The Serbian league kicks off again this weekend with Red Star, the country’s most successful club, facing the biggest crisis in their history.

By Vladimir Novak in Belgrade

Red Star Belgrade’s president Dan Tana, elected three months ago, was asked recently if he regretted taking up his new position. His unusual response – “I regret it every day” – illustrated just how gloomy the situation is at Serbia’s most successful club, where the roll of honour includes 25 league titles, 22 domestic cups, as well as the European Cup and World Club Cup in 1991.

It is hard to know where to start when detailing Red Star’s problems. Last season the Red & Whites failed to win either the league or cup, while in Europe they qualified for the UEFA Cup group stage, but finished with no points from four games.

This season things have deteriorated. After a series of mediocre performances, Red Star were third in the league at the winter break, seven points behind leaders and arch-rivals Partizan, who they face this weekend when the league restarts.

In the UEFA Cup, they suffered a shocking exit in the second qualifying round to APOEL Nicosia. It was the first time in 13 years that the club had failed at the preliminary stage in European competition.

The sporting failures have been accompanied by poor management and turbulent leadership off the pitch. In the past five years Red Star have had no less than four presidents, five general secretaries, four sports directors, while coaches have been changed with alarming regularity. Current head coach Cedomir Janveski is the club’s sixth in two years.

Last year former president and club legend Dragan Dzajic was arrested, together with Vladimir Cvetkovic and Milos Marinkovic, both two former high club officials. They were charged of misusing their official positions (read: embezzlement of money in several players transfers). The court process is underway.

Red Star’s position has been compounded by financial problems. Many quality players (Nemanja Vidic, Nikola Zigic, Bosko Jankovic, Aleksandar Lukovic, Nenad Kovacevic, Vladimir Stojkovic and others) have been sold for good money, but according to official data, the clubs’ debts are £14.2million. Money is owed to former players, former coaches, agents, other clubs; even the salaries and bonuses for the current squad are being paid in arrears.

Recently Polish left-back Grzegorz Bronowicki, who last autumn was sidelined with a long-term injury, sued the club because he was owed £160,000. When Ognjen Koroman – one of the club’s highest paid players – was asked what he thought of Bronowicki’s move, he remarked: “Bronowicki is a foreigner who sees things differently. It’s as if a boy sued his father for not giving him pocket-money.” Koroman was keen to show loyalty to his club, but he too is looking for a way out.

All these problems have combined to produce the deepest crisis in Red Star’s 64-year-old history.

Many believe that the only way out of the current situation will be for the club to become a regulated private company, ending the arrangement where the likes of Red Star and Partizan have operated as private clubs, with huge influence exerted by individual club bosses.

“People who started guiding the club knew little,” says Dobrivoje Jankovic, the doyen of Serbian football journalists. “Those people are immature and ignorant. To lead Red Star is a big obligation. Not everybody can do it. It’s not a club for experiments.”

The conspiracy theorists have suggested that the downfall of Red Star is a ploy to decrease the club’s market value, easing the way for a takeover by Miroslav Miskovic, the richest man in Serbia. Allegedly there is a plan to knock down the stadium, the famous Belgrade Marakana, to develop the land as a shopping mall, with a new stadium being built near Belgrade airport. It may sound fanciful but Miskovic’s son Marko has strong links to the club.

Serbians can only hope that Crvena zvezda (the original name in Serbian), a club with millions of fans in Serbia, the former Yugoslavia and across the region, can find their way back to where they belong.