Sport in Serbia plays an important role, and the country has a strong sporting history. The most popular sports in Serbia are football, basketball, tennis, volleyball, water polo and handball.
Professional sports in Serbia are organized by sporting federations and leagues (in case of team sports). One of particularities of Serbian professional sports is existence of many multi-sport clubs (called “sports societies”), biggest and most successful of which are Red Star (three world titles and six European in various sports), Partizan (fourteen European titles in various sports), and Beograd in Belgrade, Vojvodina in Novi Sad, Radnicki in Kragujevac, Spartak in Subotica.
History of sport in Serbia
At the end of the nineteenth century, at the time when the spirit of the desire to renew the Olympic idea and the affirmation of Olympism as a unique and universal philosophy of sport and life was emerging throughout Europe, the idea became apparent in Serbia. In a way, this confirms that in our region there was an awareness of the importance of sport because of its importance for health, but also for increasing physical abilities and nurturing the competitive spirit.
The first sports clubs, i.e. private schools, were founded in the mid-19th century in Kragujevac in 1839), in Belgrade in 1843 and the swimming school on the Sava River in the same year.
With great ambitions, in 1882, the Belgrade Society for Gymnastics and Wrestling was founded, in cooperation with the Ministries of the Interior and Education. Shortly afterwards, sports societies were founded and were established in Sabac, Smederevo, Kragujevac, Zajecar and other cities. In 1891, the Society changed its name to Belgrade Gymnastics Society “Soko”, and societies of the same name were formed throughout Serbia.
The Union of Sokol Societies was formed in February 1910, and as early as April it was admitted to the Alliance of Slavic Sokols, representing Czechia, Poland, Croatia and Slovenia. The new Union was at the heart of the sports movement, and by doing so it made sport more and more a part of people’s needs
Today’s Olympic Committee of Serbia inherits the tradition of the Serbian Olympic Club established in 1910 and the Yugoslav Olympic Committee that succeeded it in 1919, as well as the Olympic Committee of Serbia and Montenegro.
Officially, Olympism in the teritory of present-day Serbia began on 23 February 1910, when the Serbian Olympic Club was established in Belgrade, as the first official Olympic organization in the South Slavs. Towards the end of the 19th century, there was no mention of organized sporting life in our region. At the time, sports were viewed with suspicion and even ridicule in our country.
However, one event changed such attitude. This was the presence of Serbian King Alexander Obrenovic at the opening of the First Modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. He was the only head of state who was among the officials at the Olympic Stadium. The event had left a deep mark on the further development of Olympism in Serbia and sports in general.
Since then, more lively sporting activity had begun in Serbia, and some competitions have been called Olympic. The then press cited various examples of people from our region who were the members of the teams of Austria and Hungary, describing their exploits. The Olympic spirit from Athens in 1896 and later on from Paris in 1900, St. Louis in 1904 and London in 1908, was spread in our sports movement.
Serbian Olympic Committee was admitted to the IOC at the Congress in Stockholm in July 1912. The first Olympic participation of Serbian athletes was at the Stockholm Olympics the same year, and the Kingdom of Serbia had two representatives: Cedomir Milosevic in the 100 meters run and Dragutin Tomasevic in the marathon.
The total balance of athletes in Serbia and Yugoslavia (including all historical periods from 1912 to 2008) at the Olympics is 97 medals at the Summer and 4 medals at the Winter Olympics.
Football is the most popular sport in Serbia, and the Football Association of Serbia with 146,845 registered players, is the largest sporting association in the country. Serbia has a reputation as one of the world’s biggest exporters of footballers. The Serbia national football team lacks relative success although it qualified for three of the last four FIFA World Cups. Serbia national youth football teams won 2013 U-19 European Championship and 2015 U-20 World Cup. The two main football clubs in Serbia are Red Star (winner of the 1991 European Cup and 1991 Intercontinental Cup) and Partizan (finalist of the 1966 European Cup), both from Belgrade. The rivalry between the two clubs is known as the “Eternal Derby”, and is often cited as one of the most exciting sports rivalries in the world.
