In the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina lies Zenica, fourth largest city and home to a once renowned football club that is going through its darkest days. But the fans decided they have the knowledge and will to bring Čelik, the pride of workers' Zenica, back to its prime.
Čelik was built on the back of a local working class community just after the World War II, claiming the name Čelik ("Iron") to embrace its workers’ background from its very beginnings. As the years passed, Čelik rose through the ranks and lived its glory days during the seventies, when they won two Mitropa cups, Europe’s first international football competition founded back in 1927. They’ve also served as a frequent member of the Yugoslav First division, playing alongside former Yugoslavia’s greats such as Hajduk Split, Dinamo Zagreb, Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade, amongst others.
Bosnia and Herzegovina underwent a bloody war for independence in the nineties, which left the country devastated and torn apart. But football, just like the society, had to move and live on. First incarnation of a football division in post-war Bosnia was established back in season 1994/95, even though large part of the country was still at war at the time. Čelik was the most successful team, winning the first three titles.
And then, the downfall started.
June will mark the twentieth anniversary of Čelik’s last trophy. A puppet in the hands of the local politics-makers, Čelik was merely used because of its status among the people, and was at the same time left to rot. Today, they are on the brink of relegation from the Bosnia and Herzegovina Premier league; recent home draw with Zrinjski Mostar left them seven points from safety.
Still, the stadium was full on that day; seeing the atmosphere one would think that the match was the one that would decide the title race. The Bilino Polje stadium was packed, pyro shows and chants all around – a true celebration of football, although the game itself wasn’t exactly eye-candy. But for the fans of Čelik – Robijaši ("The Convicts") that match was a cause for celebration worth much more than potential three points, crucial for their relegation battle.
Two and a half years ago fans decided they’d had enough. Seeing their beloved club plunging into the abyss in the hands of local politicians they formed a citizen initiative called "Za Čelik" ("For Čelik") and started a long battle to take the fate of their own club into their own hands. After a struggle that included match-boycotting, political activism and demonstrations, they finally got what they deserved – a democratic club that relies on „one fan – one vote“ fan ownership model.
Following a similar path like their colleagues from Croatian powerhouses Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split fan initiatives, "Za Čelik" are now free to run the club in their own name, away from any type of shady particular interests, like the one that had sent the club to its all-time low.
But they are largely aware that this was just the first battle, and that the war had just begun. They received wide public support, and now have to prove that the club can survive by being nurtured out of the crisis in the hands of people that truly care about its fate – its fans. And who knows, maybe one day Bosnia and Herzegovina national team won’t be the only team that brings international football to Bilino Polje ground.
Hopefully, we will see a fan-owned Čelik somewhere on the European scene once again, just like they did back in those famous seventies.
This article was also published on our Copa90 Collective website page. They've filmed a video feature on "Za Čelik", you can check it out here: