Note: This weekly series will look for teams outside of the top flights of European football to find true underdog stories of clubs well below the radar. Clubs will be featured based on performance in the various tournaments that happen concurrently with the league seasons, or even strong runs in some of the leagues that dot the European football landscape. Chances are, these clubs will be years away from finding a home at the top flights of football – if they are ever able to get there – but it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve attention from time to time. If you happen upon a team that you think might qualify, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter @GuruEbby or @SportMuseNet!
Red Star Belgrade (FK Crvena zvezda)
Nickname: The Red-Whites
Founded: 4 March 1945
Location: Belgrade, Serbia
Team Colors: Red & White
Ground: Rajko Mitić Stadium
Current League: Serbian SuperLiga (Tier 1 of Serbian Association)
Reason For Notice
This week is a little different, if only because there wasn’t any giant killers in English football this week. Because of that, I decided to look to the UEFA Champions League, which held its group stage draw on Thursday last week. And though they are not the lowest ranked club (currently ranked 119th) to reach the Group Stage – that distinction belongs to Greek club AEK Athens (ranked 123rd) – Red Star Belgrade was the team that played the most rounds to get to that stage, mostly because of their football associations’ 28th-place rank by UEFA coefficient. So even though they were the champion of their league last season, and one of the most successful clubs in Serbia, I felt their long odds overcome in the course of their qualification for the Champions League warranted a mention in this series.
Red Star Belgrade was started as a Youth Physical Culture Society during World War II in what was then Yugoslavia. They won their first Yugoslavian championship in 1951, the first of 19 titles they would win while the country was still united. They also won five league titles in the First League of Serbia and Montenegro, and have won four titles in the 12 years of the Serbian SuperLiga, a total of 28 titles in 73 years, a pretty impressive rate (38.4%).
They have also found some success in European competition, winning what is now known as Champions League during the 1990-1991 season, defeating French club Marseille in a penalty shootout. They remain the last club from Eastern Europe to win the Champions League, and were only the second club to ever do so, after Romanian club Steaua București won in 1986. They also have two other semifinal appearances – in 1971 and 1957 – in the European Cup (now called Champions League), as well as finishing as runners-up in the 1979 UEFA Cup (the tournament now known as Europa League).
In this year’s Champions League qualifying, they defeated Spartaks Jūrmala (Latvia), Sūduva Marijampolė (Lithuania), Spartak Trnava (Slovakia), and Red Bull Salzburg (Austria). Though only Red Bull Salzburg (28th) had a higher ranking, getting through four rounds – with home-and-away legs each round – is quite an accomplishment in this era of professional football.
Red Star Belgrade were drawn into Group C in the Group Stage, a group that I’ve nominated as a “Group of Death” due to the top three clubs in the group – Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, and Liverpool – being right around the average UEFA coefficient for the group. They kick off group stage play on September 18th at home against Napoli, and probably are hoping for at least a third-place finish and the place in Europa League that would entail. Even this seems like a long shot, with FiveThirtyEight giving them a 20% chance of taking third, only ahead of teams that are expected to win or place second in their respective groups. They also have the worst chance of making the Round of 16, and this is based more on their draw than anything else.
Though they aren’t expected to be successful in Champions League, they are currently in 1st place in the Serbian SuperLiga, going a perfect 6-for-6 in games they’ve played thus far this season. They won the league by 17 points last season, with a goal differential of +77, and look to be on the same type of pace again this season. If they end up winning the league again, they can look forward to another slog through the Champions League next year, though hopefully from a later round due to their performance this year.
Update on Last Week’s Club
Last week, I profiled Atherstone Town FC after their performance in the preliminary round of the FA Cup, a win over a higher tier team. There next match in the FA Cup First Qualifying Round will be on September 8th, when they will be playing Tier 9 club Quorn on the road. They will also be playing a FA Vase match against another Tier 9 club in Coventry United, so their next league game will not be until September 22nd against Studley. They currently sit in second place in the Midland Football League, one point behind current leader Cadbury Athletic, with a record of 5W-0D-1L.
Until next time…
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