Cukaricki contest capital hierarchy

They have 44 league titles between them, but Belgrade big-shots Red Star and Partizan are not that inclined to share anything other than a rivalry that is one of the fiercest in Europe.

A third team has come on the scene however, threatening to upset the balance of power in the Serbian capital. The new kid on the block has just won promotion and is already vying with its illustrious rivals for the limelight. With five games to go before the end of the first part of the season, Cukaricki Belgrade are an incredible fourth place in the league, with only four defeats to their name since they finally made the step up to the big time.

Two of those losses came against their city rivals Red Star (0-1) and Partizan (0-3), but as Cukaricki coach Dragoslav Stepanovic said in an exclusive interview with "If we keep going like we are now, I think that we have a chance to keep pace with other two top clubs in the city in the medium term."

Title showdown in early March
Cukaricki, who were founded in 1926 and whose name comes from a well-known area of the city, are not quite rubbing shoulders with their illustrious Belgrade rivals just yet. Nineteen-time league champions Partizan are six points clear at the top ahead of current holders Red Star, who have 25 titles to their name (including those won in the former Yugoslavia).

Both teams are as yet unbeaten, having shared the points in a 2-2 draw earlier in the season. The return match is set for 1 March, with Partizan enjoying home advantage. Third-placed FK Vojvodina Novi Sad are the only team who could prevent the title from staying in Belgrade - as they have already managed on two occasions in the past - due to the fact that they are currently only one point behind Crvena Zvezda, as Red Star are called in their home country.

Cukaricki are a further 11 points adrift in fourth place, but Stepanovic is taking a long-term view of things. "If the top Serbian teams keep selling their best players abroad, year in year out, then I begin to think that we might be able to compete with the very best of them in the coming years."

Years of experience
The 59-year-old coach certainly knows what is he is talking about. From 1991 to 1998, the former Yugoslavian international made a name for himself coaching at Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen, Athletic Bilbao and AEK Athens, acquiring cult status in Frankfurt, where he lived until August 2007. Cukaricki's directors then sold him on the idea of a homecoming to guide the newly promoted club to top-level success.

"I'm enjoying myself more and more. There's a great atmosphere within the club and a real enthusiasm. It all came together really quickly when I arrived. For an old man like me, this is a really interesting challenge," said Stepi.

As is often the case, it was the arrival of a major sponsor which helped the team take a real step forward, enabling the small Belgrade outfit to build a solid foundation for the future by working with youth teams. "There are 550,000 people living in our part of Belgrade. It's an ideal basis for the elite football school that we are planning," said Stepanovic proudly.

Looking to the future
And while Cukaricki are working on developing the stars of tomorrow in the hope of giving their Belgrade neighbours Red Star and Partizan a few sleepless nights, goalkeeper Bojan Isailovic, defensive lynchpin Nemanja Tubic and star striker Marko Blazic, who have become the backbone of Stepanovic's team, are already on the way to establishing the newcomers in the top flight.

The coach is taking everything in his stride though. "This season, all I wanted to do was avoid relegation. I'm not bothered about anything else. If we can manage that then I can see myself staying for another two or three years. After all, I was away for 31 years and my parents live only 180 kilometres from Belgrade, so I can go and see them quite often."