Two clubs, one city, two national league systems: football’s unique divide in Mitrovica

Two clubs, one city, two national league systems: football’s unique divide in Mitrovica

War affects football. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s led to a bloody conflict based upon ethnic lines, with the collapse of communism allowing formerly oppressed ethnicities to fight and redraw state lines to accommodate their new-found opportunity of nationalism. 

With the conflict lasting most of the 90s, borders changed back and forth in line with the fighting, but most were eventually settled and a relative era of peace came over the former Yugoslavia. One border, however, has consistently been a contested issue: the one between Serbia and Kosovo. 

Without getting bogged down in issues of international relations, state=building and geopolitical actions within the region, Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s statehood (112 United Nations member states recognise Kosovo’s independence since 2008), as the region has historically been under Serbian control. Kosovo, which is mostly ethnic Albanian, does not want to be under Serb rule and wishes to have closer ties to Albania. 

These tensions were clearly displayed when Serbia played Albania in a Euro 2016 qualifying match. A drone was flown over the pitch carrying an Albanian nationalist banner – the Greater Albania flag which encompasses Kosovo under Albanian control – which sparked players and fans to riot, leading to the game being abandoned and victory being handed to Albania due to security lapses in the stadium and violence Serbian fans inflicted towards the Albanian players. 

After the game, businesses in Serbia owned by Albanians were targeted and set on fire. This match goes to show how football can mirror deeply-held ethnic and political hatred at not only an international level, but also club level. 

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The city of Mitrovica lies in the north of Kosovo and is near the Serbian border – or what the Kosovan government calls the Serbian border. Mitrovica is a divided city, with those who live north of the river primarily Serbs, and those who live south of the river largely ethnic Albanian. Separation is the theme that describes life in Mitrovica, with the bridge that crosses the river blocked numerous times by northern Serbs as a form of protest to push back any connection with the state of Kosovo.

Similar actions of divide even in football. The two clubs that best symbolise this division are KF Trepça, in the south of Mitrovica representing ethnic Albanians, and FK Trepča in the north, who represent Serbs. As clubs that have extremely similar names and near-identical kits and crests, the only obvious difference between them is the spelling in each language.

For clubs that represent contrasting social and ethnic divisions within Mitrovica, they were once one team. United as FK Trepča (spelling of the club is in Serbian reflecting national dominance at the time), the club was founded in 1932 and had some success, becoming the first Kosovar club to join the Yugoslav First League in 1977 and finishing as runners-up in the 1978 Yugoslav Cup, losing to Croatian club Rijeka. Rijeka went on to become Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-finalists in 1979/80, succumbing to Juventus 2-0. 

As the Yugoslav wars came about in the early 1990s, ethnic Albanian players began to leave the club, later joining teams that would accept them, such as Trepca 89, the other side in Mitrovica. However, former players of FK Trepča wanted more, suggesting that their impact on the club warranted a more permanent place on the football scene.

In 1999, former Albanian players of FK Trepča formed a new club, KF Trepča. It wasn’t a surprise that these players decided to leave; Serbian authority was extremely heavy-handed, with police officers disturbing football games. Due to the effects of the war, many games had to be played on improvised grounds in fields and parks in the Mitrovica area. 

At the time, many Serbs left the south of Mitrovica and fled to the predominantly Serbian area in the north for protection. For FK Trepča, this also meant leaving their stadium, which KF Trepça and their Albanian fans adopted as their own. The stadium, which was once a symbol of Serbian control, is now named after the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader, Adem Jashari. The arena later went on to host the first FIFA-affiliated match for Kosovo, a 0-0 draw against Haiti. It was a far stretch from its early days of hosting primarily Serbian players. 

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While these clubs have so many similarities, it is their differences that define them. They play in different league pyramids, with KF Trepça currently in the second tier of the Kosovan system – the Liga e Parë – and have shown moments of greatness in the past, including of winning the Superleague in 2010. FK Trepča, however, hover around the third and fourth divisions of the Serbian league system and have never advanced further. It begs the question: how well could the clubs do if they reunited? 

Football has highlighted the detest northern Kosovar Serbs have towards the independent Kosovo state authority, with teams refusing to play under the Kosovo league structure since the early 2000s. It’s only recently – since talks between the two nations were normalised in 2013 – that plans for redrawing the border arose so that the northern municipalities such as north Mitrovica could become a part of Serbia.

FK Trepča’s loyalty to Serbia has been further reinforced with the club’s invitation to play friendly games against Serbian football giants Partizan and Red Star in order to symbolise and highlight the solidarity between Belgrade and the contested northern municipalities in Kosovo. This symbolism was further strengthened by a train decorated in the colours of the Serbian flag and the inscription of “Kosovo is Serbia” in 23 languages. In many regards, football is the 24th language in northern Mitrovica. 

Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo nor does FK Trepča recognise KF Trepça; they simply see KF as an imposter club, one that has stolen its crest, kit, history and stadium. In some respects, the clubs that once shared everything have become symbols of a unique divide. Both feel that their representation is the “true” club, each suggesting the pre-1999 history is theirs. Regardless of that, it’s now up to each to forge a future on the pitch and set a new standard for football in Mitrovica.

Once united, now divided, Petar Milosavljevic, the secretary of FK Trepča, says, “There is no way that Serbs and Albanians play football in Kosovo together”. They used to, though.

By James Mayne @jamesmayne97

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