Friday, 4 September 2020 – Dinamo Zagreb’s loss is NK Osijek’s gain, as the rising Slavonians make a surprise start to the new season, lead by the best coach in the Croatian first league Nenad Bjelica
There has been a taste of optimism in the air of Osijek for a while now. And much of it has been centred around the city’s NK Osijek football club. However, expectations have flown through the roof this week as it has all but been officially confirmed that the team will start the impending season under the guidance of the best coach in the Croatian first league Nenad Bjelica.
It is the most surprising move within the Croatian first league since Niko Kranjčar left his boyhood club Dinamo for bitter rivals Hajduk Split in 2005. At the start of last season, Bjelica was the coach of Croatian champions, Dinamo Zagreb.
The best coach in the Croatian first league Nenad Bjelica, pictured during his time at FK Austria Wien © Steindy
But, this time, there can be no bitterness directed towards the moving man, no anger assigned to Bjelica for seeking a job in his hometown after his dismissal from Dinamo. Even if you attribute blame to those running the farce that Dinamo Zagreb has become, this latest shame for the club comes at the end of a very long list of grievances. Grievances that Dinamo supporters have proven all too quick to forgive, as soon as their wealthy club again win the league or lift the cup.
In recent years, Osijek has suffered more than any other major Croatian city from population decline. The streets of its westerly lying centre are often deserted in comparison to how the city was 20 years ago. And that’s not just because of out-of-town shopping centres. Many young people born here, unable to find work for their considerable talents and skills, can now be found in Germany or Ireland. An accepting but unhappy resignation lies with those who’ve remained. It shouldn’t be like this. Those emerging from the city’s excellent university are among the best educated in Croatia. The computer sciences and programmers who graduate from Osijek are second to none.
Gradski Vrt, on the border of Sjenjak, in Osijek. It is the current home of NK Osijek. It will be used for the B team when the new stadium is finished © NK Osijek
One of the chief mood lifts for the men deserted by old school friends has been the attendance of Gradski Vrt, which currently remains NK Osijek’s home ground. Not so long ago, it was a visit that only added misery. Though they are one of only four clubs never to have been relegated from the Croatian first league, NK Osijek was facing financial ruin as recently as 2016. But, then, Hungarian businessman Lőrinc Mészáros and Croatian Ivan Meštrović bought majority shares in the club.
Under the new regime, the squad was improved and a can-do spirit returned to the stands at Gradski Vrt. The club finished 4th in the league in 2017, just after celebrating the 70 year anniversary of playing under the name NK Osijek. It was their highest league finish in nearly 10 years and took them to qualifying matches for the 2017–18 UEFA Europa League. There, they beat Santa Coloma, Luzern and even former European champions PSV before their run was halted by Austria Wien. It hardly mattered. The ambition and optimism had returned for good. You could feel it throughout the city, not least when rumours of a brand new stadium began to filter through the stands.
Securing fourth in the domestic league the next year again took Osijek to the UEFA competition and in April 2018, plans for the impressive new Pampas Stadium were revealed. A state of art UEFA category 4 stadium for 12,000 rain-shielded fans, the new ground will be fully compatible with televised coverage of international competitions. This is an indicator of Osijek’s ambition. Not a day goes by when football fans from the city – indeed, from all over Croatia – check on the progress of construction.
The progress of construction of Osijek’s new ground is being watched by football fans across Croatia. it is a fitting home for the best coach in the Croatian first league Nenad Bjelica © NK Osijek
That the team should be starting the new season with the best coach in the Croatian first league, Nenad Bjelica, is yet another measure of that ambition. But, unlike the visible rise of the new stands, few saw this one coming. After the mess of his departure from Dinamo Zagreb, it had been anticipated that Bjelica might go to La Liga or Serie A. He’s certainly good enough.
A former player for NK Osijek, Bjelica spent four early seasons at his hometown club before moving to Spain to play for Albacete Balompié, Real Betis and Las Palmas. Following a spell of injuries, he returned to Osijek for two seasons and featured for them in the UEFA Cup competition. He played the last eight years of his career as a professional in Germany and Austria, before retiring in 2008. He bowed out after having represented Croatia nine times as part of the national side.
He began his managerial career at the same club from which he retired as a player, Austria’s FC Kärnten, but by 2013 had moved to Austria Wien where he helped secure their qualification for the Champions League group stage. He spent time in Italy and Poland before returning to the Croatian first league Nenad Bjelica signed for Dinamo Zagreb in 2018.
After a successful first year in charge, most were of the opinion that in the Croatian first league, Nenad Bjelica was the best coach. After guiding the team through a good Europa League campaign, Bjelica’s successes resulted in attaining the highest number of qualifying places ever for Croatian domestic teams in European competition. He returned Dinamo Zagreb to the Champions League for the first time in three years before his winning run at the club was halted by their latest debacle.
How NK Osijek’s new Pampas stadium complex will look when complete © NK Osijek
How they could have let him slip through their fingers is eye-raising and yet, at the same time, not surprising. This is Dinamo Zagreb. Their supporters are resigned.
“Honestly, I am so happy for Osijek,” frustrated Dinamo Zagreb supporter David Kutleša told TCN upon hearing of the appointment.
“He accepted Osijek? What a legend!” said another, Martin Žunec. “This next season is going to be sick (great).”
For too long have the tarnished successes of Dinamo Zagreb taken the full limelight in Croatian domestic football. Though eminently predictable, their lifting of consecutive cups has nevertheless brought cheer to supporters of a club riddled with trouble. Such domestic achievements may not immediately follow Bjelica to Slavonia. But, it barely matters right now. NK Osijek will start the new season with the best coach in the Croatian first league, Nenad Bjelica. In his acceptance of this appointment, it is to a building momentum of optimism that Bjelica is contributing. And nowhere is that more needed than Osijek.
The official announcement of the Croatian first league Nenad Bjelica’s appointment to NK Osijek is expected on Saturday 5 September 2020