Talismanic stage for Bosnia’s national team to pull off improbable feats, Bilino polje is the regular home of NK Čelik, flagship club of the industrial town of Zenica.
Čelik, ‘Steel’, were formed in 1945, theyear that Communist leader Tito took control of Yugoslavia – Bilino polje is a classic Socialist-era stadium dating back to 1972.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Čelik had played at the legendary Stadion Blatuša, surrounded on three sides by the characteristic local features of a factory, a railway track and a casino. With its cinder running track and wooden stand, the Blatuša perfectly suited the standard of football being played there.
Though Čelik were more a second-flight proposition in the strong all-Yugoslav league, occasionally winning promotion through their regional division, in the early 1970s they won two Mitropa Cups, competing against other teams from industrial hubs of Eastern Europe. The pre-war tournament was a forerunner of the European Cup – the post-war version pitched factory teams from behind the Iron Curtain with the reserve sides of Serie A stalwarts to keep football betting going in the off season.
Bribery scandals surrounded the club and blackened their last days in the all-Yugoslav league.
Domestic success didn’t come until after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Čelik had produced the likes of Zenica-born international striker Elvir Bolić, known for his famous winning goal for Fenerbahce at Old Trafford, though many families had fled during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s – later Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren spent most of his boyhood in Munich after his family escaped from Zenica.
Football was an important factor as Bosnia started on the long path of recovery from civil war.
Čelik won the first Bosnian championship in 1995, a cantonised, play-off affair staged while the conflict was still raging, then won the next two.
Bosnia also played their first official home international in Zenica, against Albania in 1996 but once they were accepted in the FIFA fold they chose Sarajevo’s Koševo Stadium to stage early World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Greece, Slovenia and Denmark.
While at club level Čelik were being overshadowed by the main clubs of Sarajevo and Herzegovina, so gradually the Bilino polje was gaining its talismanic status for the national side and its burgeoning golden generation. In 2003, a late strike by Zlatan Bajramović saw Bosnia beat a decent Norway team in a packed house at the Bilino polje. A month later, in Sarajevo, a draw by Denmark barred Bosnia’s way to Euro 2004.
A 7-0 win over Estonia, a 2-1 win over Romania, a 3-1 win over Greece, they all happened in Zenica, paving the way for the historic qualification for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.
Meanwhile Čelik have remained top-flight – and mainly mid-table. Such are the club’s financial problems that not even a fourth-placed finish in 2013 offered passage to the Europa League. Dissatisfied with how their club is being run, hard-core following the Robijaši have been staging a boycott the Bilino polje, meaning that league games are played out before three-figure crowds.
Built in under a year in 1972, the Bilino polje replaced the rickety Stadion Blatuša and gave hosts NK Čelik a more suitablestage for their occasionally forays in the top-flight of Yugoslavia and the Mitropa Cup.
But it wasn’t until the national team of Bosnia began to play there, from 1996 onwards, and began to win there in dramatic circumstances, from 2003 onwards, that the Bilino polje gained its special status in the domestic game.
As opposed to the bowl-like Koševo Stadium in Sarajevo, the rectangular Bilino polje comprises four stands set close to the pitch, giving it its unique atmosphere – when filled to its capacity of 15,000, reduced to under 12,000 for major fixtures. Location also helps, right in the town centre of the industrial hub of Zenica, backed up close to the river.
The biggest noise comes from the South Stand, the Južna Tribina, traditional home of the radical followers of host club NK Čelik. Though the Robijaši have a somewhat muted relationship with their club these days, for big international games, given the nationwide support for Bosnia’s Dragons, the atmosphere is still very much a fiery one here.
Visiting supporters are usually allocated a section of the North Stand, Sjeverna Tribina.
The Bilino polje is a short walk from Zenica’s adjoining bus and train stations. For international matches, visiting supporters are usually bussed in from Sarajevo.
For Čelik games, a few hundred spectators pay a couple of euros at the gate. For major internationals, the Bosnian FA distributes through the Centrotours travel agency at downtown Maršala Tita 63, prices set at KM40/€20 for the best seats in the West Stand (Zapadna Tribina), KM30/€15 opposite in the East Stand (Istočna Tribina) and KM20/€10 behind the goals in the South (Južna) and North (Sjeverna) Stands.
Supporters from visiting national teams should check on prices and availability with their own FAs.
For big internationals, bars and cafés around the stadium such as the green-awninged Avanti, close. The rest of the week, its terrace is filled all day with older regulars.