Serbia is one of the traditional powerhouses of world basketball, as Serbia men’s national basketball team have won two World Championships (in 1998 and 2002), three European Championships (in 1995, 1997, and 2001), one FIBA Diamond Ball (in 2004), and two Olympic silver medals (in 1996 and 2016) as well. The women’s national basketball team won the European Championship in 2015 and Olympic bronze medal in 2016. A total of 31 Serbian players (three with an NBA ring) have played in the NBA in last three decades, including Predrag “Peja” Stojakovic (three-time NBA All-Star) and Vlade Divac (2001 NBA All-Star and Basketball Hall of Famer). The renowned “Serbian coaching school” produced many of the most successful European basketball coaches of all times, such as Zeljko Obradovic, who won a record 9 Euroleague titles as a coach. Partizan Basketball Club was the 1992 European champion and Crvena Zvezda women’s basketball club was 1979 European champion.
Recent success of Serbian tennis players has led to an immense growth in the popularity of tennis in Serbia. Novak Djokovic, seventeen-time Grand Slam champion, finished in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2018 as No. 1 in the world. Monica Seles, a former world no. 1, member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, won eight Grand Slam singles titles (while representing Yugoslavia). Ana Ivanovic (champion of 2008 French Open) and Jelena Jankovic were both ranked No. 1 in the WTA Rankings. There were two No. 1 ranked-tennis double players as well: Nenad Zimonjic (three-time men’s double and five-time mixed double Grand Slam champion) and Slobodan Zivojinovic (champion of 1986 US Open). The Serbia men’s tennis national team won the 2010 Davis Cup, and 2020 ATP Cup, also two World Team Cup (in 2009 and 2012) while Serbia women’s tennis national team reached the final at 2012 Fed Cup.
Serbia is one of the leading volleyball countries in the world. Its men’s national team won the gold medal at 2000 Olympics, silver and bronze medal at the World Championship, the European Championship on 3 occasions (in 2001, 2011 and 2019) as well as the 2016 FIVB World League. The women’s national volleyball team are current world Champions, has won European Championship three times (in 2011, 2017 and 2019) as well as Olympic silver medal in 2016.
The Serbia men’s national water polo team is the second most successful national team after Hungary in the history of sport, having won Olympic gold medal in 2016, three World Championships (2005, 2009 and 2015). The last 3 FINA World Cups in 2006, 2010, 2014. A record 12 FINA World Leagues and seven European Championships in 2001, 2003, 2006, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018, respectively. Partizan Club has won a seven European champion titles, Becej and Crvena Zvezda one.
Other noted Serbian athletes include: swimmers Milorad Cavic (2009 World champion on 50 meters butterfly and silver medallist on 100 meters butterfly as well as 2008 Olympic silver medallist on 100 meters butterfly in historic race with American swimmer Michael Phelps) and Nadja Higl (2009 World champion in 200 meters breaststroke – the first Serbian woman to become a world champion in swimming); track and field athlete Ivana Spanovic (long-jumper; 2016 European champion and bronze medallist at the 2016 Olympics); wrestler Davor Stefanek (2016 Olympic gold medallist), taekwondoist Milica Mandic (2012 Olympic gold medallist), and auto-racing driver Dusan Borkovic (two time European champion: 2012 European Hill Climb Championship and 2015 European Touring Car Cup).
The largest stadiums in Serbia are Rajko Mitic Stadium, better known as Marakana (capacity 55,000 spectators), Partizan Stadium called JNA (32,710), both in Belgrade, FC Smederevo Stadium (17,200) and Karadjordje Stadium (15,745) in Novi Sad.
The largest hall is the Belgrade Arena with a maximum capacity of 25,000 seats. It is located in New Belgrade and is one of the largest and most modern European sport halls. Among the biggest halls in Serbia are the Novi Sad SPENS (11,000), the Pioneer Hall (8,150) and the Belgrade Sports Hall (5,000).
Serbia has hosted many sport events, among others:
2009 Summer Universiade
2017 European Athletics Indoor Championship
2018 EuroLeague Final Four (basketball)
2018 Canoe Sprint European Championship
2018 European Fencing Championship
2013 World Women’s Handball Championship
2018 European Karate Championship
2014 European Rowing Championship
2013 Davis Cup, World Group final (tennis)
2011 Women’s European Volleyball Championship
2017 European Wrestling Championship