LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

FC Koper

Canaries celebrate centenary with return to PrvaLiga

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Slovenian champions in 2010, FC Koper have bounced back from financial collapse to claim a fourth domestic cup and almost a second title in 2022. It was the second time this century that a rescue mission was needed here on the Adriatic coast.

Back in 2005, wily US-Serbian entrepreneur Milan Mandarić stepped in as the club struggled to survive on the meagre revenues offered by the independent league. Koper’s fortunes were reversed and the Canaries even picked up two curtain-raising Supercups. 

After a more serious collapse in 2017, Koper were demoted to the fourth-tier LIttoral League and had to play their way up the ladder to regain top-tier status.

With hazy links back to the Circolo Sportivo Capodistriano of the 1920s, when this busy port was part of Italy, NK Koper were created in 1955 after the majority of Italian residents headed over the new border in the post-war population dispersal. Koper was now within Tito’s Yugoslavia and represented by one single football team, formed from the merger of local sports clubs Aurora and Medusa.

Stadion Bonifika/Peterjon Cresswell

Ascending to national level just once in the all-Yugoslav set-up, only to finish bottom of the second tier in 1986, Koper continued to trail behind the big fish from Maribor and Ljubljana when Slovenia organised its own league five years later.

Twice relegated, changing names from NK to FC Koper to avoid creditors, the club was in a pretty poor state when Mandarić was alerted to its plight around 2005. Koper-born winger Mladen Rudonja, who had played for his home-town team during that first season after independence before going on to win 65 caps, had crossed paths with Mandarić while on Portsmouth’s books for two undistinguished seasons. 

A popular figure in Slovenia, Rudonja not only had the playing experience to lead the Little Goats back up the PrvaLiga table, but the persuasive powers to convince his former employer to delve deep into his pockets and rid the club of debt.

Stadion Bonifika/Peterjon Cresswell

With Rudonja scoring an early opening goal and the decisive last penalty in the shoot-out, Koper overcame Celje on away turf to win a first Slovenian Cup in 2006. Central midfielder Anej Lovrečić, another Koper-born youth product, was back for the showcase event in Celje the following year to help his club defend their trophy, this time against Maribor. 

Koper’s goalkeeper for both finals was Jasmin Handanović, who then went on to win five league titles with Maribor. Returning veteran Ermin Hasić took his place in goal, going on to make over 300 appearances in goal for the Canaries.

In 2009, Koper landed 63-cap midfielder and national hero Miran Pavlin, responsible for the goal that sent Slovenia to Euro 2000. With spells at Freiburg and Porto, and a long stint at later bankrupt Olimpija Ljubljana, the 38-year-old Pavlin struck up a midfield partnership with Dalibor Radujko, on Koper’s books since his teens. 

A member of the local SC Bonifika team twice beaten in promotional play-offs for top-tier accession, Radujko revelled in the role of playmaker. Picking up vital wins at Maribor and Gorica, Koper went on a 15-game unbeaten run to canter ahead of Maribor and win a first league title.

Stadion Bonifika/Peterjon Cresswell

Player-of-the-season Pavlin was still captain when Koper took an early lead at Dinamo Zagreb in the subsequent Champions League qualifier, only to be hit by five goals in 50 minutes, two from a rampant Mario Mandžukić. 

Shifting the home leg to Nova Gorica and lining up without the ageing Pavlin, Koper took a 3-0 lead over the Croatians thanks to a 78th-minute penalty and red card for Zagreb captain Igor Bišćan. With Dinamo on the ropes, Koper failed to find the vital fourth goal. Pavlin ended his playing career immediately afterwards.

With goals from veteran international striker Milan Osterc, Koper still achieved third place in 2011 as their venerable Bonifika underwent major renovation. Hosting the consequent Europa League fixture with Shakhter Karagandy, Koper again flopped in Europe, succumbing to a stoppage-time penalty that gave the visitors 1-1 draw to take back to Kazakhstan. There, another late goal put the tie beyond reach.

Stadion Bonifika/Peterjon Cresswell

With the Stadion Bonifika now staging the Slovenian Cup final, Koper striker Jaka Štromajer capped a long playing career by coming off the bench to notch a late goal that granted his club more silverware in 2015.

Spurred on by two goals by young Bosnian midfielder Amar Rahmanović, Koper surprised Hajduk Split in the Europa League, going ahead 3-1 in a memorable night at the Bonifika but again conceded at the death. The Dalmatians had too much for the Slovenians in the second leg.

The arrival of coach Igor Pamić, who began his much-travelled career at the Bonifika, in October 2016 did little to transform Koper’s mediocre season but the real problem was behind the scenes.

Under city mayor and profligate club owner Boris Popović, in thrall to persuasive players’ agents, Koper’s squad and wage bill ballooned. Creaking veterans such as former Liverpool star Albert Riera hardly suited the modest demands of the Slovenian league. The club failed to make Europe in 2016-17, failed to pay wages and failed to gain a professional licence for 2017-18. The withdrawal of sponsorship by the city’s harbour authorities proved to be the final straw.

