Forbidden fruit: How a Red Star rose in Belgrade

Serbia is a rising power in rugby league. There is history there too.

Dragan Marsicevic set up a rugby league in the country when it was still part of Yugoslavia, in 1953.

Sadly, 11 years later, it was decided that only one form of rugby could be tolerated in the country, and league lost out to union.

Before that, Serbia had played league, and Croatia union.

It would take almost 40 years for league to resurface in Serbia, but this time it has put down deeper roots.

The domestic league currently has six stable teams, and almost 30 have participated in the Serbian league structure since it was set up in 2002.

While most of those clubs no longer participate, one club which has become set in concrete is Red Star Belgrade, who were originally formed in 2006.

Zeljko Delic is the man who sparked the foundation process for the club, and, ten years later, he is still heavily involved in all aspects of Red Star’s operation.

“In the summer of 2006, a group of ex-rugby union players got together and decided to start something new and more exciting,” he explained, speaking to Love Rugby League.

“So we organised all necessary paperwork and used the influence that we had in our social rugby network to lure players to join us.

“We picked the biggest name in Serbian sport, so it was a big challenge from the day one to meet the expectations, and that is to be the best.

“It took us two years to become official member of Red Star sports society, and we are among 31 different sports that are sharing the same coat of arms.”

Delic feels that Serbian cities like Belgrade are a rich ground for rugby league to grow in, and there are more similarities between our game’s ‘heartlands’, and its new territories in the Balkans.

Red Star actually have links with one UK club, Hull Kingston Rovers, a link which has seen players from Serbia have trials with the Robins.

“It started five years ago when the lad from East Hull, Mark Pullen and I met,” Delic explained.

“He got married here in Belgrade and I managed to convince him to come out of the retirement and join Red Star.

“He came up with the idea for us to do some sort of twinning with his beloved Rovers.

“Hull and Belgrade have more in common than one would think.

“City rivalry between Red and White and Black and White was the key of course. [Partizan Belgrade, Red Star’s great rivals, wear black and white].

“We named the project ‘Unite in Red and White’, and we organised some fundraisers, got the support from British Embassy and expat community here in Belgrade to get enough money to send three talented boys to the Rovers academy for one month.

“Even the big Lee Crooks (former Hull FC player) chipped in, who was at the time our national team coach.

“I remember that we organised for Lee some promotion of his biography ‘From Hull to Hell and back’, in one of the Belgrade’s finest bars.

“There was a huge number of people there, mainly expats, who came to the event to meet former captain of Great Britain and to buy his book.

“Lee spontaneously organised a bucket collection for our cause and also donated some pretty penny.

“Those three boys were in Hull in February 2012 and that proved to be crucial for their development as rugby players.

“Milos Calic, Voja Dedic and his younger brother Vlada Dedic are probably the best players in Serbia at the moment and still very young.

“We will try to get in touch with Jamie Peacock and to try to get those boys a trial at at the KC Lightstream Stadium in the next few months.

“We will need to dig deep again for such a project, since the economy in Serbia is not really healthy, average monthly income is 350 euros, but I’m positive that we will manage to generate support and collect enough resources to deliver this project.

“One thing is for sure, JP will be impressed with the boys.”

Delic is proud of the way in which fierce rivalries have already become embedded in the Serbia domestic league, something he feels is helping to drive up quality.

“For ten years our biggest arch-rival was Dorcol Spiders, but in last few years since Partizan Belgrade started rugby league these games are generating bigger interest,” he said.

“There is something really special about this showdown, and we must market it better.

“You can’t grow without proper competition and adequate challenge week in week out.

“I wish that we have more clubs on the same standard of operations and scale of skills in the squad, that is only way to have sustainable growth.

“We are getting better and better but it’s a marathon race not a sprint.

“There are many obstacles but we are dedicated and we work hard to develop further.

“Red Star won the Supercup and the Serbian Cup this season and we qualified for the Grand Final directly by finishing first in the regular part of the season.

“So far we played 16 games and won 15, so I can be satisfied with my boys. In the Serbian first division there were six clubs, but there was a huge gap between top three clubs and the rest.

