In a regular column, Tony McHugh will look at some of Celtic’s more unknown European opponents throughout its history and what the future held for the teams that once visited Celtic Park. In this issue it’s of course back to the 1966/67 season and Celtic’s quarter-final opponent, FK Vojvodina.
If you’re a Celtic fan now getting into your late 30’s (or beyond) the mention of Serbian football will probably take you back to the two giants from Belgrade, Red Star and Partizan.
Back in late 80’s and early 90’s supporters will remember the 5-4 home game against Partizan, where Celtic lost to an attacking Ivan Golac side, and the 1991 Red Star team who with Darko Pancev went on to win the European Cup on penalties against Marseille. Fans of an even older vintage will remember a team from Serbia (or Yugoslavia as it was part of at the time) who nearly stopped the Lisbon Lions from getting its hands on the Big Cup. That team was FK Vojvodina.
The province of Vojvodina is to the north of Belgrade, where in its capital Novi Sad FK Vojvodina play play their home games in the 15,000 capacity Karadorde Stadium. Over the last few seasons they’ve been among the top teams in the league, finishing 4th three seasons in a row in the Serbian Super League and qualifying for Europe regularly.
Back in 1960s the unified Yugoslavia meant Vojvodina had to overcome audacious challenges to secure its passage into the biggest European competition of all. To win the title they had to overcome clubs like Hadjuk Split, Dinamo Zagreb, Olimpja, Velez and the two Belgrade clubs.
A disastrous 1963/64 campaign prompted a decision that would not only change Vojvodina’s history but would ensure them a major cameo role in the greatest Celtic story ever told.
Vojvodina decided to hire former player Vujadin Boskov as their manager. He improved the team the following season with a respectable mid table finish but it is what Boskov implemented off the park that was even more impressive. Boskov believed that there was hidden talent in the city of Novi Sad so he introduced a new scouting network, built a sports complex where the players could train during the cold winter months and also and more importantly brought an attacking ethos to the club. Only two seasons after coming close to relegation, Vojvodina conquered the many great sides of Yugoslavia to take the 1965/66 title.
By the time they faced Celtic the next season, Vojvodina were sitting 3rd in league (they would finish 4th) and in reasonable form having overcome first Admira Energie Vienna from Austria and then an Atletico Madrid side containing Luis Aragonés to reach the quarter-finals.
The 1st leg in Serbia was the first Vojvodina had played under floodlights at their stadium, an investment paid for by the sale of Silvester Takac to French club Rennes. In front of 35,000 supporters the home team won 1-0. After overcoming Vojvodina in the return leg in Glasgow, Bertie Auld said that Vojvodina were the best team Celtic had played so far that season.
The 1970’s saw Boskov leave the club to become a – successful – manager of the Yugoslavian national team. But he would go on to greater heights with firstly with Real Madrid where he won the 1979/80 League and cup double and then to Sampdoria in 1986 where in six years he won the European Cup Winners Cup, Serie A, Coppa Italia twice, Supper Coppa and then reached the 1992 European Cup Final where at Wembley he lost to Cruyff’s Barcelona dream team.
It is a lovely link; 26 years apart Boskov played a part in the first ever European Cup triumph of both Celtic and Barcelona.
When Boskov left the club Vojvodina were mid table and going in no real direction. In 1977 the club won the Mitropa Cup which was a competition that had started in 1958 where clubs from Central European nations participated. Originally a popular competition the continuing success of the other major European tournaments meant it became more and more devalued before it was scrapped in 1992.
By the late 1980s many Vojvodina fans thought that they would never see their side win the league again, largely down to the perceived corruption of the Yugoslavian league. The local Croatian, Bosnian and Slovenian governments would back the best teams from their regions whilst the central Serbian government backed the Partizan and Red Star clubs. This left Vojvodina out in the cold and the 1987/88 season was the same old story as the club finished 10th just 5 points above the relegation zone.
The club did have two shining lights in the shape of a young defender called Sinsa Mihajlovic and a promising midfielder by the name of Slavisa Jokanovic. Powdered by these great talents the club achieved the incredible feat of winning the 1988/89 season by three points over Red Star went on to win the 1989 Yugoslav league by 3 pts ahead of Red Star Belgrade, a team that would win the European Cup just two years later (with Mihajlovic in the team). This sadly was to be Vojvodina’s last league title with Yugoslavia soon starting to implode as the country was thrown into a bloody civil war that would affect the Balkans area of Europe for many years to come.
Researching Serbian football is challenging – with a limited amount of information in English both online and in books. Luckily, Serbian sports journalist Milos Markovic was able to give some fantastic insight into FK Vojvodina over the last 17 years.
Milos explained that after the civil war the club more or less limped around the league again finishing mid table each year. Things were too get worse and by the 1999/00 season the club was in a real mess with players going on strike and refused to play unless they were put up for transfer. As a result the club fielded its youth team and finished the season in 10th place. During the next six seasons the club went from one crisis to another in financial terms with the team finishing well off the pace in the Super League. Then in the middle of the last decade, the supporters stepped in to save the club. A group called “The Firm” took over the running of the club and installed a new President called Ratko Butrovic who put the club on firm ground, while also reconstructing the stadium and the clubs’ football centre before his passing in 2013.
Since the inception of the Serbian Super League the highest position the club has reached was 2nd in 20 08/09, whilst in the cup competitions the club has reached five finals but only won one of them.
The most controversial of these finals was in 2011, with Vojvodina facing Partizan in Belgrade in front of 55,000 fans. Many Serbian fans call Partizan and Red Star “Tito’s Twins” because all the luck the clubs somehow always got when the General ruled communist Yugoslavia. Even now, almost 25 years since the old Yugoslavia fell many feel the Serbian FA will do anything to help the Belgrade giants to success with 2011 cup final being held up as conclusive proof.
With the game at 1-1 between both clubs Partizan get what could be described as a soft penalty on the 73rd minute to go 2-1 ahead. For the next seven minutes it is all Vojvodina and on the 80th minute they get an equalise only for it to be disallowed for a foul, replays showing it to be a wrong decision. Then on the 83rd minute with a Vojvodina player is brought down in the Partizan box but no penalty is given. This results in the manager of Vojvodina telling his players to leave the pitch and forfeit the game to Partizan. The club were so angry that they refused to do the presentation ceremony and refused to speak to media.
A couple of years later they would eventually get success in the 2014 cup final, after failing at the four previous attempts, beating Jagodina who they had lost to in the final the previous season. It was to be a sombre and emotional cup final as Vujadin Boskov had passed away just before the game. Perhaps inspired by his memory and legacy the club went on to win 2-0 to pick up their only trophy since the fall of Yugoslavia.
With Many thanks to Milos Markovic (@milosemakovicu)