Set some 70km north-west of Sarajevo, Zenica is a former industrial hub that has played a special role in the slow rebuilding of formerly war-torn Bosnia. Its steel mills and coalmines no longer functioning, Zenica has contributed to the global profile of this emerging nation by taking over from the capital, Sarajevo, as the talismanic host of Bosnia’s national football team.
The ‘Zmajevi’ sealed their most famous victories here at the Bilino polje, the wins over Greece and Liechtenstein that paved passage to Brazil and an encounter with Messi’s Argentina at the Maracanã for Bosnia’s debut on the world stage in 2014.
Although Bosnia played their first official home international in Zenica, against Albania in 1996, once they were accepted in the FIFA fold they chose Sarajevo’s Koševo Stadium to stage World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Greece, Slovenia and Denmark.
Home of NK Čelik (‘Steel’), Zenica only later began to share then later monopolise hosting rights for the national team. The record may show a total of seven defeats during this time but, much like Seville’s mercurial effect on the Spanish team in the 1980s, Zenica was thought to have its own special power. Here Norway, Belgium and Romania were all put to the sword, Spain, Portugal and Turkey escaping with a draw.
There’s also another factor. While Bosnian football remains as bitterly divided as this shattered post-war nation, like the Red Devils for Belgians, Zenica encourages a sense of unity.
Sadly this unity has been lost at club level. Winners of the first Bosnian championship in 1995, a cantonised, play-off affair staged while the conflict was still raging, Čelik have not won any silverware since their third consecutive title in 1997. Their core supporters, the Robijaši have been boycotting league games at the Bilino polje due to what they perceive as mismanagement at the club.
Currently fighting relegation, Čelik attract three-figure crowds to the riverside Bilino polje, with little prospect of improvement.
On the plus side, Zenica is also home to the Bosnian FA training centre, opened in 2013 by Michel Platini when he was head of UEFA. Over the next two years, the site was further developed and now features three outdoor pitches, an indoor arena, a hotel and spa. Set on Crkvice on the other side of the river from town, it stages women’s internationals. Close by on the same main road are two handy pre-match spots: the standard Caffe Bar Rio and Kod Rasima, a classic, age-old Bosnian grill restaurant with everyone’s favourite meaty dishes on the menu, cevapcici and pljeskavica.
The nearest airport to Zenica is Sarajevo, 76km (47 miles) away, 11km (seven miles) south-west of Sarajevo itself.
There’s no public transport into town. The easiest way to Zenica from Sarajevo airport is if you’re staying by the Bilino polje stadium at the Hotel Dubrovnik (see below Bed), who can arrange a direct transfer at €40 for one guest, €70 for two and €90 for three.
Doing it independently can be hard work.
Much-maligned Sarajevo Taxi (+387 33 660 666) can charge up to 30KM/€15 into the capital – it may be worth to shop around outside the terminal and agree a fee of around 20KM/€10 with, say, Crveni Taxi (+387 33 760 600). Set a price and/or make sure the taxi driver switches the meter on first.
Sarajevo’s bus and train stations at put Živote 2 are also west of the centre – if you’re heading straight there from the airport, the fare should be no more than 15KM/€7.50.
A train from Sarajevo to Zenica is priced at KM7/€3.50 but services are infrequent at best.
Most of the 15-20 buses a day from Sarajevo take 90min. There are few services from mid-morning to early afternoon.
Zenica itself is walkable. Taxis should otherwise be cheap and plentiful – +387 61 646 849 is the central phone number.
There are three main hotels in town, all close to the stadium. Practically next door, the Hotel Internacional is a Socialist-style three-star but with a sun-catching café terrace and large restaurant. Doubles go for around KM100/€50, singles KM60/€30.
The four-star Dubrovnik needs an English version of its website but is otherwise modern and comfortable. Doubles go for KM160/€80, singles KM90/€45 – there are 34 units in all – and the hotel contains three restaurants, a pub, a wine bar and a pâtisserie.
Just over the river, the Zenica is also relatively new, with some 80 rooms and suites, a spa, gym, pool and sauna, and two restaurants.
The only other option is the homely Pansion Fontana by the university campus south-west of town, in operation since 1978, with singles at 70KM/€35 and doubles at KM100/€50. Its restaurant terrace overlooks the Kočeva stream that feeds into the Bosna.
Best spot for football fans is Hennessy, near the river, characterised by TV football, live music and Celtic paraphernalia on the walls. In the similar vein, south-west of the city centre, Stari Sat has been operating as an Irish bar for over a decade, its large terrace busy on summer evenings.
You’ll find TV football at extensive, movie-themed Caffè&Food Bar Film, with live music too. Opened in the summer of 2013, the Cabaret Lounge provides a trendy touch while still giving priority to TV football.
Its logo a combination of Starbucks and comic-book hero Corso Maltese, Backstage maintains an arty feel inside but, again, doesn’t skimp on televised football action.
Finally, for a straightforward football bar, Club 072 is a red-and-black muralled meeting place for Čelik fans.