Stadion Bonifika/Peterjon Cresswell

Koper had to restart from the bottom up: the Littoral League, one of six regional divisions at the fourth and lowest tier of the senior Slovenian game. Against modest opponents from around the Adriatic coast, the Canaries sailed through without a defeat and with a goal difference of 118-2. The third and second tiers were scaled in similar fashion, allowing Koper to return to the PrvaLiga in three straight seasons.

A tricky campaign back at the top resulted in a relegation play-off that proved fortuitous in more ways than just a hard-won victory over promotion-seeking Krka. Led by Zoran Zeljković, the Greens of Krka showed their mettle by reversing a 0-2 deficit from the first leg to take a 3-0 lead in Koper.

Although the home side hit two late goals to calm the Bonifika crowd, stalwart Koper midfielder Ivica Guberac knew tactical savvy when he saw it. Though the veteran was on the bench for the decisive home leg shortly before his retirement, he advised his father Ante to offer Zeljković the coaching post at Koper.

Involved in his home-town club since 1997, stepping away from the scene in the Popović era, Ante Guberac had returned to steer Koper immediately afterwards. He duly followed his son’s instructions.

Stadion Bonifika/Peterjon Cresswell

It didn’t take long for Zeljković to change things around, bringing in key players from his previous club. One Krka hire, Luka Tičić, had followed Zeljković from Ilirija in 2019. Turning 21 during the 2021-22 campaign, a regular for Slovenia in that age group, this defensive midfielder stood out in wins over then champions Mura, Olimpija Ljubljana and Maribor.

Ex-Boston United striker Lamin Colley and, brought over from Krka, Jamaican forward Kaheem Parris, starred with Tičić in the 3-1 win over Bravo that brought Koper their first major silverware since the 2017 meltdown.

Also chasing the double, Koper then fell at the last hurdle to allow in Maribor for yet another title. 

With Zeljković still at the Bonifika, Tičić too, Koper remained in strong contention for a European place in 2023.

Stadium Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Venue for the Slovenian Cup final since a major renovation in 2010, the all-seated Stadion Bonifika is a gleaming, modern, functional stadium of 4,000 capacity. Set on main Ljubljanska cesta that leads from the motorway and transport stations into town, it’s a short walk from Koper’s historic centre, its 38-metre-high leaning floodlights a familiar local landmark.

Named after the area it stands on, the Bonifika replaced the original ground that dated back to 1948. While soccer-specific – a running track, sports hall and pool sit alongside – the stadium only really fills out for league games if Maribor or Olimpija. Most gates are otherwise in three figures. The Bonifika is also used for international friendlies, such as games against Scotland and Macedonia in recent years.

Home fans gather in the main stand or the end nearest the car park, both roofed. The scant away support is allocated the open scoreboard end, with the imposing Banka Koper building behind it, accessed via gate (vhod/ingresso) 2 on cesta Zore Perello-Godina.

getting there

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

The Bonifika is 7-8min walk from Koper’s bus and train stations – head up Kolodvorska towards town, take the first left onto Ljubljanska cesta at the roundabout, then the first right at the next roundabout. You will have long seen the tall floodlights away to your left.

The stadium has its own bus stop (Stadion/Stadio) on the No.1 line that runs from Šalara via the Mercator shopping centre, but it’s not worth the bother unless you’re staying at the out-of-town Hotel Bio.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

Admission for all parts of the ground is an across-the-board €10 in cash on the day – availability is never a problem. There are no online sales.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The club has no regular outlet for merchandise although you can buy a FC Koper scarf or T-shirt during the week from the club office at the stadium.

A stand with a modest selection of souvenirs is set up outside the main entrance on match days.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

Three establishments line Ljubljanska cesta behind the main stand: a bar, a café and a fast-food outlet.

The bar, Pub 33, doubles up as a live-music venue, where bands with daft names (‘Kill Kenny’, ‘Cold Snap’, ‘No Air’, ‘Captain Morgan’s Revenge’) tread the boards then get their Kodak snap posted to the wall for posterity. The rest of the time, Pub 33 is an excellent hangout, with TV screens on facing walls for football, cheap Grolsch on draught and Stiegl by the bottle, and seats outside. If you’re here for a middling fixture, Koper-Rudar Velenje say, you’ll be tempted to stay put.

The more recently opened Bon Capo tends towards the Aperol Spritz with a platter of finely sliced ham and cheeses on the side. Contemporary café and lounge bar, Bon Capo encourages custom on match days but the rest of the time serves sought-after San Servolo craft beer from Istria to the post-work crowd. TV football is screened, DJs spin, well-heeled Capodistrians chat.

Between the two, Fast Food Sante provides quality pizzas, burek and panini, plus a row of pavement tables for relaxed snacking – but no booze.

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