FK Voždovac v Borac Čačak
Voždovac Stadium / Serbian SuperLiga / 5th August 2017
The French-Swiss architect and writer Le Crobusier once wrote that ‘Belgrade is the ugliest city in the world in the most beautiful place in the world.’ Every time I have heard someone talk of Belgrade, its aesthetically displeasing appearance is one of the first things they mention; yet, no-one seems to have too many bad things to say about the city either. In fact, everyone I know who has been to the Serbian capital seems to love it. Of course, I wanted to form my own opinion on this fascinating city. For me, whenever I hear the term ‘Eastern Europe’ the first city that pops into my head is Belgrade. If I hear the term ‘Balkans’ the first city that pops into my head is Belgrade. Maybe that’s just my mind being lazy though. I’ve talked of going there for a long time now, without ever going ahead with it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a plan quickly fell into place…
Me and Craig had booked 3 days away in Budapest, as he had never visited the Hungarian capital and I just bloody love the place. He was to fly back to the UK on the Thursday and I decided I’d carry on to somewhere else to watch some football over the weekend. There was only one place I was going. I was straight to the Serbian football fixture list where I was to find that 3 of the top flight clubs from Belgrade would be at home that weekend: Zemun, Voždovac and the iconic Crvena Zvedza – or Red Star Belgrade as they are better known in the English speaking world. Red Star on the Sunday evening was a definite for me, but I had to make a decision about where to go on the Saturday. It’d have been a hell of a rush getting from the 6pm kick-off at Zemun to the 8pm kick-off at Voždovac, so I decided that I’d choose the latter because of its quirky appeal.
The name FK Voždovac may not mean much to many reading this, that is perhaps until I say that they are club who are commonly known in groundhopping circles as ‘that Serbian club whose ground is on top of a shopping centre.’ Yes, indeed. In 2013 FK Voždovac moved to the newly built Voždovac Stadium, which sits 24m above the ground level of the appropriately named Stadion Shopping Center. Incidentally, the shopping centre and stadium are built on the same ground where Voždovac’s old football home sat. This being one of a few rooftop stadiums in the world, I was never going to swerve it.
After saying goodbye to Craig on the Thursday morning in Budapest, I was aboard the 12:05 train to Belgrade. I’d heard how notoriously tedious this 8 hour train journey can be, but matters were probably made worse by 1) the notorious heatwave that was sweeping Central/Eastern Europe and 2) the fact that our train was made to wait for 2 hours at the Hungary/Serbia border, as the train ahead of us broke down. So, instead of arriving into Belgrade at 8pm, I arrived there at 11pm on the Thursday night. Fortunately, my host for the next few days was still there to meet; my Welsh mate and now Belgrade resident Rhys had kindly let me stay at his and his girlfriend’s flat for my Belgrade stay.
My first 24 hours in Belgrade were football-less and so I just followed my feet and let them lead the way around the city. I have to agree that Belgrade is not a pretty city, but I think we can forgive that of a city that has had such a tumultuous history and was blanketed with NATO bombs a little over 20 years ago. It’s what made me like the city more if anything, the fact that it unashamedly wears its scars and was quite comfortable with being its own city and not something else. That’s not to say that the city is devoid of your more typical beauty in places. I found this out as I walked along the River Sava to its confluence with the Danube and then headed up to Kalemegdan Fortress that oversees where the two rivers meet.
After a night out in an awesome craft ale bar called Samo Pivo and a bar dedicated to Frank Zappa, where Partizan fans regularly congregate apparently (Rhys is a Partizan seson ticket holder, so it was no surprise we headed there), it was Saturday and finally time to experience some Serbian football. Having watched plenty of football in the central European countries, I didn’t get my hopes up that it’d be a much better quality of football here just because I’d head a bit further south-east.
