed as NK Bežigrad in March 2005, when it became clear that the mounting debts of the original Olimpija were to be the death of that club. In the 2005/06 season Bežigrad entered the fifth division of Slovene football, winning four successive promotions to book their place in the top flight for 2009. It was a remarkable rise, although as Slovenian football is extremely weak once you drop below the top division not a huge surprise. The club had the fan and ex-pro support of the original Olimpija after all, whose name they took on in March 2008. The original Olimpija Ljubljana ceased to exist at the end of the 2004/05 season, when their €3 million debt forced them into bankruptcy. It was an acrimonious end for the club that had won the first four Slovenian league championships with little competition. The decline had been slow and painful, and before the corpse of Olimpija had been laid to rest Bežigrad were ready to pick up the pieces.
Olimpija began life as NK Enotnost in 1945, themselves a reprisal of the SK Ljubljana club formed in the mid 30s that was dissolved with the advent of World War Two in Yugoslavia. SK Ljubljana were one of only two Slovenian football teams of note, a trend that would be reduced to only Olimpija when it came to the Yugoslav First League. Olimpija were regular participants between the 1960s and 1980s, coming close to a Yugoslav Cup triumph in 1969/70 when they lost in the final to Red Star Belgrade after extra time. That was as good as it got.
Independence came to Slovenia in 1991, and it was around this time that everyone began claiming they were the descendants of something or someone that they clearly weren’t. In Olimpija’s case this meant them claiming a shared history with a tiny little club called NK Ilirija, established in 1911. Olimpija even went so far as to stick ‘1911’ on their crest, a tradition continued by the current Olimpija today.
The problem was that Ilirija still existed, and didn’t actually have anything to do with Olimpija. Also based in Ljubljana, Ilirija were genuinely founded in 1911 and as a result are the oldest football club in the country, joining Hajduk Split in the list of clubs formed in pubs with a place called Roža on Židovska in Ljubljana the guilty establishment this time. They were the first regional champions of Slovenia, and to call the pre-WW2 days their glory days would be something of an understatement. Financial problems in the 1930s saw the club merge with Primorje to create SK Ljubljana, who you may remember from earlier on in the piece. SKL were dissolved with the onset of World War Two, but when those hostilities ended Ilirija were back in business. They still exist to this very day, plying their trade in the lower leagues of Slovenian football.
Despite these actual genuine facts, Olimpija Ljubljana still lay a vague claim to being the successor club of Olimpija and Ilirija. You can see why, as the current green and whites took on what they consider the history of their proud club in 2005, a history that had already swallowed up the proud history of Ilirija. Nobody else accepts this of course, meaning that the history of the current Slovenian champions stretches back no further than 2005. Of course, when asked to take on the debt of the club they claimed to be the continuation of, Olimpija denied any and all links. It’s easy to be a revisionist until money is involved.
And just to make things ever so slightly more entertaining, Olimpija’s current president is Milan Milandarić, a man British football fans may remember as the former head of Portsmouth, Leicester City and Sheffield Wednesday. Good luck Olimpija, good luck.