Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
The Slovenian capital of Ljubljana has long lost the honour of being the country’s football capital too. At least flagship club Olimpija have emerged from their defunct, scandal-ridden predecessors – three title wins, in 2016, 2018 and 2023, have managed to break Maribor’s stranglehold on the domestic game.
Help has come in the form of Milan Mandarić. The former Portsmouth and Leicester owner took over Olimpija in June 2015, the day after England played Slovenia here.
In the transition following the 2005 collapse, Olimpija were briefly known as NK Bežigrad, after the stadium they played in. This arena, too, has gone the way of the original club. Now Stožice, also north of the city centre, is one of three main venues used by the national team.
Hosting England’s visit in 2015, Stožice is another sorry saga of mismanagement and under-funding. Once the centrepiece of a plan for an extensive commercial complex, now yet to be completed, Stožice is a simple, adaptable arena with a capacity of just under 17,000 for football matches and 23,000 for rock concerts. It was opened in 2010.
Olimpija regained their old name in 2008 and then moved over to Stožice. If anything has remained constant in the complex history of football in Ljubljana, it is the fans of this main club, the Dragons. In fact, if anything defines football in Ljubljana, it is the rivalry with Maribor, one that existed back in Yugoslav times, as far back as the early 1960s.
With Maribor’s domination of the Slovenian game following Olimpija’s demise, the rivalry between the Dragons and Maribor’s Viole is as intense as ever – while on the pitch, Ljubljana wins since 2005 were few and far between until recent success.
Bežigrad, meanwhile, remains a ruin, strangled in weeds, hardly an apt memorial for the greatest moment in Slovenian football history. In November 1999, Ljubljana-born Milenko Ačimović 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 from Yugoslavia in 1991.
But there’s more than football history surrounding Bežigrad. As a stadium, it was designed by Jože Plečnik, the country’s greatest architect, who also worked on Prague Castle and Ljubljana’s landmark Triple Bridge. Built between the wars for a Czech-based sports organisation, Bežigrad became the home of the newly founded Olimpija Ljubljana from 1945.
Olimpija were formed from the ashes of SK Ljubljana, themselves created from the two main local clubs for the pre-war era, Ilirija and Primorje. Ilirija still exist, based at the sports park of the same name and holding their own in the central division of the third flight.
Olimpija competed with the likes of Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in the top Yugoslav league from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, even making early rounds of European competitions. But Ljubljana was a relative backwater in the overall Yugoslav set-up, staging only two internationals in 70 years and contributing few players to the national side.
Exceptions were Branko Oblak and Srečko Katanec, both ex-Olimpija players and later Slovenia managers.
Milenko Acimovic played under both, starting out at Ljubljana’s other main club, Železničar, originally attached to the railways. A regular fixture in Yugoslavia’s second league, Zeleznicar were taken over by Svoboda in 1989 and played in the 21-strong (!) inaugural Slovenian league in 1991-92.
The story becomes complicated when the club became known as NK Ljubljana (or, simply, ‘Ljubljana’), playing at the former Železničar’s Railway Sports Society stadium.
Like Olimpija, who dominated the first four years of the independent championship, NK Ljubljana were dissolved in 2005. Like Olimpija, a new club was established in their place, FC Ljubljana, who lasted until 2011. The link between NK and FC Ljubljana is somewhat flimsy and not recognised officially.
Meanwhile, another side from Slovenia’s capital have been competing in the top flight since winning the Second League in 2019. NK Bravo are based at the Šiška Sports Park or ŽAK Stadium, a short hop by bus 14 from Bavarski dvor to Podmilščakova five stops away. The Bravo bar at the stadium is decorated with pennants and scarves from Bolton to Rad Belgrade.
Arriving in town, local transport and timings
Ljubljana’s Jože Pučnik Airport is 24 km (15 miles) north-west of the capital. A bus (€4.10) runs hourly (Mon-Fri) and every 2hrs (Sat, Sun) to Ljubljana bus terminal (journey time 50mins) adjacent to the train station near the city centre. For a timetable, see www.alpetour.si/avtobusni-vozni-redi – type in Letališče Brnik for the airport and Ljubljana AP for the bus station.
