By Danny Lewis
We live in a world where flexing spending power is widely considered to be a football club’s best path to success. However, there are still some who build and rely on their own youth academies, with Ajax, Borussia Dortmund, and Monaco some of the best examples of recent times. There may not be grand riches within the Serbian Superliga, but to compete with Partizan Belgrade and Crvena Zvezda (otherwise known as Red Star Belgrade), FK Vojvodina have not only turned to their academy, but they’ve moulded it into one of the best in Eastern Europe.
Since the SuperLiga was formed in 2006, it has been monopolised by one city: Belgrade. The two bitter rivals hailing from the capital, Partizan and Red Star, have shared the league trophy every year since the new format’s inception. Only one club has ever been able to separate the pair in the league, doing so by finishing in second place in 2008-09; and that club is FK Vojvodina. The men who play in red and white are historically one of Serbia’s most successful clubs, with their honours on the continent including wins in the Intertoto Cup and Mitropa Cup, as well as a quarter-final finish in the European Cup in 1967.
In recent years, however, the team from Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, haven’t enjoyed famous European nights or won the league like the Belgrade duo. In three of the last five years, they’ve been one tie away from the Europa League group stages; their only trophy since the turn of the century is the Serbian Cup from the 2013/14 season. This more modest level of success, unfortunately, seems more natural for a club who have always been playing catch up with the big two since their conception.
Vojvodina’s PR manager Miloš Subotin explains: “Our biggest rivals Red Star and Partizan Belgrade were founded by communists after World War II, and, because they had the support of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia for decades, managed to become big clubs in the earliest years of their history. Vojvodina was a club that was founded by young intellectuals from Novi Sad all the way back in 1914, and it had to develop slowly during years and decades.”
There is another notable difference between Vojvodina and the two they hope to one day overtake, as Subotin continued: “While Red Star and Partizan have the possibility to sign any player in Serbia that they want, Vojvodina has to create players on its own.” It is this approach, however, which has brought the club a different kind of success. Vojvodina have one of the most renowned academies in Eastern Europe, boasting one of the greatest facilities in the region: the FC Vujadin Boškov base – named after the club legend who has also coached the likes of Real Madrid and AS Roma.
There is, of course, more to an academy than the training ground and facilities; there have to be results – successful graduates – for it to be considered truly renowned. The team who play at the Karađorđe Stadium highlights the talent this club can produce, with the majority of Vojvodina’s current squad aged 23 or under.
One of those talents is 20-year-old attacking midfielder Aleksandar Mesarović, who plays for the club’s first team and has represented Serbia up to Under-21 level. Having grown up in a small Serbian village, 40 kilometres from Novi Sad, he moved into the Vujadin Boškov training centre when he started high school. He explained: “At the beginning, it was hard and strange for me in trying to adapt to a larger town, just like it usually is for people who come from smaller places. However, now in Novi Sad, l feel like I’m at home. I grew up here, and Vojvodina gave me everything that I have today.”
The emphasis placed on youth within the squad has helped Mesarović settle in both on and off the pitch: “The best part of playing at Vojvodina is the atmosphere among the players, as well as in the club in general. We have lots of young players in our team, which is something very common for Vojvodina, and we are all friends off the pitch.” He continued: “It is really great, especially for us who went through Vojvodina’s youth academy. We all know each other very well, which means a lot for our team spirit.”
While this youth-centric approach means that the club is reaping rewards, it has also created a sense of inevitability regarding the departure of their young stars. At the time of writing, Mesarović is just shy of 50 competitive appearances for Vojvodina; but despite his clear love and appreciation for the club and what it has done for him, there are already signs that he will eventually leave Novi Sad. When asked about his future aims, the midfielder responded: “At the moment, my only focus is to play well for Vojvodina, and that, one day when I leave, I can say that I left something behind me at the club.”
Whenever he does leave, Mesarović will be following some big names that Vojvodina have developed and eventually sold: Ajax’s Dušan Tadić, Aleksandar Katai of Chicago Fire, and PAOK goalkeeper Željko Brkić are just a few of the names to have come through their ranks. The most impressive among those – and a real indication of what this club is capable of producing – is Sergej Milinković-Savić, who spent seven years in Vojvodina’s academy and one in the first team before moving to Belgian side Genk.
The midfielder has come a long way since; he’s commanded plaudits – as well as a price tag upwards of 100 million euros – due to his performances in the midfields of Lazio and the Serbian national team. Subotin recognises this trend: “The problem is that they leave Vojvodina relatively soon, since they attract the attention of big European clubs while they are still very young, which is why the club has difficulties in the competition for the national trophies.”
While that sense of impermanence hangs over the club when it comes to its players, at least one thing that is a constant is their supporters. The fans are viewed as an intrinsic part of the club; the Firma are their vocal fan group. Subotin said: “Vojvodina had a registered fan club all the way back in 1937, which was the first fan club ever in the whole of the former Yugoslavia, and one of the oldest registered fan clubs in the world.”
The Firma continue to play a large role for Vojvodina, as Subotin continued: “They are located on the north stand of our stadium and they support the club no matter where Vojvodina is playing; in every stadium in Serbia, or in Europe. Their support means a lot to our players, and sometimes it happens that our team performs better and gets extra strength on the pitch, exactly because of that support, which eventually helps them to win the game.”
He says one of the finest examples of this fantastic support came in 2013, when Vojvodina reached the Serbian Cup final. The club cruelly lost in the final but as mentioned before, won in the following year: “Around 11,000 fans in more than 100 buses went to Belgrade to support Vojvodina, and that is the largest number of fans for an away match that any club in Serbia has ever had.” When asked for his advice for players hoping to play for those fans, Mesarović responded: “They need to be aware that Vojvodina is a big club, and that they need to work hard to deserve a chance to become members of our senior team. By that, I don’t mean that they need to work hard only while they are in the youth academy, but they especially need to train a lot after they move to a senior level.”
This principle will be the same around the world – however, this is a club who feel they stand alone from the others. Subotin quoted their great Vujadin Boškov to highlight the mentality the club has: “Vojvodina is on one side, and all the others are on the other. This is how it was, and this is how it will stay forever.” Well, how would a youngster feel after earning their place on Vojvodina’s side of the divide? According to Mesarović, “If they deserve a chance to go to the senior team directly from the youth squad, without going for a loan to some other smaller club, I know from my experience that it is the best feeling in the world.”
While Serbia’s two biggest clubs have been grappling with Europe’s elite, Vojvodina have set their own aims moving forward, as Subotin explained: “On a short-term basis, the club’s aim this season is to reach the Europa League qualifications and to try to win the national Cup. On a long term-basis, the club has a goal to become financially stable in the next few years, to develop its youth academy, to build a new stadium, and to raise the average attendance for its matches.”
The development of young players and their integration into the first team is key to achieving pretty much every one of these aims. It’s that which highlights just how central young stars are to Vojvodina’s model, which the club hope will be their own ticket to success.