The Serbian Warlord Who Led His Club to the Champions League
Serbian warlord Željko "Arkan" Ražnatović led FK Obilic from the second tier to the domestic title and a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds. But their story was never going to end happily.
There was something so very Swiss about the FIFA corruption scandal that broke last year: suited men colluding in fancy hotels, exchanging bribes in brown envelopes to secure TV rights for sports marketing firms; national football associations brown-nosing corrupt politicos by gifting designer handbags to their wives. Only the myopically naive could express genuine shock at the allegations. Of course World Cup votes were up for sale; why would anyone, or anything, go to Qatar if copious piles of cash were to be excluded from the equation? US prosecutors nabbed FIFA officials with laws originally drafted with the mafia in mind, but these men made poor mobsters, so civil, so Swiss in their mundanity.
In 1990s Serbia, however, criminality in football took on a very different shape: war criminals acquired lower league football clubs and led them into the Champions League by intimidating opposition players and referees. When threatened with sanctions from footballing authorities, they responded with assassination attempts on UEFA bigwigs, as was the case at FK Obilić.
Taking its name from the mythical 14th century knight Miloš Obilić, a legendary figure in Serbian folklore, FK Obilić [pronounced Ob-ill-ich] was founded in a well-heeled part of Belgrade in 1924 and spent the majority of its existence languishing in the semi-professional regional divisions of Serbian football. Aside from a sizeable stint in the top flight prior to World War II, the club didn't ply its trade professionally until it reached the third division of the Yugoslav National League in the '88-89 season, four years before the socialist federation and its football leagues splintered into individual associations and states.
Obilić's first major achievement would be a cup final appearance in 1995, which they lost 4-0 to cross-city titans and former European Cup winners Red Star. At this point, the club found itself in the second tier, usually lingering in mid-table and never threatening to win promotion. A year later, however, they were taken over by Željko Raznatović, otherwise known as "Arkan", Belgrade's Don Corleone of the time and a war crimes suspect. Under his stewardship they won promotion at the first attempt, then, in the following season, became the first (and thus far only club) to break the Red Star-Partizan monopoly of the title in the last 27 years.
Many put Obilić's absurdly improbable rise down to the notoriety of their owner. Although he only officially owned a bakery, Arkan made his name as a career criminal across western Europe throughout the 1970s and '80s. Dozens of bank and jewellery store heists in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Belgium – in addition to police shootouts, four prison breaks and a stint on Interpol's most wanted list – made him the world's most intimidating baker. To dissuade Yugoslav criminals from carrying out their illicit exploits within their own country, the state's secret security services sorted men like Arkan out with fake passports and shipped them out to loot abroad, then awaited them with open arms when they returned to boost the national economy with their stolen bounty.
This arrangement fostered an intimate familiarity between crooks and government officials, something that would, in Arkan's case, prove mutually beneficial for both sides. When a couple of policemen showed up to arrest him following a bank robbery in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, in November 1983, Arkan responded by shooting the pair of them. While that sort of behaviour would earn you a whole life sentence in Britain, and the death penalty in some U.S. states, Arkan was released within 48 hours of his arrest. It was patently clear that he enjoyed state-sanctioned legal impunity.
In exchange, Arkan, with his underworld clout, helped the state exert its influence in places it normally couldn't reach. The prime example of this occurred in the late '80s, when open political divisions first appeared on Red Star's terraces. As the nation's biggest club (55% of Serbs support Red Star, 35% are Partizan) and its most hallowed institution, its supporters amount to a sizeable militia that politicians have always tried to pander to rather than try tackling head-on.
Arkan was drafted in by Slobodan Milošević to manage this simmering political sentiment and prevent it from becoming problematic for the regime. Using nationalistic rhetoric, he united rival factions into a single firm and, as their leader, rechristened them from the "Cigani" [gypsies] to the "Delije" [Heroes] – a moniker that they still use today (although the rest of the country still pejoratively calls them the gypsies). When Arkan formed the Serb Volunteer Guard in October 1990, a paramilitary force that he would lead into battle in Croatia and Bosnia, also known as Arkan's "tigers", he used the terraces as a recruitment ground. As you'd expect from a recreational army of violence enthusiasts, the tigers allegedly went on to commit numerous atrocities not seen in Europe since the holocaust – looting, the imprisonment and execution of civilians, and rape.
When the conflict finally ended in 1995, Arkan turned his attention to blackmarket enterprises in his homeland, which had in the intervening years transformed into a full-blown mafia state. Organised crime had become so entrenched in Serbian football that 11 club chairmen were murdered in Sopranos-esque gangland assassinations between 1995 and 2006. Mobsters were drawn to the game because they could pocket proceeds from player transfers, something that proved particularly profitable when selling to major European clubs. They also forced debts onto players, setting them up with cars and property, then extorting them once they moved abroad.
Initially, Arkan tried to take control of Red Star, but like all institutions in socialist Yugoslavia clubs were, and remain, state-owned enterprises that function along similar lines to political parties – you couldn't simply buy one outright, Abramovich-style, you had to be appointed to the board. His advances were rebuffed and, inconveniently for Arkan, the club was littered with far too many crooked politicians, revered ex-pros and well-connected individuals for him to simply kill off en masse. As such, criminals focused on anonymous lower league clubs like Obilić.
