When Partizan meet Tottenham Hotspur in Belgrade in the Europa League (live, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports GO, 1 p.m. ET) on Thursday, it will feel like a parable for the complex financial state of modern football. One team has won its domestic league title six times and its domestic cup three times in the past seven years. The other hasn’t won the league since 1961 or the cup since 1991, although it did win the League Cup in 2008. One is one of Europe’s great providers of talent; the other one of the great consumers.
There is the team from the Barclays Premier League struggling desperately to recapture past glories, unsuccessful in terms of trophies, in some ways disenfranchised by a system that leaves it unable to compete with the clubs funded by oligarchs and the sovereign wealth funds. And then there is the team from the smaller league, still financially dwarfed by Spurs, that could hardly have done more to succeed, and also harks back to its glory days among the European elite before it found itself trapped in a league ranked only 27th best in Europe by UEFA coefficient.
Partizan is top of the Serbian league having won five out of five this season, as it looks to regain the title it surprisingly lost last year. Although it finished second to Crvena Zvezda, the champion was excluded from UEFA competition for breaking financial fair play regulations, meaning Partizan entered UEFA Champions League qualifying, where it was beaten by Ludogorets of Bulgaria.
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It’s a club that’s rapidly becoming a model, at least in terms of how a major side from one of Europe’s smaller leagues can generate a throughput of players that can be exported for profit while remaining successful domestically. It may not be the most romantic way to look at the game, but this is the world of modern football, teams from Europe’s highest echelon — England, Spain, Germany and Italy — importing talent from the second tier — Portugal, Netherlands, France — who themselves import from lower down the pyramid.
“We have nothing to lose in this match," said Partizan’s head coach Marko Nikolic. "We managed to bring back a good competitive rhythm in the game with [Saturday’s 4-2 league win against] Cukaricki and now we have the strongest possible opponents at the beginning of this competition, Tottenham. Partizan has partially fulfilled its goal by making the group stage, but I do not want to be mere participants. I want to try to compete at this level, to show how much power we have.”
This year’s study by International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES), based in Neuchatel, Switzerland, showed that of players currently playing in the top 31 leagues across Europe, only Ajax have produced a greater number than Partizan. Crvena Zvezda’s academy is sixth in the list, suggesting remarkable strength in depth at youth level for Serbia, something reflected in the fact that the national Under-19 team, having won the European title last year, reached the semifinal this year before losing on penalties to Portugal. Although he’s unlikely to be involved on Thursday, one member of the 2013 side, the 18-year-old defender Milos Veljkovic, made his debut for Tottenham last season.
Of the young generation, the highest profile is the winger Nikola Ninkovic. He is just 19, but already has significant history against English opposition. He scored direct from a corner against England at the European Under-19 Championship in 2012, but when playing for the Under-21s later that year in Kragujevac — a game made notorious by sustained racist chanting — he became involved in a brawl at the final whistle and was banned for a year by the Serbian football federation.
Controversial he may be, but nobody doubts Ninkovic’s talent. “God gave him an enormous talent and an unbelievable feel for dribbling,” said Zvonko Popovic, the former defender who is now coach of the Partizan academy. “He’s our Zinedine Zidane and when the time comes, I’m sure he will become the most valuable player in the history of Serbian football."
Ninkovic, who signed professional forms at Partizan in July 2011 on the same day as Liverpool’s Lazar Markovic, is highly sought-after. Yet there are those who suggest he may not even be as good as Andrija Zivkovic, an 18-year-old who last season became the youngest ever player to represent the full Serbia national side when he came on against Japan in a friendly watched by the Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.
With center-forward Petar Skuletic and Ivorian striker Ismael Fofana suspended, it seems probable that the experienced Danko Lazovic, more usually a creator, will lead the line. That could mean a place for another of Partizan’s young prospects, 17-year-old winger Danilo Pantic.
Tottenham’s issue, as it tends to be for clubs of its stature in the Europa League, is less who should play than who shouldn’t. Mauricio Pochettino fielded significantly weakened sides in the qualifying round win over the Cypriot side AEL and, while Partizan is clearly a far stiffer challenge, it’s probable that the likes of Harry Kane, Andros Townsend, Aaron Lennon and Paulinho will come into contention after being peripheral figures in the league campaign so far.
And that, really, is one of the sadnesses of modern European football. This is a huge game for Partizan, both in terms of prestige and finances; Tottenham, though, has half an eye on Sunday’s Premier League fixture against West Bromwich Albion.