The Origin of Soccer in Serbia
Zec, Dejan, Serbian Studies
Soccer (fudbal in Serbian) was first introduced in southeastern Europe, as well as Serbia, in the late nineteenth century, some thirty years after it became popular in its birthplace, the British Isles. (1) The game itself, although radical for its age, mostly because of the new notion that the ball shouldn't be touched by the hands but only by the feet or head, soon gathered a large number of followers. The difficult task of introducing the new sport to the general public in Serbia fell to young people, pupils, and students who had been studying abroad, mostly in Switzerland, Germany, and Austro-Hungary. The very fact that young Serbs were sent to study in cities like Zurich, Munich, Vienna, or Prague, and therefore were under the influence of continental cultural patterns, played an important role in the process of acceptance of the sport. In Britain and in the areas where soccer had initially spread because of the substantial presence of British nationals, such as in the port cities of Holland, Belgium, and northern Germany, soccer was considered to be a popular sport--a very masculine and rough game, suitable for working class males, such as miners, dock workers, factory workers, and railway men. On the other hand, as soccer spread throughout the world in stages, by the time it reached the Danube and southeastern Europe it gradually changed its social background from being marginal and working class orientated, to being generally accepted by the middle class. Pioneers of soccer in Serbia were young merchants, engineers, lawyers, and bureaucrats.
The first ball that was used for soccer was brought to Serbia by Hugo Buli, son of Edi Buli, a wealthy bank owner. Hugo Buli returned to Serbia from Germany in 1896, where he had studied for his university degree and also played for an amateur club called Germania. He was a devoted soccer enthusiast, and felt he had a mission to introduce the sport to the general public in Serbia. Soon after his return from Germany, Hugo organized a friendly match between two groups of the athletes, his friends and members of gymnastics society Soko, whom he had briefly introduced to the basic rules of the game. (2) This experimental soccer match took place on May 19, 1896 in one of the parks in Belgrade, and even though it was covered by the press, it didn't generate a lot of interest. As stated in the newspaper reports, only about fifty people attended the game, and most of them showed a certain dose of hostility towards the novelty game. (3) According to the spectators, the strangest thing was that the players used only their legs and feet to pass the ball around.
We can assume that the demonstration of soccer didn't impress the citizens of Belgrade. However, devotees continued their efforts to promote the new sport, and only a few years later the first soccer club in Serbia was formed. In 1899 members of the Soko gymnastics society, Mihajlo Zivadinovic, Bernar Robicek, Velizar Mitrovic, Marko Milutinovic, Blaza Barlovac, and Hugo Buli, all of them young lawyers, clerks, and businessmen, formed a soccer club called Prvo srpsko drustvo za igru loptom (The first Serbian society for playing ball) (4) Generally, the foundation of the soccer club was welcomed by the public, especially because of the existing general concerns regarding the health of the population; but the lack of institutional support by authorities and government meant that the newly formed soccer club was going to be short-lived. Despite all the efforts made by the founders and the soccer players, it was very difficult to secure funding for the club and to provide adequate facilities for the matches.
Even though soccer was identified as a fun and dynamic new sport, most of the people, especially the older and conservative population, still considered it to be a childish pastime rather than a serious physical activity. Terms that were used to describe soccer were sometimes very pejorative, for instance, "jurcati za naduvanim balonom" ("chasing the inflated balloon"). …