Few things are certain in Balkan football nowadays.

Unirea Urziceni, winners of Romania’s Liga 1 in 2009 and participants in the 2009-10 Champions League group stage, ceased to exist at the end of last season due to a lack of finances.

In 2010, FK Renova won the Macedonian League. They were formed in 2003. One matter that is certain however, is that at the start of every Serbian season, all attention will be focussed on the big two clubs from Belgrade, Partizan and Red Star.

This year, with questions about how Partizan will fare without Stefan Savić and Radoslav Petrović, would be no different were it not for one small club: FK Novi Pazar, who are attracting attention for all the right reasons.

The 2010-11 Serbian top flight was an unsurprisingly mediocre season, with the quality of football played being no way close to the standards of the national team. The Serbian First League, however, featured an exciting promotion race between three well-known clubs: BASK Belgrade, Radnički from Kragujevac and FK Novi Pazar. Both BASK Belgrade and Radnički are known for their footballing history, with BASK’s successes coming before Tito’s partisans liberated Yugoslavia and Radnički’s coming later.

Novi Pazar, however, are mainly famous for coming the capital city of Sandžak, a region in Southern Serbia and Northern Montenegro where the main inhabitants are Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim). Sandžak has never been represented in the Serbian SuperLiga, and if Novi Pazar, the region’s biggest club, could occupy one of the two promotion places, SuperLiga football would be coming to Sandžak.

At the end of the season, Novi Pazar could only finish third behind BASK Belgrade and Radnički (who enjoyed back-to-back promotions). Novi Pazar were condemned to another season languishing in the undistinguished First League.

Then, a lifeline appeared. It seemed that BASK Belgrade, the First League winners, didn’t want to get promoted. BASK’s president, Bojan Radovanović, said that the club did not possess the required infrastructure or finances to play in the SuperLiga and that he was offering the club’s place in the league to any interested clubs.

Two clubs vied for that position, relegated Inđija and FK Novi Pazar.  Radovanović offered the place to Novi Pazar, but not without Inđija complaining to the Serbian FA on the suspicion that Novi Pazar paid BASK for the SuperLiga berth.

Further suspicions arose when Radovanović was elected as the new Novi Pazar president. The Serbian FA, however, allowed the club to play in the SuperLiga, partly due to a lack of evidence, but also because Sandžak did not have a club in the league and it would be beneficial for the region’s 235,000 inhabitants.

Although there are nationalistic tensions between the Bosniaks and Serbians in Sandžak and certain individuals advocate separatism for the region, Sandžak is a lot less volatile than other regions in the Balkans and most residents are happy to be part of Serbia. People from Sandžak even play for the national team, with the most notable example being Fiorentina’s Adem Ljajić, who is from Novi Pazar.

FK Novi Pazar and their fans looked forward to its inaugural season and its first game, which pitted the newly promoted side against Partizan in Belgrade. A harder test cannot be found in Serbian football, but FK Novi Pazar and their fans wanted to show the country what they could do, and what better team to do it against than Partizan, the league champions for the last four seasons.

Two thousand Novi Pazar fans travelled north through Serbia to the Stadion FK Partizan, were 8,000 Belgrade fans greeted them. In a league where games can be played in front of just a hundred supporters, this away following for Novi Pazar was sensational.

Throughout the game nationalist symbols and chants were shown, ostentatious to the TV cameras. Partizan fans carried an extravagant Serbian flag, while FK Novi Pazar supporters held the flag of Sandžak, which combines the Bosnian Fleur-de-lis and the Islamic crescent into a crest.

The game featured more than flag waving however. The Partizan ultras, or Grobari as they are known, sang racist songs towards their guests and denounced current President Tadić. As a result the Serbian FA punished Partizan by banning Partizan from playing at their home ground until further notice. The behaviour of Novi Pazar’s ultras, Toricda Sandžak, while not as explicitly racist as the Partizan ultras, is nonetheless under investigation by the Serbian FA.

On the pitch, Partizan fared much better, thrashing FK Novi Pazar 5-0, with the Novi Pazar defence crumbling against their superior opponents. Novi Pazar were reduced to ten men when Filip Stojanović, who played for BASK Belgrade last season, was shown a second yellow card for a crunching tackle on 17 year old Lazar Marković.

Optimism was still present despite the crushing loss, with FK Novi Pazar supporters confident of a win against Rad Belgrade at home, in Novi Pazar. However, in Sandžak’s first SuperLiga match 7,000 supporters watched FK Novi Pazar crumble to a humiliating 3-0 loss.

Novi Pazar’s backline once again looked suspect, with Raspopović scoring the third goal by running in a straight line through the defence. At least, however, off the pitch there were no incidents or clashes between the Rad and Novi Pazar supporters. After the game, disgruntled supporters called for manager Mihajlo Ivanović’s head. Ivanović said, however, that he is ‘sure that everything will look a lot better soon’.

Ivanović have reason to be optimistic. FK Novi Pazar had just signed two new African free agents, Cameroonian Pierre Boya and Nigerian Obiora Odita, who have SuperLiga experience and have also played in France and Belgium. Both are, however, strikers, and while the club could do with some help up front, there are more pressing concerns at the back.

Many of the squad have just signed for the club, so it will take time for the players to gel and play as a cohesive unit, which could explain the poor performances. This holds particular resonance in defence as communication and the experience of playing together is necessary for a stable back four.

The club is also expanding its Gradski Stadion to host 15,000 supporters, in the hope that there will be more SuperLiga seasons in Sandžak to come. Many opposing supporters will claim however, that there should never have been a first SuperLiga season for Novi Pazar and if the club are to go onto better things, the deal with BASK Belgrade will be further thrust into the spotlight.

By Dan Kreso

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona