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To say that Serbian football is dominated by two teams is to utter an immense understatement, as Partizan and Red Star Belgrade have shared 25 of the 26 league titles in the post-Yugoslav era. Who won that other championship? It is a story of war criminals, pop stars, and an admittedly mean defence.
The 1997/98 Serbian League (then the First League of FR Yugoslavia) was won by an unheralded side by the name of FK Obilić. You won’t find them on the current roster of teams however, and their title win was shrouded in violence, crime and no small amount of controversy. The story of FK Obilić begins in 1924, when the club was founded by a group of young Serbs in Belgrade. The club performed strongly initially, before World War II arrived to put a stop to soccer in the region.
FK Obilić didn’t get off to a strong start in the Yugoslav era, as the club was forced to change its name as it was considered ‘too Serbian’. Seeing as the club was named after the hero of the Battle of Kosovo, it is easy to see why. FK Obilić became FK Čuburac, and decades of mediocrity followed, although the Obilić name returned in 1952. The club never made it to the top tier of Yugoslav football, only making it to the statewide leagues in 1988.
FK Obilić did well in the initial post-Yugoslav seasons, reaching the final of the Yugoslav Cup in 1995 before finally gaining promotion to the second level of the top tier a season later. The team was bought by Željko Ražnatovic in June 1996, and the glory years (well, year) were soon to begin.
The name ‘Željko Ražnatović’ might not prick many ears, but that of ‘Arkan’ might ring a few more bells. Arkan was one of the most feared paramilitary leaders in the nation, a veteran of the Yugoslav wars who was one of the leading names on the Most Wanted list of The Hague. A career criminal, Arkan made a name for himself in his younger years by robbing banks throughout Europe and managing to escape from a number of prisons, before returning to Yugoslavia to take part and profit in the chaos and violence.
With the wars over, Arkan decided to occupy himself by purchasing a football club. FK Obilić were promoted to the top table in his first season, before shocking the world by winning the 1997/98 Yugoslav First League. The team won the title in style too, losing just one match all season and falling short of the double after losing the cup final. For a club that was the definition of anonymous less than a decade prior, it was a remarkable rise.
FK Obilić almost made it to the group stages of the Champions League a year later, falling at the final qualifying hurdle to the mighty Bayern Munich. The club also failed to successfully defend its domestic title, finishing in second place just two points behind Partizan, although it did go through the entire season undefeated. A third place followed in 1999/2000, but things had changed.
The threat of being prohibited from taking part in European competition meant that Arkan had taken a back step from running the club. Arkan’s wife, Serbian pop star Ceca, took over instead. She didn’t hold the position of president for long, but the sight of the glamorous superstar taking to the bench in high heels and a tight dress wasn’t likely to be forgotten too swiftly.
The glory days were well and truly over, and FK Obilić were relegated from the top league in 2005/06. Things got much worse however, and by 2013 the club found itself in the seventh tier of Serbian football. As of today, only the women’s team is active.
So how did FK Obilić manage so much success in such a short time? Having a convicted war criminal as president has its perks, to say the least. There were reports of opposition players receiving intimidating phone calls the night before games, leading to them withdrawing at the last minute. A number of referees came forward years later and revealed that Arkan frequently charged into their dressing room at half time, holding guns to heads and threatening officials with death if the ‘right’ decisions were not made.
If the other team were performing a little too well, Arkan would sometimes make an impromptu trip into the away dressing room, making sure everyone knew the consequences of playing ‘too well’. The fans of FK Obilić actually abandoned their team at its most successful point, being replaced by thugs and militants fresh from the battlefields of Bosnia and Croatia.
Arkan backed away from the club after he was refused entry to Germany for the Bayern match, but he wasn’t long for the world. He was gunned down in a Belgrade hotel in January 2000, and nobody was surprised by the brutal nature of this public execution. A raid on the Ražnatović mansion in 2011 exposed the financial side of their time in charge of Obilić, as the celebrity couple embezzled millions of dollars in transfer funds.
And today? FK Obilić is as good as dead in the water, Arkan is literally dead, and Ceca released her 16th album in 2016.