The heatwave was still searing the streets of Belgrade and by now the press had even given it the name ‘Lucifer’, as temperatures went over 40 degrees. Once I had some coffee in my system, I went search of a bar that may be showing some football. I figured the Irish Pub would be the best place to head, but there was no football to be seen there. I went into its dark exterior for a beer anyway to escape the oven that was the streets of Belgrade. I’d found the generic Serbian beers to pretty good, but having sampled the delights of the various ales on offer in Samo Pivo the night before, I then decided to head back there.
Samo Pivo is a certified early contender for the ever competitive ‘Pub of the Season’ award in the end of season Lost Boyos awards blog. It is brilliant. The night before it had been a hive of activity – as was everyone in the city it seemed until the early hours – but at about 3pm on this Saturday afternoon I had the whole place to myself. The bar is fairly basic, but Samo Pivo means ‘Just beer’ and that is definitely the part they do very well. 23 different ales on tap including my beloved Punk IPA and a sour beer – my ultimate favourite type of beer. In this case, I opted for the sour beer made by the Oedipus brewery and with the hot weather it went down a treat; in fact, so good was it that I had three more, before I headed back to the flat to pick up my passport (just in case needed for ticket purchase reasons) and then navigated my way to the Voždovac neighbourhood of Belgrade.
I’ve stood at bus stops with far less pleasant views than the one I stood at directly opposite Belgrade’s Parliament Building and it was here I waited for bus no.26 that would take me 4km south of the heart of Belgrade. The bus was a busy one as people commuted out of the hubbub of the sweaty city centre, but the journey was a fun one as we went up and down the hilly streets of Belgrade, past pleasant city parks and then past some of the more downtrodden streets of Belgrade. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the journey was crossing a bridge with a vantage point looking across to the stadium standing proudly on its shopping centre podium. It really was a cool sight and I even considered getting off the bus right there just to grab a photo. I resisted though.
As I was about to get off the bus in the stadium’s shadow, I could hear a small group behind me talking about football and then I turned around to see that the one talking was wearing a beautiful garment: a 1990 Belgium football shirt. “No doubt you are going to Voždovac to watch football then,” I said to him, hoping I was correct, otherwise I’d look a bit of a dick with a statement like that. He confirmed he was and we were soon off the bus together at the foot of the Stadion Shopping Center looking up at the stadium high above us. Now we both asked each other firstly, where do we buy tickets and secondly, how the hell do you get up to the stadium. With such a modern stadium, I figured this would all be easy. I opted to go into the shopping centre and take it from there, whilst my Belgian friend decided he was going to go scout out a bar nearby instead and suss it all out later.
The shopping centre could have been any glitzy new shopping centre in any city in the world. It just felt surreal to me that in an hour or so these people would be going about their shopping whilst a top flight game would be going on on the…well, top flight. Although if I thought that was surreal, I suppose I was in for a shock when a large velociraptor just started meandering through the shopping centre. It was scarily convincing and I never found out why it was there either.
It seemed a good place to start looking for a ticket office would be the shopping centre’s information desk. The only two people there were two scary looking security guys, so when I tentatively asked them about tickets I was met with “No English. Stop.” I thought this meant to stop the heretic act of speaking English, but a gesture to wait there seemed to say ‘Stop and wait here.’ I wasn’t sure why I was just standing there like a dick for a while, before a petit young lady came to the desk. I asked her about tickets and seconds later she was asking for me 200 dinar (about £1.50) and giving me a ticket. Easy peasy. Definitely the first time I’ve bought a ticket for a football match at a shopping centre information desk.
“So I’m guessing I just go to the top floor and take a lift or something?” I asked thinking that heading up would be the obvious route to get to a rooftop stadium. Well, apparently not. I was told to go down to the car park which was floor -2 (yes, minus two) and underneath the shopping centre. This made no sense to me, but like a lead character in a cheesy underdog film, I had to go right to the bottom if I wanted to go right to the top. I was still sceptical but I was relieved to find the badge of FK Voždovac on some of the walls in the car park and the small buildup of stewards told me I was heading the right way. Stewards I understood, but I couldn’t quite believe the large gang of police in all their gear too. FK Voždovac are not known for a large fanbase and from what I gathered it would be a surprise if the away club, Borac Čačak, brought any fans at all.