The city centre is walkable. Public transport consists of buses that run on the Urbana smart card (€2, refundable from the Tourist Office). There’s a flat fare of €1.20 per journey, valid 90mins with changes.
For a city taxi, call Taxi drustvo Ljubljana on +386 1 234 9000/+386 31 234 000.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
Traditionally, red-branded Union is the beer of Ljubljana, as opposed to the provincial green of Laško – but both main brews are now under the same umbrella.
Many bars cluster around the Old Town and its riverbanks – in particular waterside Petkovškovo nabrežje and parallel Trubarjeva cesta. There you’ll find the Premier Pub, a standard expat-friendly faux tavern decked out in football scarves with a terrace overlooking the Ljubljanica. Further down the embankment, by the Dragon Bridge, Harat’s is the local branch of this 80-strong worldwide chain based in Irkutsk, Siberia.
Nearby, Patrick’s Irish Pub also shows live sport, offering to show a match you may not see on the website schedule if you call them (+386 1 230 1768). Round the corner, the England Pub is run by Anglophile Tomaž, depicted with Nemanja Vidić inside. Blackpool, Leicester and Wolves get a decorative look-in, along with paintings of Supermarine Spitfires. There’s a decent selection of ales and a small terrace. Of similar ilk are the Cutty Sark Pub, set in a courtyard of other bars and restaurants, and the neat Guinness Pub.
A key local football haunt is the Lepa Žoga (‘Nice Ball’, as in ‘pass’, a favourite phrase of a local TV commentator), with ten screens and a huge one in the courtyard. It’s reasonably close to the train station, by Tivoli Park, and near the Union Brewery, which has its own pub.
Also within easy reach of the train station, the Pelikan Pub backs onto a small shopping centre on Slovenska cesta, with a big screen for TV sports inside and a range of craft beer. Round the corner on Nazorjeva, party-focused Shooters springs into action after 10pm. Back on the main road, in operation since 1992, Holidays’ Pub offers TV football in authentic surroundings.
For a cosy drink, perhaps a meal, two minutes from your train, rustic Kratchowill on Kolodvorska couldn’t be more homely.
Last but certainly not least, further down the riverbank, Slovenska Hiša is a waterside meeting place for local sports fans, football given priority and rows of deckchairs set outside in summer.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the stadium and city centre
Closest to the stadium, the Austria Trend Hotel is a modern four-star with a spa and conference facilities.
Right by Bavarski dvor, the bus stop for the stadium, the Grand Plaza offers glitz, convenience and 354 guest rooms. Facing it across main Slovenska cesta, the high-rise InterContinental Ljubljana provides a panoramic pool, gym and spa.
In town, within walking distance of extensive Tivoli Park, the Lev is a Socialist-era landmark, now a business-friendly operation with its own pool. The four-star Best Western Slon is another smart option, with Technogym equipment and conference facilities.
Close to the Triple Bridge, the upmarket Grand Hotel Union houses a spa behind its Art Nouveau façade and coffeehouse terrace. Close by, the mid-range City Hotel is also handy, with its own gym and laundry service.
Attached to the England Pub, the Turn Hostel is ideal for barcrawlers on a budget, as is the ibis Styles Ljubljana Centre near the station, with the added bonus of a rooftop bar. Further into town on Štefanova, the trendy Urban Hotel appeals to travellers on a city break.
Cheaper and closer to the river, the Hotel Park is of a good standard, tucked away in a quiet corner within easy reach of the city’s bar strip. More convenient for the bus and train stations, the Central is a handy mid-range option.
For a cheap bed, the Celica close to the station is a hostel that was once a prison, part of a former military barracks now a complex of bars, live-music venues and artists’ studios. Brightly decorated old cells have two to 12 beds to a room with prices starting at €18 in winter. Those wishing privacy can pay the cost of the other beds in the room.
what to buy
Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts
Right in town, the NZS Store (Mestni trg 25, Mon-Fri 10am-8pm, Sat 10am-4pm) is the official outlet of the Slovenian Football Association, stocking replica shirts of the national team with the jazzy mountain-peak logo, T-shirts and copies of the official history of the SFA, NZS100.
As Slovenia play in Nike gear, then the store also sells Roma, Atlético Madrid and Tottenham gear, among others, plus everything referees require, from black tops to whistles.