LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

NK Osijek

Old club of Croatian hero Šuker in Hungarian hands

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

Representing the capital of Slavonia, NK Osijek are hoping to follow the example of Rijeka and break the Zagreb monopoly on the domestic Croatian game. True, since the establishment of independent Croatian competitions in 1992, the boardroom shows one cup trophy, but that could be about to change.

The takeover of the club by Hungarian and Croatian entrepreneurs, Lőrinc Mészáros and Ivan Meštrović, in 2016, not only brought European football back to Osijek for the first time in five years, but financed a best-ever run for the Bijelo-plavi, the White and Blues. 

Towards the end of that 2017-18 season, the first full one under the new ownership, Meštrović announced the building of a new stadium and complex by the river Drava, due for completion in 2020. Two consecutive fourth-placed finishes in the league represent Osijek’s best showing for a decade. 

The stadium wouldn’t be completed until the summer of 2023, the Opus Arena chosen to host its first international that October, a vital Euro clash between Croatia and Turkey.

Gradski vrt/Peterjon Cresswell

Founded as Proleter Osijek in 1947, the club did little when part of the all-Yugoslav set-up other than change names to Slavonija, then to NK Osijek. Even when local boy Davor Šuker, in his farewell season of 1988-89, was top league scorer in Yugoslavia, Osijek only finished mid-table.

More revered here are the prolific Robert Špehar, with three spells at his home-town club, and fellow striker Petar Krpan, who opened the scoring when Osijek turned over Anderlecht 3-1 in a UEFA Cup match. 

Coming shortly after Croatia’s memorable 1998 World Cup run, Krpan a playing member of the squad, the game seemed to usher in a new era for the Bijelo-plavi but an away-goals defeat was followed by an easy win for West Ham over the Slavonian side in the same competition a year later.

Opus Arena/Beáta Bóbics

The same season culminated in Osijek’s only silverware, a cup final and Slavonian derby victory over Cibalia Vinkovci, thanks to two goals in stoppage time. Qualifying for Europe four years in succession, Osijek gained impressive wins over Rapid Vienna and Brøndby, but never progressed further than three rounds in the UEFA Cup.

It would be another decade before Europe beckoned, and another five years before the 2016 ownership takeover allowed the club to attract the likes of Macedonian international striker Muzafer Ejupi and much-travelled Ukrainian midfielder Dmytro Lyopa. 

Ejupi scored in each leg as Osijek claimed victory over Lucerne in the 2017-18 UEFA Cup, before captain Borna Barišić converted a penalty at PSV Eindhoven to register the only goal of a remarkable away-leg triumph. In front of 15,000 at the Gradski vrt, Croatian under-21 winger Petar Bočkaj, another recent signing, hit the only goal of the second leg to eliminate the the multi-titled Dutch club.

Gradski vrt/Peterjon Cresswell

Osijek’s stadium was packed again for the visit of Austria Vienna, Ejupi opening the scoring to put the Slavonians within touching distance of the group stage. The visitors then hit two away goals, a solitary one in the second leg by Gabrijel Boban, a distant cousin of Zvonimir, not enough to further Osijek’s interest in the competition.

Further signings, of goalkeeper Ivica Ivušić and attacking midfielder Karlo Kamenar, both with international appearances for Croatia at youth level, kept Osijek on the European stage – for six straight seasons until 2023, the Bijelo-plavi contested the qualifying rounds of the lesser competitions.

In between, the Opus Arena opened to great fanfare in July 2023, though fans began to turn against the Hungarian management following a shock aggregate defeat by Adana Demirspor of Turkey. Poor league form followed, and Osijek will need the prolific goalscoring of Argentine striker Ramón Mierez if they are going to maintain their European pedigree.

Stadium Guide

The field of dreams – and the story behind it

The first new stadium to be built in Croatia for many a year, the Opus Arena was mainly financed by Hungarian money. The cost of €65 million was part-divided between a grant from the Hungarian government and the Budapest-based Hungarian conglomerate, Opus Global, now nearly a quarter-owned by Hungarian oligarch, Lőrinc Mészáros. The name of the stadium is therefore no coincidence. 

Capacity of 13,005 allows for internationals to be played here, although tickets for the first one, Croatia’s vital clash with Turkey in October 2023, sold out in eight minutes. For domestic fixtures, Osijek’s hard-core following, the Kohorta, occupy sector D3 behind the south goal or Tribina Jug. Away fans are allocated sector B4 (gate/ulaz G5) at the opposite end, the north goal, Tribuna Sjever. 