“There are many reasons for that, but let’s say that we are still in infancy. We are still creating foundations for something bigger.

“We are semi-pro club, whatever that means, but we must have more people involved in organisation and we must have more people on the stands every weekend, not just for the city derby.

“We have perfect conditions as a club to do that. We have a nice little stadium with a clubhouse on the picturesque environment of a river island called Ada in the heart of Belgrade.

“We are the only rugby league club with a proper pitch that is used only for rugby.

“So when the first professional player comes from Serbia to England I’m sure that it will be from Red Star.

“We will give our best for that to happen in the near future, we have a lot of talent that’s for sure, but our boys need the opportunity and Super League clubs can help us a lot on this agenda.

“I have some interesting concept on my mind, but will speak more about it when the time comes.”

Crucially, Delic and his colleagues have worked to make sure that young people in Serbia have been exposed to rugby league.

Red Star also runs youth teams for boys and girls, and works alongside local rugby union to help broaden the appeal of both codes of the game.

“We have U18s and U16s and also girls team in the same age group,” said Delic.

“We have a handful of U14s but we must do better than that. We received a significant grant from Australian embassy in Belgrade in 2015, not as a club but on the level of federation.

“Those funds were shared among Belgrade based clubs on the project of promotion of rugby league in elementary schools in Belgrade.

“We used touch rugby as tool to attract more kids and the outcome was beyond expectations. Since touch is inclusive discipline of rugby we had more kids than we could handle frankly.

“Figures dropped but thousands of kids are aware of rugby league existence and hundreds of them had rugby league experience.

“We as a club applied recently for grant also at Australian embassy but this time for funds to work in secondary schools together with Red Star rugby union club with whom we have good relations.

“We plan to use touch to attract high school students to try rugby. Later they can choose between league and union.

“Kids are crucial for our development, but other clubs must do the same. We can’t grow without competition.

Delic himself indicates how important being exposed to Super League on TV was for generating his enthusiasm for league.

“I started playing rugby union first, since there was no league at the time in Yugoslavia back in 1994,” he said.

“I got immediate knowledge about rugby league since we had some veteran coaches that played rugby league in Serbia back in the fifties, before it got banned.

“Also at the time we could see highlights from Super League on Sky News and that got my attention.

“At the time a had impression that league is far ahead of union. I remember very well the ‘clash of the codes’, and before that the Rugby League World Cup in 1995.

“League was forbidden fruit for us!

“In the late nineties I got my dream job as a sports journalist at local but really famous and only at the time sports TV station.

“I’m proud to say that I was the first person ever to broadcast a game of rugby league back in 1998 in this part of Europe.

“I barely knew the rules, having internet was a real privilege at the time, so you can imagine what that was like! I think it was Bradford v Saints.

“I started playing league when I was already mature player, 28 years.

“I can’t brag that I was some amazing player, but I had my proper experience, I was there always, many came and went, but I was there always, and still am. The best is yet to come!”

Delic is a real true believer in the 13-a-side code, and he has big ambitions for Red Star.

“I would love to see Serbian rugby league more in the mainstream media in a close future, we all work together to bring the national team to the highest performance level with a resources we have.

“We have a dream of qualifying for the World Cup 2017, and it is realistic dream. That can change a lot in regards of our visibility of our sport here in Serbia, and with such success more doors will open.

“Regarding pipe dreams, well, I don’t hide that our ultimate goal is to play in Super League one day, after all its Super League Europe, isn’t it?

“And having a first name Red and last name Star means that we must chase ultimate price available no matter what sport we are talking about. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, it will happen and that’s a promise.

“But for that to occur rugby league must grow, for a start to become a proper worldwide sport.

“There is a big task for RFL and other umbrella organisations like RLEF and RLIF, what we have now is far from enough, and if we wish to be part of sport accords and other institutions, or to dream about Nines at the Olympics we must have a proper vision and determination to do that.

“I don’t see that at the moment, don’t have too much confidence in people running the show , but hopefully that will change as we all grow together and learn from each other.”

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