In December, when we were in Sarajevo, we had the pleasure of watching a soccer/football match between FK Željezničar and NK Vitez in the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Because the Premier League of BiH is one of the smallest leagues in Europe, only the domestic champion gets a shot at Champion’s League football (and they start in the second qualifying round, not in the tournament proper), and only the 2nd and 3rd place teams qualify for Europa League (entering at the first qualifying). Therefore, every single match is important. As a smaller league with smaller budgets (I don’t believe they are all even fully professional), the teams often rely on developing young talent and selling it to bigger European clubs in order to pay their wages and operating expenses (Edin Dzeko is an example of a former FK Željezničar player now with a major European club). Thus, qualifying for European competition is crucial for getting exposure for their young players and ultimately getting the money the club needs.
Željezničar won the match handily on a cold, foggy day (the snow and fog are both evident in the photographs). Besides the result, the history of the teams, the area, and the stadium are also worth noting (see below the photos and videos). Like every other European soccer match I have attended, the FK Željezničar fans spent much of the game chanting and singing.
“Željezničar” means “railway worker,” as the team was formed by a group of railway workers in the 1920s. Unlike most clubs in early 20th century Sarajevo, Željezničar was not formed on an ethnic basis: Bosniaks, Serbs, Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Jews, etc. Željezničar, being formed by the railway workers, was a club for the common people, and its multiethnicity was representative of Sarajevo itself (although this also made the team unpopular with many). Supporters may refer to the club as “Zeljo,” and I saw many references to “Zeljo” around Sarajevo (on businesses, in restaurants, etc.).
As I mentioned, Zeljo plays their matches at Stadion Grbavica, built between 1949 – 1953. When we were walking/driving around Sarajevo with a high school friend of mine who is from Sarajevo, we were shown the front lines of the Bosnian War in the 1990s. The stadium was right in the middle of where the lines were drawn between Serbs and Bosniaks. The stadium suffered heavy structural damage and was even partially burned down by the Bosnian Serb forces. The stadium appears to have been partially remodeled and I did not notice any war damage. However, the supporters are trying to raise money to fully repair the stadium and make it suitable to host Champion’s League and Europa League games (they currently play European games at another stadium). I purchased 4 seats and would encourage anyone interested to do so, as well. They are not expensive.
As I mentioned, Grbavica appears to have been remodeled enough to cover up the war damage. The buildings across the parking lot, however, still show the battle scars.