Truth be told, Željezničar Sarajevo’s home ground, Grbavica, was never a sight to behold.
Its exterior walls often plastered in graffiti, its stands cracked, damaged, and uncomfortable, with pumpkin seed shells littered throughout. No swanky VIP lofts here, even for “distinguished guests,” like club legend Ivica Osim and others. It was always a blue-collar venue, for a blue-collar club with a blue-collar fan base, sporting jerseys with, well, blue collars. Grbavica, architecturally, always sat in the shadow of Koševo Stadium, the Olympic venue next door.
Unremarkable physically, yet enchanting in every other way.
So what made this ground so popular? Why does always seem to evoke some sort of emotion, even from neutrals in Bosnia and Herzegovina? For starters, the ground is a pure football venue. Unlike Koševo, home of Željo’s arch rivals FK Sarajevo, there is no running track. The fans are closer to the pitch, and therefore, the atmosphere always seems a little bit better during games. This is one of the reasons the Bosnian national team plays the majority of its matches at Bilino Polje in Zenica, as opposed to Koševo, not to say the latter isn’t a decent venue in its own right.
There is simply something about Grbavica.
I wrote about the stadium’s history last year, and this background alone warrants admiration, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. During the war in the region, the stadium took considerable damage. It was in the epicenter of heavy fire, and yet survived some of the heaviest shelling. Before the war, seating was close to 20,000, but the war cut it down to almost half that number. Željo’s sons partook in its defense, and today, and now the very same fans are donating money in droves to rebuild it.
Back in the spring of 2016, the club initiated a campaign called “Let’s build a European Grbavica.” The goal was modest at first – collect enough money to remodel the stadium to be eligible for European matches. Željezničar has been playing its European home matches at Koševo, something that hasn’t sat right with anyone around the club. The money quickly started trickling in, but nobody expected the sheer amount. Not only was the club able to collect enough money, they quickly began expanding the project.
Most recently, the club unveiled an idea to try to sell 10-year season tickets. Not expecting to hit their mark of 500 – the club far exceeded the number and once again expanded the scope of their financial campaign. At this rate, the stadium will be eligible for not only European club matches, but international matches, with talk of the national team playing at the venue as well.
So what makes Grbavica so special? In many ways the site is an embodiment of the spirit of the people in the area. Resilient, resourceful, and most importantly, communal. They may not have a billionaire on their side but who needs eccentric billionaires when you’ve got a blue-collared jersey and a few crumpled bills in your pocket?