Representing the capital of Slavonia, NK Osijek are hoping to follow the example of Rijeka and break the Zagreb monopoly on the domestic Croatian game. True, since the establishment of independent Croatian competitions in 1992, the boardroom at the Gradski vrt shows one cup trophy, but that could be about to change.
The takeover of the club by Hungarian and Croatian entrepreneurs, Lőrinc Mészáros and Ivan Meštrović, in 2016, not only brought European football back to Osijek for the first time in five years, but financed a best-ever run for the Bijelo-plavi, the White and Blues. Towards the end of that 2017-18 season, the first full one under the new ownership, Meštrović announced the building of a new stadium and complex by the river Drava, due for completion in 2020.
Two consecutive fourth-placed finishes in the league represent Osijek’s best showing for a decade.
Founded as Proleter Osijek in 1947, the club did little when part of the all-Yugoslav set-up other than change names to Slavonija, then to NK Osijek. Even when local boy Davor Šuker, in his farewell season of 1988-89, was top league scorer in Yugoslavia, Osijek only finished mid-table.
More revered here are the prolific Robert Špehar, with three spells at his home-town club, and fellow striker Petar Krpan, who opened the scoring when Osijek turned over Anderlecht 3-1 in a UEFA Cup match. Coming shortly after Croatia’s memorable 1998 World Cup run, Krpan a playing member of the squad, the game seemed to usher in a new era for the Bijelo-plavi but an away-goals defeat was followed by an easy win for West Ham over the Slavonian side in the same competition a year later.
The same season culminated in Osijek’s only silverware, a cup final and Slavonian derby victory over Cibalia Vinkovci, thanks to two goals in stoppage time. Qualifying for Europe four years in succession, Osijek gained impressive wins over Rapid Vienna and Brøndby, but never progressed further than three rounds in the UEFA Cup.
It would be another decade before Europe beckoned, and another five years before the 2016 ownership takeover allowed the club to attract the likes of Macedonian international striker Muzafer Ejupi and much-travelled Ukrainian midfielder Dmytro Lyopa. Ejupi scored in each leg as Osijek claimed victory over Lucerne in the 2017-18 UEFA Cup, before captain Borna Barišić converted a penalty at PSV Eindhoven to register the only goal of a remarkable away-leg triumph. In front of 15,000 at the Gradski vrt, Croatian under-21 winger Petar Bočkaj, another recent signing, hit the only goal of the second leg to eliminate the the multi-titled Dutch club.
Osijek’s stadium was packed again for the visit of Austria Vienna, Ejupi opening the scoring to put the Slavonians within touching distance of the group stage. The visitors then hit two away goals, a solitary one in the second leg by Gabrijel Boban, a distant cousin of Zvonimir, not enough to further Osijek’s interest in the competition.
Further signings, of goalkeeper Ivica Ivušić and attacking midfielder Karlo Kamenar, both with international appearances for Croatia at youth level, should keep Osijek in the hunt in 2018-19.
Opened in 1958, modernised in 1980 when tenants NK Osijek were in Yugoslavia’s top flight, then provided with individual seating in 1998, the Gradski vrt still looks like a municipal stadium from the Communist era. Comprising one steep-sloping open stand on the east (Istok) side – home of local ultras the Kohorta – and the main west (Zapad) stand, covered and housing VIPs and the press. Behind each goal, south (Jug) and north (Sjever) are part-seating and part-standing areas.
Capacity is just under 19,000, though the average gate for domestic fixtures is just over 3,000.
When Osijek move to a new-build by the river in 2020, Gradski vrt will be used by the reserve side.
The stadium is a 15min walk from the bus and train stations, heading down ulica Bartola Kašića, past the Sport House pizzeria, then turning immediate right at the roundabout with Vukovarska, and straight down ulica kneza Trpimira. After the underpass, it’s 5-7min.
From town, it may be easier to get a tram. From the stop at the main square nearest the cathedral outside Partner Banka, board the No.2 tram bound for Bataka (daily every 15-20min), alighting just past the roundabout on ulica Martina Divalta. Services run until nearly midnight.
A taxi from town to the stadium shouldn’t cost more than 50kn.
For domestic fixtures, you simply pay on the day, from the ticket windows on ulica Woodrowa Wilsona, admission around 80kn in three stands (Istok, Sjever and Jug) and 100kn-120kn in the main covered stand, Zapad. European fixtures are set at 200kn and 240kn-280kn respectively. Children up to 15 are charged around 40%.
For advance sales, the club office at the stadium opens most weekdays between noon and 6pm, or the Kompas travel agency (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 8am-1pm) near the riverside Hotel Osijek at Šetalište kardinala F Šepera 8F also distributes.
For major European fixtures, there is also online distribution through Croatian-only Ulaznice.
The tourist office (Mon-Sat 8am-4pm) near the main square at Županijska 2 sells a selection of NK Osijek souvenirs, with a wider range of shirts available nearby at Ferivi Sport (Mon-Fri 8am-8pm Sat 8am-2pm), a generic store for big-brand gear at Kapucinska 44.
Stalls offering NK Osijek scarves are set up by the ground on match days.
Walking from town or the station, you’ll come to a couple of places around the junction of ulica kneza Trpimira and Martina Divalta. The first, and the best, is a modern café-bar, Tango, its terrace on Sjenjak set between a betting shop and a bank. TV sport plays as locals talk football over affordable half-litres of Osječko. Across the junction, the Caffe Bar Aktuell at Trpimira 11 is a more down-at-heel version of Tango, also offering TV sport and wallet-friendly beer. A little further along Trpimira, decent domestic dishes are served at the Restoran Karaka.
By the tram stop on Martina Divalta, on the stadium side of the roundabout, the Restoran Bijelo-Plavi should be a hotbed of White-and-Blue support – instead, it’s a mainstream traditional restaurant, with heavy meat platters listed in a leather-bound menu.
Across the tram tracks on Martina Divalta, the Caffe Bar Castello and After Dark are standard local drinking spots with seats outside, popular places pre-match.
The large, imposing building near the Restoran Bijelo-Plavi, the Muzej Okusa, is not a museum at all, but an upscale wine bar and restaurant, set in a pavilion dating back to 1804. The name means ‘Museum of Taste’ – well-behaved visitors can order a pre-match glass of wine here on the sun-catching terrace, perhaps even a €2 beer. The draught option is Belgian Grimbergen at €3 a half-litre.
On narrow ulica Woodrowa Wilsona immediately behind the main stand, the Palace is a regular bar for pre-game glugging, with a serving outlet on the street and a betting shop attached. Depending on the opposition, away fans for European fixtures should be welcome – just don’t come in wearing a Cibalia Vinkovci scarf.