You can always identify a football fan on their way to a match whatever the city or country you are in. They have that particular purposeful walk. The colours help as well of course.
It didn’t take me long out of Sarajevo city centre to spot a couple of FK Sarajevo fans. As is always my rule when visiting a new ground which I've not visited before, once I've seen a home fan I follow them. That proved a slight problem this time, as I soon passed the two fans I was following as they popped into a bakery, but luckily I soon identified some other fans walking in the same direction with purpose.
As I got closer I soon saw the giant floodlights that always bring a sense of nostalgia to any fan who is able to remember when these giant man made structures were your guide to the stadium rather than the directions on your mobile.
My decision to walk to the ground rather than take public transport proved to be a wise one. The walk along Patriotske Lige provided a little insight into the history of this great city. I passed 19th century buildings with German inscriptions from their Austrian-Hungarian builders and less than a mile away from a ground you go past an old Serbian Orthodox cemetery, a hint at Sarajevo’s multi-faith population.
A little further along there was a new Muslim cemetery. This one had used to be a practice pitch in the 1984 Winter Olympic Park, but during the three-year siege in the early 1990s its valuable space had to be used for graves.
There was another cemetery across the road on a hill. This looked new as well, but saw Muslim and Croatian Catholic graves side by side. Sarajevo is a unique city definitely worth visiting and the walk to the Koševo Stadium reflected that.
I knew that getting a ticket would not be a problem. FK Sarajevo might be the biggest club in Bosnia-Herzegovina and their opponents from the same city, but sadly like all former communist Europe football attendances in the country are low by British standards. Sarajevo average 3,500 in a 34,500 seater stadium.
Just as I got to the stadium I saw a fan waving a ticket clearly asking if I wanted to buy it. Despite his lack of English and my lack of Bosnian it was easy to make clear I was interested and I handed over my 5 Bosnian Convertible Marks. That’s £2.50!
I doubt I will ever pay less for entry to a football match. I actually could have bought a season ticket for barely more than QPR are charging Reading fans for our game in October. I think that says more about how ridiculous prices are in English football than what good value Bosnian football is.
After a quick take in of the stadium I headed to a pub across from the ground. Before I got there I walked past the Sarajevo ultras known as Horde Zla (English: Hordes of Evil or Gang Evil). They were nearly all dressed in all-black and seemed to be 16 to 25 years old.
A pint set me back 2 Marks (£1) and I sat, like you would in all Sarajevo pubs, in a smoke filled room. You’ll struggle to find a European country with more smokers than Bosnia, which may be why smoking bans in pubs and restaurants are not likely to come into force anytime soon. It was also noticeable that half the people in the pub were drinking Bosnian coffee. Coffee is a serious business in Bosnia and a way of life.
The Koševo Stadium was built after World War 2 and hosted the opening ceremony of the 1984 Winter Olympics. It’s your stereotypical communist stadium: big and imposing with basic facilities and a running track no longer up to usable standards. It was also roofless, so I was glad the forecasted rain never arrived.
The game was just a minute old when bottom of the table Olimpic Sarajevo had the sort of start teams out of form dread. A free kick from deep was sent into the box and a strong challenge by Sarajevo on the goalkeeper went unpunished to allow Montenegro international left back Saša Balić to tap in the easiest goal he’ll ever score.
The ultras had barely finished chanting the standard cheesy European club anthem, and the game may have just started, but they still decided to let off a dozen flares and bangers. It seemed a bit premature to me, but they must have known something I didn’t.
It was clear that Olimpic were bottom for a reason. They looked limited, short of confidence and were set on damage limitation. The early goal didn’t change their mind that it was best if as few as their players as possible set foot in the home side’s half.
I expected Sarajevo to take control of the game and a potential thrashing. Instead, like we have seen on a few occasions with Reading, Sarajevo seemed happy to have possession without purpose.
The first player to catch my eye was Sarajevo’s holding midfielder Edin Rustemović. I soon started to wonder though whether him impressing me was more to do with his position than anything he was doing. I have many a time come away impressed with a Reading player in the exact same role.
James Harper, Danny Guthrie, Oliver Norwood and Joey van den Berg all look impressive when they’re the player who has the most touches and passes of the ball without any opposition pressure. However, it doesn’t take long for fans to start wondering whether they could maybe be doing more. And so was the case with Rustemović. A few mishit passes and he came off the impressed list.
The only Olimpic player, Rijad Kobiljar, to catch my eye also happened to be the only player who was not dark haired. The blond hair theory by Soccernomics (blonde players are, sub-consciously, disproportionately popular with scouts because they stand out from a distance) may be more true than we realise and probably extends to holding midfielders too.
Rustemović was joined in coming off the impressed list in the second half by three other Sarajevo players who had looked promising before the break. Two speedy and skilful wingers showed promise but their end product seemed to, like the game, get worse as the game went on. The quality of the free kick for the first minute goal was never really matched and it soon became clear why Bosnia is the biggest European country to never have a team reach the Champions League or Europa League group stages.
Few things reveal the true quality in football than one-v-ones. I can still remember Mass Sarr missing an awful one against Fulham in Division 2, but they are rarely missed at the top level. In this game I witnessed three bad ones missed.
Sarajevo should have put the game to bed but their winger managed to shoot so high it would have struggled to go in with two goals on top of each other. A mix up in the Sarajevo defence then saw the last Sarajevo impress-then-disappoint-me player involved. The right back, Dušan Hodžić, had a classic you-clear-it-no-you-clear-it moment with the centre back which gifted Olimpic the chance to equalise, but Sarajevo’s Serbian goalkeeper, Bojan Pavlović, was quick of his line and saved his team from an embarrassing draw.
There was still time for Sarajevo to miss squander another one-v-one and it wasn’t too much of a surprise when a few home fans whistled at full time. There may have only been (apparently) 2,000 fans in attendance, but there was still more noise than you normally hear from Reading fans.
In fact the Sarajevo ultras were probably more entertaining than the game. Poor old Olimpic did not seem to have a single fan in the ground, which shows how small a club they must be. The Horde Zla ultras sang throughout and twice produced banners with long messages.
I cannot finish this article without a special mention to the most attentive steward I have ever seen. This poor bloke was asked to watch 4-5,000 empty seats in the quietest stand in the ground. Despite this he never moved or turned to watch the game. Maybe he’d caught the early goal and knew there wouldn't be another one!
Have you ever watched a game abroad? Share your experience with The Tilehurst End.