Croatia’s home game against Serbia in the previous round of European World Cup qualifiers had all the ingredients for what football authorities thought would be an explosive match.
It was the first time the two nations had met since their independence, following the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Croatian War of Independence. The setting, the Maksimir Stadium, hosted the bloody match between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in 1990. On that occasion both the teams were captained by the present managers of Croatia and Serbia, Igor Stimac and Sinisa Mihajlovic respectively.
However, a 2-0 win for the hosts passed without incident and in the minds of some observers, particularly football authorities on the continent, showed that the times are changing and perhaps a positive relationship may begin to foster itself in the Balkan region.
UEFA, ever keen to raise its stock in the eyes of the world, has stepped onto the podium and proposed an idea which they hope will make them look like the peace makers in the region. The idea is to create a Balkan league, comprised of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Hungary.
The European football authorities believe that the decline of the national leagues in the Balkans can be reversed with a huge, cross-border division which will feed the huge passion for the sport in the region and bring together populations who have had a very recent traumatic relationship.
The Balkans does contain, in the eyes of UEFA’s coefficient system, some of the poorest performing national leagues, with Macedonia and Montenegro both ranked forty first and forty second out of fifty three national leagues, and Croatia topping the list only in twenty second place.
However, their combination does not in any way guarantee success and actually the amalgamation could have severely detrimental consequences by alienating local fans and bankrupting clubs.
Firstly, the distances which would be expected from clubs to travel every week would surely not be welcomed by clubs who already suffer financially in their national leagues. A journey between the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, and the Bulgarian capital, Plovdiv, would require fans to travel 1,073 kilometres there and 1,073 kilometres back. And that would be between two capital cities that benefit from better transport links than the more rural areas.
Secondly, the aforementioned fans may not be able to meet the costs of travelling to watch their team; if indeed enough supporters exist willing to make the journey. The top divisions in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Hungary average just over 2,000 in attendances and those fans are among the poorest people in Europe. Such a huge Balkan league would require a much more solid foundation.
UEFA, like FIFA, are very much keen to be seen venturing into every corner of the globe and looking as if they are world leaders who can promote trade (as in South Africa), modernity (as in Poland and Ukraine) and peace. One of their other, possibly more ambitious, “peace expeditions” involved Sepp Blatter proclaiming that he would stage a combined North and South Korean World Cup before he left office.
There is no real desire from them to support and rejuvenate national leagues. If there was then they perhaps should be looking to help the national leagues of Andorra, San Marino, Faroe Islands, Armenia, Estonia, Wales, Northern Ireland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, all of which could really do with the assistance UEFA is claiming to want to extend to the Balkans.
Unfortunately, the proposal is an attempt at a positive PR stunt by UEFA, rather than a sign of any real concern. Like a continental moth, UEFA cannot resist the temptation of trying to bathe in the glow of global adoration.
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