Enter the dragon

Soon to host England upcoming Euro 2016 qualifying game with Slovenia, the capital Ljubljana has been in football limbo in recent years. An ailing flagship club, Olimpija, a half-finished complex, Stozice, where England will play – plus a local fan boycott… But help is at hand in the form of former Portsmouth and Leicester owner Milan Mandaric, who takes over Olimpija the morning after the England game. Kester Eddy takes up the story.

Beset by a decade of chaos and without a league title in 20 years, Olimpija Ljubljana are looking to a former Yugoslav for salvation. The day after England visit the Slovenian capital, former owner of Leicester, Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Milan Mandaric, takes over its troubled flagship club.

The club who monopolised the Slovenian league immediately after the country gained independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, soon had to cede it to Gorica and then… Maribor. The most hated rivals of Olimpija and the Green Dragons fans who follow them, the Violets have just been crowned champions for the fifth time running.

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Stozice/Kester Eddy

‘The biggest problem is that the club is losing its identity,’ explained a leading Green Dragon. ‘Children from Ljubljana are today following Maribor, because they are successful and in the Champions League. In protest, we have been boycotting games at the Stozice and only going to away games instead.’

Mandaric has already set about reversing the negative trend by bringing in a new coach, Marijan Pusnik.

‘Now there is an atmosphere of expectation but also scepticism around the club, ‘ said Miha Hocevar, a sports correspondent with Slovenian daily ‘Delo’, which has cited the entrepreneur as paying €4 million for the club.

‘We believe that the success of this takeover lies in the people with whom he entrusts the leadership of the club. The signing of Pusnik adds a positive note, as he has brought in a Slovenian expert. A foreign owner, foreign general manager and foreign coach would have been a tough sell for the local crowd.’

Olimpija will have to attract fans back first. ‘The North Stand has been empty,’ said the Green Dragon. ‘Even when we went to the fifth division, we’re not as low as we are now.’

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Stozice/Kester Eddy

The stand is part of the national stadium where England will play on June 14, Stozice. Once the centrepiece of a plan for an extensive commercial complex, the Stozice has its own tale of mismanagement and under-funding. Today it’s a solitary arena, simple and adaptable, with a capacity of just under 17,000 for football matches and 23,000 for rock concerts. It was opened in 2010.

Created at a time of the financial crisis, when many associated construction companies folded, the Stozice project was never fully completed. There is a distinct absence of facilities in the immediate stadium area, that is, as the Green Dragon put it, ‘a concrete wasteland’.

Olimpija themselves folded in financial ruin in 2005. In the transition, the club was known as NK Bezigrad, after the previous national stadium they played in. This arena, too, has gone the way of the original club. Also north of the city centre, though not as far out as Stozice, Bezigrad remains a ruin, strangled in weeds, hardly an apt memorial for the greatest moment in Slovenian football history. In November 1999, Ljubljana-born Milenko Acimovic lobbed the Ukrainian goalkeeper late in the game of a Euro 2000 play-off here. The goal helped take Slovenia to their first major finals, the highpoint of the domestic game after independence in 1991.

Olimpija regained their old name in 2008 and then moved over to the newly opened Stozice. If anything has remained constant in the complex history of football in Ljubljana, it is the Green Dragons. In fact, if anything defines football in Ljubljana, it is the rivalry with Maribor, one that has existed as far back as the early 1960s.

‘Now in the last three years,’ said the Green Dragon, ‘we have changed three coaches, five managers and three sports directors. When previous owner Izet Rastoder came to the club, the debt was €1m. Now it’s €3m.’

Having to restart in Slovenia’s fifth division after 2005, Bezigrad/Olimpija began a run of four successive promotion seasons, to regain the top Prva Liga in 2009.

But even as they achieved the final promotion run in 2008-09, the club was in tumult, with the players in revolt against management and sponsors.

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Stozice/Kester Eddy

In 2010, Rastoder, by then the principal sponsor through his banana-importing company, Derby, was elected club president. His handling of the club soon irked the fan base, who alleged his autocratic style and financial arrangements were destroying the club’s long-term future. At the beginning of the 2014-15 campaign the Green Dragons declared their boycott.

‘There was no cash flow. Many of the tickets were given out for free, just to get people coming to home games.’

‘One year ago, we demanded a meeting, because the club is not a company, it’s a society. Each member has one vote. But Rastoder raised the membership subscription from €50 to €350 per year. €350 is half the average Slovenian salary. It’s not possible for ordinary people to pay that. I no longer have a vote, because he changed the rules.’

‘When the Green Dragons attended matches, we gave the club pride and fame. Olimpija should be a big club.’

For the Green Dragons, it was bad enough to see Maribor win a fifth straight title, but having Domzale, a small, dormitory town just 10km north of Ljubljana finish third, seven points above Olimpija, was a final humiliation. The gate was just 400.

So, the morning after Slovenia host England at Stozice, Mandaric moves in. Maybe it’s time for the Dragons to start breathing fire instead of hot air.

Slovenia-England, Stozice, Ljubljana. June 14, 6pm CET.

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