VIPs and press gather in the main Tribina Zapad along one sideline, with decent, affordable seats found in the Tribina Istok opposite. Sightlines are excellent.

The club’s old home of the Gradski vrt was built in 1958, modernised in 1980 when tenants NK Osijek were in Yugoslavia’s top flight, then provided with individual seating in 1998. Its steep-sloping open stand on the east (Istok) side was the home of the Kohorta. Capacity was just under 19,000, though the average gate for domestic fixtures was 3,000. Gradski vrt will now be used by the reserve side.

getting here

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

The Opus Arena is on the tram 1 line, beside the stop called Pampas, ten from the main square of trg A Starčevića. From the train station, take tram 2 to the main square, and then on from there. A taxi from to the stadium shouldn’t cost more than €7.

To see the Gradski vrt, from the stop at the main square nearest the cathedral outside Partner Banka, board the 2 tram bound for Bataka (daily every 15-20mins), alighting just past the roundabout on ulica Martina Divalta.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

From the start of the week before a home game, the Ticket Point (Mon-Fri 10am-6pm) at the north-eastern corner of the stadium (between sectors B4/C1) distributes tickets, as well as on match days (10am-5pm). Tickets are also sold online through English-friendly Ulaznice.

A seat behind the home south goal (Tribina Jug) will cost you €12 (€6 for under-15s), as it will opposite in the north end (Tribuna Sjever), although it’s €10/€5 in corner section B1. It’s €14-€16/€7-€8 to site in the sectors C1-C5 in the long sideline of Tribina Istok, the East Stand, and €15-€30/€7-€15 in the dearer West Stand, Tribina Zapad. The priciest spots are in sectors A3-A4.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

At the south-eastern corner of the Opus Arena, behind the home end, the NK Osijek Fan Shop (Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, Sat 9am-1pm, match days 2hrs before kick-off) purveys all things blue and white, along with the current away strip of navy with a blue-and-white band across hte chest.

The tourist office (Mon-Sat 8am-4pm) near the main square at Županijska 2 sells a selection of NK Osijek souvenirs, with a wider range of shirts available nearby at Ferivi Sport (Mon-Fri 8am-8pm Sat 8am-2pm), a generic store for big-brand gear at Kapucinska 44.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

In the south-west corner of the Opus Arena, the Pampas Caffe (ulica Josipa Jurja Strossmayera 126B) is a standard outlet offering coffee and beer and open daily. Behind, on ulica Šandora Peterfija, a street named after Hungary’s most revered poet, the Krčma Mađarska Retfala, the ‘Retfala Hungarian Pub’, serves classic Balkan grilled dishes onto checked tablecloths, the name predating NK Osijek’s change of ownership.

By the old Gradski vrt stadium, the same bars still operate for the being. First, at the junction of ulica kneza Trpimira and Martina Divalta, the modern café-bar, Tango, has its terrace on Sjenjak between a betting shop and a bank. TV sport plays as locals talk football over affordable half-litres of Osječko. Across the junction, the Caffe Bar Aktuell at Trpimira 11 is a more down-at-heel version of Tango, also offering TV sport and wallet-friendly beer. A little further along Trpimira, decent domestic dishes are served at the Restoran Karaka.

By the tram stop on Martina Divalta, on the stadium side of the roundabout, the Restoran Bijelo-Plavi should be a hotbed of White-and-Blue support – instead, it’s a mainstream traditional restaurant, with heavy meat platters listed in a leather-bound menu.

Across the tram tracks on Martina Divalta, the Caffe Bar Castello and After Dark are standard local drinking spots with seats outside, popular places pre-match.

The large, imposing building near the Restoran Bijelo-Plavi, the Muzej Okusa, is not a museum at all, but an upscale wine bar and restaurant, set in a pavilion dating back to 1804. The name means ‘Museum of Taste’ – well-behaved visitors can order a pre-match glass of wine here on the sun-catching terrace, perhaps even a €2 beer. The draught option is Belgian Grimbergen at €3 a half-litre.

On narrow ulica Woodrowa Wilsona immediately behind the main stand, the Palace is a regular bar for pre-game glugging, with a serving outlet on the street and a betting shop attached. Depending on the opposition, away fans for European fixtures should be welcome – just don’t come in wearing a Cibalia Vinkovci scarf.

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