Of the many neighbourhoods in Sarajevo, it is that of Grbavica which was possibly the hardest hit during the Bosnian War. Intensive street fighting near the front lines of battle, as well as mortar shelling from the nearby hills, meant that the apartment blocks, schools and streets of this quarter were a dangerous place for many. The scars remain all too visible with bullet holes and shell damage still a lasting visible memory on some apartment blocks.
Slap bang in the middle of Grbavica is the Stadion Grbavica home of Željezničar Sarajevo. During the war years (1992 to 1995) the stadium suffered terribly. Structural damage resulted in the ground being targeted and used by Bosnian Serb forces due to its location under the Šanac Hill.
By the end of bloodshed, the ground was in a ramshackle condition, not unusual in a city that still bore the concrete scars and scars of the war. But with the sniper bullets and mortar shells went football began to a play a part again in helping rebuild the shattered morale of the Bosnians.
However, the train hit the buffers even after the siege of Sarajevo ended. Disagreement between Croat, Bosnian Serb and Bosnians meant that football administrators remained ‘in conflict’ even though the bullets and bloodshed had ended.
Despite this tenuous nature of the Bosnian state football came back to Gbravica in 1996 when a local derby was played between Željezničar and FK Sarajevo.
Champions of the Yugoslav First League in 1972 numerous Bosnian league championship wins and domestic cup victories have seen Željezničar’s finest years come after the conflict.
In UEFA competition things have been less than happy for the club known as Željo. The long-held dream of reaching the group stages of the Champions League has never quite happened. Shattering defeats to Hapoel Tel Aviv, Viktoria Plzen, Maribor and Newcastle United have left fans of the club wondering just what might have been.
During its Yugoslav years, Željezničar had enjoyed some of its greatest nights in Europe. Under Ivica Osim the team were UEFA Cup semi-finalists in 1985 when they lost only narrowly to surprise package Videoton. However, the wins over Club Bruges, Bologna and Sion are still fondly remembered by fans of the club. Despite the highs, the 1980’s were not without disappointment. Defeat in the early rounds of the European Cup in 1972 saw Željezničar’s greatest ever side lose out to Derby County.
Even when goals were scored the Bosnians always seemed to throw things away. The 7-9 aggregate loss to Anderlecht in 1971 was evidence of this theme.
Željezničar were formed as RŠD Željezničar a Workers’ sports society. Since Željezničar roughly translates to the ‘railwayman’ or ‘railway worker’ the club are commonly associated with this area of industry. On the current Grbavica terracing, a train engine stands proudly – a symbolic representation of the club.
Like other sides from Yugoslavia, it is a club that encompasses many other sports with basketball and handball being only two of the sports it encourages. But it is the sport of football that the club name is most commonly associated.
From its foundation years, Željezničar were seen as the club for ordinary people. While many teams in Bosnia operated along ethnic lines Željezničar were seen as a club for all working classes and blue collar workers.
Rivals FK Sarajevo were the main challengers to Željezničar during the post-World War II period. Established in 1946 the maroon half of Sarajevo would be the side favoured by the elite ruling classes – a factor that may have had an effect on Željezničar’s ability to progress as a sporting institution.
Long after its foundation in 1921 Željezničar had been resident at a number of playing areas in Sarajevo but could call nowhere home. The club eventually decided to build a new stadium in the Grbavica neighbourhood with the stadium officially opened in September 1951.
The role the Grbavica neighbourhood played during the war should never be underestimated. Captured in a movie the Bosnian entry for the 79th Academy Awards was a film that went by the name of ‘Grbavica’. This was a 2006 film which told the tale of a single mother in contemporary Sarajevo. It shows a Sarajevo still struggling to overthrow the shadows of war as well as the legacy of corruption and machismo violence left behind.
Just like the ordinary lives of Bosnians so the Grbavica Stadium was horribly impacted by conflict. Stands suffered structural damage to both foundations and the open terracing areas.
During the war years, football in Sarajevo was often played at the Kosevo Stadium – the traditional home of FK Sarajevo. Not that Željezničar were in unfamiliar territory. During upgrades to the stadium in both the 1960’s and 1980’s the club played most of its football at this stadium. Indeed this is a tradition that continues to this day with the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League qualifying tie between Željezničar and Viktoria Plzen being played at the stadium.
With its ramshackle combination of crumbling terracing, rusty floodlights and ageing scoreboard the Grbavica Stadium is a symbolic reminder of all the city of Sarajevo has been through. With its tight terracing, a fantastic atmosphere is often created, one that is sadly often lost at the huge open bowl of the Asim Ferhatović Hase Stadium.
You can see some images from Željezničar here.