Ask any football fan to reel off a list of famous clubs from former Yugoslavia, and Koper won’t spring to mind.
Red Star and Partizan, certainly, Dinamo and Hajduk, for sure. But this modest outfit with the patchwork history, based in a pretty, Italianate resort on the Slovene coast, has the dynamism and behind-the-scenes connections to achieve something special – something more than their erstwhile Yugo compatriots have failed to achieve on the international stage since Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in 1991, on the eve of the war that tore Yugoslavia apart.
Not that FC Luka Koper, as they are now known, have yet won a championship title since the establishment of the single Slovene league, shortly after Red Star’s triumph and Slovenia’s ten-day war for independence. This season, however, is different.
After a recent runners-up spot, two cup wins and three consecutive seasons in the UEFA Cup, the Canaries stand five points clear at the top of the Prva Liga, and ten ahead of main rivals Olimpija Ljubljana. Admittedly, the Green Dragons from Slovenia’s capital have suffered a two-point penalty, but this was for a players’ boycott that all but tore the many-titled club apart, and brought the veteran lynchpin midfielder Miran Pavlin from his beloved Olimpija to Koper.
Pavlin is the main factor between the Koper side that narrowly avoided relegation last June, and today’s unbeaten league leaders. In a professional career that began in 1992, Pavlin played 65 times for his country, including scoring the vital play-off goal against Ukraine that took Slovenia to Euro 2000, another goalscoring appearance at those finals and a creditable one at Slovenia’s otherwise divisive campaign at the World Cup of 2002.
Pavlin has played at Porto and in Cyprus, and stood for election for the opposition centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). A popular figure, a former director at Olimpija where he first made his name, playmaker and dead-ball specialist Pavlin is on a personal mission to supersede the big boys from the capital and grant Koper a debut league win.
Where the club will go from there is anybody’s guess. As a spokesman for their fan group Dvanajsti Kopra put it, “Koper is a very strange club.” One look at the club’s names, from the foundation merger of Aurora Koper and Meduza Koper in 1955, tells its own story. In ten years there have been four changes of title: FC Koper Capodistria; FC Koper; FC Anet Koper; and now FC Luka Koper).
Along the way, the club gained the attention of Leicester (and former Portsmouth) chairman, Serb-American mogul Milan Mandaric who arrived here four years ago promising a new stadium, and left almost as swiftly clearing the club’s debts (‘another big mystery’, according to Dvanajsti Kopra). Even equally mysteriously, Mandaric brought in former Portsmouth striker Mladen Rudonja in as captain and club director but ‘Turbo Rudi’, a team-mate of Pavlin’s at Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002, left almost as quickly. Behind the scenes, local mayor Boris Popovic and construction boss Ante Guberac bring a certain influence to bear – only this month, notorious Italian football fixer Luciano Moggi was in Koper to meet with Popovic and see how the two could collaborate on possible future ventures.
One such is the renovation of Koper’s run-down SRC Bonifika Stadium, whose modest capacity of 4,500 has been mooted for expansion for some time. Home of the Dvanajsti Kopra and Tifozi Koper groups, the stadium doesn’t lack for atmosphere but facilities fall way short of what might be required for any significant progress. While the Grafist firm of former club president Guberac has secured the tender to undertake the project, on the pitch Pavlin, goalkeeping captain Ermin Hasic and top scorer Mitja Brulc face a run-in of Maribor, Olimpija and Domzale in the league before the winter break.
Overcome these hurdles, and Koper can start serious thinking about preparations for an assault on Platini’s new East Euro-friendly Champions League in 2010.