It’s 75 minutes into a tight Bosnian third division game at the modest Municipal Stadium in the north-eastern district of Brcko when substitute Milovan Arsic of FK Ilicka 01 collects the ball on the left touchline and drives at the FK Velez defence. Stepping inside a pair of clumsy challenges he takes a touch to steady himself and heaves a shot through the legs of the goalkeeper with all the upbeat, hopeful clout one feels entitled to expect from a third tier match in front of barely a hundred spectators. His side are 2-0 up and out of sight.
It is no more than Ilicka deserve on an afternoon when they have reinforced early season terrace talk that a promotion push could be on the cards, and nobody in the ground it seems is surprised by the free-scoring start to the season that has seen the club finish the eighth weekend of the new campaign just two points off the top. But then the people of Brcko, and the supporters of Ilicka, have grown accustomed in the last decade to thinking of their club, and their city, as unique. All over Europe, nobody does it quite like Brcko.
Unencumbered by the social divisions that define so much of the rest of the country, between 2007 and 2011 the club achieved four successive promotions to move to within one division of the Serb half of Bosnia’s top league. It’s an ascent that defies the team’s humble beginnings. Just seven years ago they were playing in the amateur municipal district league; this summer they cemented their reputation as the city’s brightest footballing hope as local rivals and soon-to-be centenarians FK Unity slipped beneath them into the regional fourth division. Now only FK Lokomotive, themselves pre-dating Ilicka by almost sixty years, stand between the young upstarts and out-right hegemony over Brcko’s football scene.
Ilicka were born in 2006, into a country still pockmarked by the legacy of ethnic war and social apartheid. The club’s young squad were sourced locally – inevitably for a small outfit in a country where even the top clubs struggle to generate enough income for more than the most basic scouting network – at a time when a great chunk of Bosnia’s Generation Y bore a vicious hatred towards those on the other side of the Serb-Bosniak divide, the consequence of being born and raised during some of the most violent racial fighting ever to plague Europe. What has helped set the club apart ever since is the unique status that the city that homes them enjoys in the make-up of the Bosnian state.
Brcko sits on the northern border with Croatia at the point where the two republics that make up the federal Bosnian state – the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina – meet. During the civil war the district – a majority Bosniak settlement – split the Serb dominated territory in two, making it a magnet for some of the conflict’s grossest atrocities and a pivotal sticking point in the peace that followed. Today it exists semi-autonomously as a ‘free-city’ in Europe, in the sphere of neither of the republics that it straddles and federated only loosely with the central government in Sarajevo. Since 1999, uniquely in Bosnia, the city has experimented with full ethnic integration. This is the city which birthed one of Bosnian football’s most buoyant clubs – Ilicka.
A large part of what sets the club apart in Bosnia is its approach to its youth policy. In a country where children are kept apart along ethnic lines in most areas of public life, such as healthcare and education, the young boys and girls of Brcko suffer only limited segregation, and as a result the youth arm of Ilicka benefits hugely from an inclusive environment for the city’s young footballers.
In August the club ran a youth camp at the picturesque resort of Mitrovac in the rolling foothills of Mount Tara, a desperately far cry from the carnage that would have been life for the same children born here but for twenty years grace, and under the guidance of Ilicka’s youth coaches many of them now harbour realistic hopes of climbing through the ranks and into a professional set-up in the upper-echelons of the league pyramid.
But that’s for another day. Today after the victory over Velez the slender crowd gathered inside the ground – flanked on one side by a harsh concrete terrace that serves as an architectural metaphor for the stolid and stale communism that disintegrated into a three-year civil war in the early 90’s – sense that the next chapter in the story of FK Ilicka may be very close to being written.
There’s still a distance to go; a return of three wins from the opening eight games bears testimony to a lack of edge that could see head coach Daniel Vukicevic’s young squad stretched thin as the season reaches into the winter and beyond. But progress has a habit of being swift and unyielding in Brcko. Before long there could be more headlines about the city and its football club that ditched the rule book and sought strength in unity.
By Robert O’Connor