I knew I was near, but there was still no obvious sign poitning me the right way up to the stadium entrance, so I asked a steward who thankfully spoke English. He kept pointing me down a roadway heading just under the shopping centre, but I couldn’t make out any lift or staircase and instead he just decided to walk me right up to the right place so I couldn’t go wrong. And there it was, simple enough – a staircase up to the footballing heavens of the shopping centre. “No lift sorry my friend.” Great.
The walk up to the stadium is comparable to the lung-wrenching climbs up the steps to the away ends at both St. James Park and the Stadium of Light. One thing you won’t find at either St. James Park and Stadium of Light on reaching the away end summit though is three stewards ready to jump on you before getting your breath back and delivering probably the most vigorous body search I’ve ever had. They even seemed sceptical of my camera, as if a ‘football tourist’ would come all this way to watch a Serbian football match to then launch it as a missile at a player on the pitch.
My experience at FK Voždovac was to be a mixed bag all round really. First thing first – the obvious: it’s really cool as its on top of a centre and 24m off the ground – even the most cynical can’t deny that that is not exactly normal and pretty quirky. However, the stadium structure itself is nothing too exciting and would be a pretty typical setup if you dropped it to the floor. All four stands are virtually identical aside from the large pressbox/VIP area sticking out the middle of the stand I had arrived in. The plastic pitch looked in rather crappy condition too. I had another big bugbear with the place too: there was literally no food or drink – not just alcohol either, just anything to drink. This is a bit shitty at the best of times, but during a heatwave called Lucifer, liquids are kind of important. I was just thankful that it was almost 8pm and that the blazing sun was finishing his shift of burning us for the day.
In one of those happy coincidences that seem to occur to me fairly often these days, it turned out that my Scottish, Prague-dwelling mate Iain was in Belgrade for the weekend too with his girlfriend Billie. Without any prior discussion with each other, it also seemed that we were both heading to the same two games, as he was off to Red Star the next night too. So it was good to see him emerge up the top of the stairs looking slightly knackered. I then had to break the bad news to him that there’d be no refreshment for him after his climb either. I then had to repeat the bad news to my Belgian friend from the bus, Ilyas, as he arrived at the top of the stairs too.
Only one side of the ground appeared to be open, before a small contingent all clad in black arrived in the corner behind the far goal. These turned out to be the Voždovac Ultras, charmingly named ‘The Invalids’. As predicted, Borac Čačak appeared to have brought no fans and in total there must have been about 200 at most in the ground, maybe a slight bit more. Neither team are really giants of Serbian football, so I wasn’t exactly surprised.
Voždovac have a big red dragon on their badge, so they were instantly appealing to a Welshman like myself; plus, they wear a beautiful AC Milan-esque red and black shirt. Voždovac had made a good start to the league campaign with 2 wins and a draw, whereas opponents Borac Čačak were yet to score a single goal, let alone pick up a point.
Despite certain grievances I’d had with Serbian football so far, the game itself was actually fairly good and generally kept me entertained for the 90 minutes. Although I wondered if I made the football more entertaining in my mind to take my mind off the fact that I was already very thirsty in the stuffy heights of the stadium.
In the first minute, Borac Čačak created a great chance from a great cross from the right, only for it just to evade the toe of their attacker. The first key action point of the game would come in the 25th minute though, as a home attacker broke into the box and was clearly taken down by the keeper. Penalty to Voždovac. However, upstepped Masovic to hit the penalty, only for it to smash the post and fly out again. The Ultras had been very, very quiet up until that point, but the penalty miss strangely seemed to gee them up for a few minutes, maybe in an act of solidarity with the failed taker.
We’d noticed that the Voždovac goalie was a bit of a nutcase and we went on to chat about how all goalies are crazy really. Minutes later, his eccentricity took him running out of his goal to tackle an attacker, but the attacker skipped past him and rolled the ball into an empty net. 1-0 to Borac Čačak and, more significantly, this was their first goal of the season. A gift really.
There could have been goals for either side with Borac Čačak coming closest to scoring again, only for the keeper to redeem himself by denying the away team in a 1-on-1 situation.
Half-time: FK Voždovac 0 – 1 Borac Čačak.
During half-time, we went searching for water as if we had found ourselves in some sort of football stadium wasteland. The stewards just seemed to shrug and the only answer seemed to be use the taps in the toilet. More pathetically, Ilyas had told us that they were even confiscating bottles of water at the entrance. There was a very family-orientated crowd in the stand and nobody looked particularly capable of cleaning a player out with a bottle of water. I would have welcomed someone launching a full bottle at me in that weather anyway.
At half-time we got chatting to Ilyas a bit more and learned that he was Antwerp fan now living in London with a soft spot for West Ham (pre-Olympic Stadium it seemed). One thing he didn’t seem to want to talk about though was the Welsh national football team and their triumphs in Euro 2016. No idea why…anyway…
The second half got underway and Voždovac continued to push for an equaliser, although the better chances were falling for the away team. However, Voždovac eventually grabbed an equaliser in the 59th minute. The away team defence seemed to have things under control as they tried to pass it out from the defence down the right, before the ball was retrieved, crossed low across the box and the Voždovac attacker got ahead of the keeper at the near post to tap in the ball.
Voždovac pushed for a winner and they’d eventually get it, although they’d have to wait until the 88th minute. After several attempts of getting the ball into box, the ball eventually bobbled off a Voždovac player’s head to his team-mate who fluffed his volley; however, the fluffed volley trickled to the far post where Montenegrin substitute Perović tapped in the winner. The Ultras bounced about in the corner having remained subdued most of the evening and even the crazy goalkeeper ran the length of the pitch to celebrate the 88th minute strike.
There was still time for Voždovac to blaze a simple effort over the bar from about 6 yards in injury time, but that was it for my first ever game in Serbia. A fairly entertaining one to be honest.
Full-time: FK Voždovac 2 – 1 Borac Čačak.
Now dying of thirst, we tried to make a quick getaway from Stadion Shopping Centre, although with the shopping centre now closing it seemed security were blocking many of the entrances/exits out. After trying to navigate our way around the shopping centre, we eventually succumbed to having to retrace our steps and circle half the shopping centre to get to the bus stop, where we arrived just in time to watch the no.26 bus pull away and back towards the centre. Dammit!
Eventually we made it back to the centre just before 11pm and as Iain headed back to his hotel, I headed for the nearest shop, bought one massive bottle of water and pretty much downed it on the step outside. My body was almost drunk with happiness as it revelled in actual fluid. It was then to the Red Bar – the seemingly best bar on the touristy, cobbled street near Rhys’ flat, before charging my phone and going to find out where he was with his Finnish friend. As I noticed every night I was there, Belgrade was still very busy late into the night.
Purely for ticking the box of ‘I’ve seen football played on top of a shopping centre’ I was happy I had visited Voždovac that evening. However, the setup seems a bit shit and you definitely won’t find much atmosphere. I’d recommend going just to do it, just make sure you are well fed and watered beforehand!
Voždovac may have not had much/any atmosphere, but the next evening I was off to the mighty Crvena Zvedza, where there definitely was some…
Highlights: loving Belgrade, Samo Pivo, Voždovac easy to get to on the bus, quirky ground location, very cheap entry, decent game.
Low Points: awkward to find entrance, no refreshments at all, small crowd.
See all my photos from my first 24 hours in Belgrade here.
And check out all my photos from FK Voždovac here.