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A generational triumph

If you have paid attention to any of my writings or social media ramblings, it should be pretty obvious – I was born a fan of Mostar Velež.

Perhaps you even know that being a Velež fan in the previous 30 years, considering the club’s 100-year-old history, hasn’t been easy. The three previous decades have brought only ache and suffering for those considering themselves Rođeni,  as Velež fans are nicknamed.

The club that is listed 7th on the all time table of Socialist Yugoslav football, two times Yugoslav Cup winner, and UEFA cup quarterfinalist, was turned into a homeless club evicted from its own ground, a small-town club reaching the abyss of both competitive and organisational matters. For this, both the club itself and its enemies are to blame. 

For my generation, the 37-year olds and thereabout, it was the only Velež we knew. We knew very well of the Velež of yesteryear, by the stories told by our parents, sisters and brothers. Those who were old enough to remember happier times. But growing up with those stories also felt like salt in our wounds, a wound that felt ever more painful every time Rođeni returned defeated from another away game. Which were most of them. With time – I admit – we developed a loser mentality as a natural state. 

We followed our club for 20 years defeated by those who we once dominated, or at least stood even. We learned to live our lives with losing as a part of our identity – it seemed there was no other way. 

We saw Velež concede 12 – a dozen! – goals in Lukavac, and 10 in Trebinje. We witnessed one relegation, then another, we saw 20 games without a win, and a full season played with only one. One victory in a season! A mid-table season or avoiding relegation with a few weeks in hand was considered a good one. 

It’s hard to admit, especially in this day of age, but our supporter’s lives were defined by defeat. 

Just to be clear, it’s all good. This is not pathetic sobbing, complaining is not my point. This is our club. It is what it is, this is what it has given us, and what we live by. With pride. 

You don’t get to choose your club or change it. It’s ours and we love it, no matter the defeat or abyss or even how much this loser mentality has affected our personalities, our identity and character. We are Rođeni, defiant and proud. 

But yesterday things changed. And they will never be the same again. 

If you have paid the slightest attention as of late, or happen to have a Mostar born in your feed, you might have noticed. It’s a good summer for Rođeni. We finished the season with 20 games undefeated, and after 33 years of hurt, managed to fight our way into European competition by ending 3rd in the league. 

Coleraine from Northern Ireland seemed a healthy start, a fixture Velež won 2-1 in both matches. But in the 180 minutes of football played, we had a slightly impressive 53 attempts on goal and were awarded another round against AEK from Greece.

It all sounds logical and normal, a Bosnian saying says that even a blind hen sometimes catches a grain. Don’t get me wrong – Velež really deserved this. 

Rođeni under young coach Feđa Dudić has played a wonderful season with an average squad with limited depth, playing 20 games undefeated. And even did so with grace in a modern entertaining fashion. Clear mechanics, game plan, and from our local perspective even innovative.
Again, with a certain degree of logic, they defeated solid semi-professionals from Northern Ireland, and everything seemed normal. 

Years of hurt, a good season was to be awarded a testimonial against AEK Athens.

I say testimonial because our deeply rooted mentality did not allow us to think otherwise. AEK was an award for a good season, not a fixture we could win. Which again was a fair assessment. AEK, who shares club legend Dušan Bajević with Velež, has won the Greek championship 12 times. 15 times a cup winner, and a frequent guest at the European competitions. Recently, they even defeated Wolfsburg to reach the Europa League group stages. In terms of financial power, the clubs aren’t remotely comparable, and head-to-head analysis as well. Pretty much every aspect of comparison would. So we saw it as good fun, hoping to avoid catastrophes, knowing we would exploit them as yet another verification of our mentality. 

However, we forgot to consider the fact that until yesterday, we didn’t even know that we have a memorable generation, a Velež squad that had decided to play some serious football and change the tides. Who decided to add another brick to our identity. A better, stronger one. 

We should have known, though. 20 games undefeated was something even the glorious Velež of the 70s never managed. Never mind the quality of the league, competition and players, they don’t matter in this context. 

Not losing 20 in a row is an achievement no matter what – a success made by structural work and character development in the squad. 

Players came and went, there were good and bad days, good and bad form, obviously, but the character has always been there. Dudićs Velež conceded early against the semi-pros from Northern Ireland. But they turned the game – with the same happening a week later. 

And while we let the euphoria roam in preparation for AEK in Sarajevo, Dudić and Velež went to work and prepared another batch of serious football. 

They did everything they should, analyzed their opposition, set the team up to hurt them on their weak spot, and were busy bees for 90 minutes. Yes, we did have a helping hand from Fortuna, and we did see a rare golazo, but nevertheless, Velež returned to their greatest victory in 33 years. And not by chance or luck or improvisation, but as a result of the same work ethic and character. 

When AEK in the return leg, got their needed goal in 10 (!) minutes of added time and secured extra time, Dudićs boys didn’t see that as an obstacle, but yet another opportunity to change their and our fate, and the fate of every Velež fan. 

All our supporter history was represented in those 30 minutes of football. In the penalty shootout, and the last penalty.

When keeper Slavisa Bogdanovic saved the last penalty, sending Rođeni to the 3rd round of some new third tier European competion,  that  was actually less important.  Velež is about to play Elfsborg in Sarajevo this Thursday with a solid chance to qualify to the play offs after 1-1 in the first leg, but that is less important too.

Because there will be victories and defeats, qualifications and knockouts, ups and downs. There will be happiness and tears and a lot, a lot more frustrations. But this triumph against AEK will forever remain a statue for our generation and everything we’ve been through in the last 30 years. 

The night we finally stopped living all our defeats – and started winning.

Written by Saša Ibrulj

Translated by Goran Obad