After Arkan took charge of "the knights" in the summer of 1996, Obilić went up as champions by a 15-point margin, having sustained only four losses that season. Suspiciously, FK Železnik, who were promoted as runners up, were led by one of Arkan's associates who would be murdered in a gangland execution the following year. But while Železnik would battle against relegation, Obilić claimed the title, finishing two points ahead of Red Star with only a single defeat to their name. They reached the cup final too, losing out to Partizan in a match that was said to have been fixed – legend goes that Partizan, who lagged behind in the title race by a double-digit margin, intentionally threw their late-season match against Obilić without mustering a single shot on target in order to deprive Red Star of the title. To return the favour, Obilić rolled over in the cup.
But these weren't the only accusations of foul play that dogged the team's title success. It would later emerge that players received intimidating phone calls before matches, usually being threatened with a bullet to the knee cap. FK Vojvodina winger Nikola Lazetić, meanwhile, was said to have been stuffed in the boot of a car and forced to sign for Obilić before being sold to Fenerbahce 18 months later.
UEFA policy of the time allowed individual football associations to issue coaching licenses, thus enabling Arkan to obtain his professional badges. He would sit on the team bench next to the manager, his omnipresence making the opposition's legs turn wobbly with fear. It didn't stop there, however: several years ago, international referee Zoran Arsić admitted on national television that Arkan had stormed through a police cordon at half-time and threatened him in the dressing room. Arsić claims that he was slapped, verbally abused and had a gun held to his head. Football officials were well aware of this, but pleaded with him to keep quiet about the incident in exchange for never having to officiate another Obilić match again. Not that it would have made much of a difference, as Arkan's antics were hardly secret. In one instance, Red Star's players refused to return to the dressing rooms at half-time, preferring to loiter and piss on the pitch rather than risk bumping into him in the showers.
Obilić's title win put them in the draw for the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. Unsurprisingly, UEFA took a dim view of a team led by a warlord competing in Europe's premier club competition, which became a grim possibility when Obilić defeated Icelandic champions ÌBV 2-0 in their first-leg home match. To save face, UEFA bigwigs threatened the team with expulsion, prompting Arkan to officially quit his role at the club on 25 July 1998.
But it wasn't the final act of this Machiavellian soap opera: appointed in his place was Arkan's 25-year-old trophy wife Ceca, who just happened to be the nation's biggest pop star and the Serbian equivalent of Dolly Parton, equipped with grotesquely oversized breast implants.
Although the club were allowed to continue to a 2-1 away leg victory, Arkan was bemused by this bureaucratic show of force and supposedly arranged to have the then-UEFA president, Lennart Johansson, assassinated. In a TV interview given nine years later, Johansson himself admitted that he was aware of these rumours; apparently, a hit squad was sent to whack him in Vienna but had to call it off because a clear shot failed to materialise.
Unable to bully European opponents, the limitations of Arkan's team were exposed in the second qualifying round when Obilić were paired up with Bayern Munich. The German side strolled to a 4-0 victory in Bavaria in a match that he was unable to attend due to outstanding warrants for his arrest from the '70s. The return fixture in Belgrade ended 1-1, dropping Obilić into the UEFA Cup round of 32, where they would meet Atletico Madrid and lose 3-0 on aggregate. Looking back now, this moment marked the end of Obilić's blood-stained golden age and the beginning of their decline.
Although the club would go unbeaten in the 1998-99 season, Obilić failed to defend their title when the NATO-led bombing campaign against Serbia forced the league's abandonment with 10 matches to go. The standings at that moment were considered final, with Obilić trailing the new champions, Partizan, by two points. While this normally would have qualified them for Europe, an indictment against Arkan by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity saw the club banned from continental competition, which is pretty fair, really.
The following season started promisingly again, with the club sustaining only a single loss by the winter break. But then, on 15 January 2000, Arkan was approached from behind by a lone gunman who executed him in the lobby of Belgrade's Intercontinental Hotel.
As you'd expect, Obilić's opposition played with a new-found freedom now that they didn't have a mass murderer visualising their funeral from the byline, and proceeded to inflict six league defeats on the club in the second half of the season – the exact same figure accumulated during Arkan's entire tenure. They finished that season in third place, a feat they would go on to repeat the following year before embarking upon a slow slide down the table. Relegation finally struck in 2005-06, the first of six demotions in seven seasons, which left the club on the very lowest rung of Serbia's regional football ladder.
The circus didn't end there though: Ceca, Arkan's aforementioned surgically-enhanced spouse, was swept up in a crackdown on organised crime after some of their gangland associates assassinated Serbia's reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjić, in 2003. A raid on her mansion uncovered a stash of 11 unlicensed firearms and evidence that she embezzled 4 million Deutsche Marks and US$3.5 million from the transfer of 10 Obilić players in the three years following her husband's death. Farcically, when she finally came to trial in 2011, she was sentenced to a mere 18 weeks of house arrest and fined €1.5 million – considerably less than what she managed to pocket.
These days, if you walk passed Obilić's ground, you'll spot a mural of a beret-clad Arkan painted on an outside wall, similar to one found on the north bank of Red Star's 'Marakana' stadium. Ceca, meanwhile, can be seen on national television every Saturday, crushing people's dreams as one of the judges on the Serbian bootleg of The X Factor. The conflict may be over and Yugoslavia consigned to history, but the conditions that allowed a war criminal to lead an unfancied club to the gates of the Champions League evidently still remain. This is illustrative of a nation that isn't so much unable to come to terms with its bloodied recent past, as one that simply doesn't care.