For decades, the game in Serbia has been dominated by Partizan and Red Star. Now a new contender has emerged: FK Cukaricki. On the eve of his club’s debut appearance in the Serbian Cup final, Igor Teofanovic speaks to Peterjon Cresswell about taking on the big two.
Tomorrow the Serbian Cup Final takes place at the Marakana, iconic home of Red Star Belgrade. Striding out onto the pitch will be the players of Partizan Belgrade, already crowned 2015 league champions, their eight title in nine years.
Alongside them, however, won’t be Red Star – but FK Cukaricki. Only elbowed out of a runners-up spot in the league last Saturday, the first privately owned club in the country can now be considered a new force in Serbian football.
‘This season we have produced fantastic results against both Red Star, 2-0, and Partizan, 2-2,’ said Igor Teofanovic, IT manager at Cukaricki’s parent company, ADOC. ‘But tomorrow would be the perfect opportunity to beat the new champions and show that we’re not where we are by accident.’
The cup finalists come from an area of south-west Belgrade known as Banovo Brdo. Although in operation since 1926, FK Cukaricki (‘Chukaritchki’) spent most of those decades in the lower reaches of the Yugoslav and Serbian game. As Cukaricki Stankom, they nurtured current Manchester City defender Aleksandar Kolarov but achieved little until almost going bankrupt in November 2011.
It was then that entrepreneur Dragan Obradovic, a former Cukaricki player and head of ADOC, a Belgrade-based pharmaceutical and diagnostics company, stepped in. Buying the club and its debts, Obradovic steered his alma mater to calmer waters. Avoiding relegation from the second flight, Serbia’s first privatised club were also renamed FK Cukaricki from the previous Stankom.
Putting in place a clear ownership structure, Obradovic motivated his increasing workforce and watched as former Cukaricki Stankom junior Slobodan Dincic scored the goals that gained the Black-and-Whites promotion in 2013.
Veteran midfielder Igor Matic continued to lead Cukaricki to a surprising fifth place in Super League in 2013-14, goals now coming from young striker Nikola Stojiljkovic.
Both Matic and Stojiljkovic continued to shine in the club’s best-ever season, 2014-15. But if anything typifies the quiet revolution at Cukaricki, it’s Slavoljub Srnic. A product of Red Star’s renowned academy, this young winger left a pile of unpaid salaries at the Marakana for a more modest but regular wage at Cukaricki.
The result? A successful 2014-15 campaign, a call-up to the national under-21 team and the security that he’s got money coming in every month.
In fact, paying players’ salaries – lower than those at Serbia’s big-name clubs but incentivised with significant bonuses – is only part of the new-look set-up at Cukaricki. Junior players are encouraged to join, train and play at the Banovo Brdo complex, with its two new training pitches. Membership is free and numbers have doubled to 250 in recent months. Ultimately, the aim is for the junior ranks to feed the first team.
‘It’s really not easy to break through the dominance of the big two,’ concluded Cukaricki’s Igor Teofanovic, referring to a league and cup monopolised by Partizan and Red Star since 1993.
‘But I would say that our mission is well underway. One of our goals was to challenge and change the long-existing order in Serbian football, one step at a time. We need to maintain our quality – and devote our energies to the development of our junior sections. After that, the sky’s the limit.’
Their stadium has seen its main, west stand overhauled and floodlights modernised. It has even witnessed European football, Cukaricki entering the Europa League by the back door last summer.
This summer, entry will have been earned either by third-place finishers – or Serbian Cup winners.