When football fans discuss the greatest players of the 1990’s, one name that rarely seems to come up in the conversation is that of Dejan Savićević. Maybe the sanctions placed on his native Yugoslavia, effectively preventing them from competing in international tournaments during the Balkan war, is the reason he was overlooked.
The facts, however, speak for themselves. When someone has won the Champions League with two different clubs, and been the star player for both teams, it’s fair to say he must have been something pretty special.
Born in 1966 in Titograd, Yugoslavia (now known as Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro), Dejan Savićević joined the youth setup of local club OFK at the age of 15. Eighteen months later, in January 1983, he joined cross town rivals FK Budućnost Titograd. By the end of the year, he had made his first team debut. By the following summer, he was one of the first names on the team sheet, despite not being on a professional contract. Primarily an attacking midfielder, he could also play as a striker, but was always most effective in the position that has now become known as the “Number 10” role.
With a first touch and close control that were unrivalled, supreme vision and intelligence in the final third, along with a quick burst of pace, he was already way ahead of most of his team-mates. After his first full season in the team, Red Star Belgrade were interested in securing the services of Savićević. After a long running saga, he signed his first contract with Titograd, and was now able to concentrate on his career with that financial security.
By the end of 1986, Savićević was rapidly becoming the rising star of Yugoslavian football and had earned his first cap for his country. He was also a darling of the media, who loved his outspoken views just as much as his dazzling skills. One way or another, he always gave the press something to write about, such as when he publicly accused the manager of the national team of favouring players from FK Željezničar.
By 1988, Red Star came calling again, and this time Titograd were unable to prevent their star player joining Yugoslavia’s biggest club. Savićević only made a few appearances in his first season at Marakana, due to being called up for the mandatory stint in the Yugoslav People’s Army. There was a rumour that Red Star’s biggest rivals, the army club Partizan Belgrade, had arranged for both Savićević and his new team-mate Darko Pančev to be called up as revenge for not joining them. These rumours were, of course, never substantiated.
Star of Red Star
At the start of the 1989 – 90 season, Savićević was free from military duty, and could concentrate on his football. He would also represent Yugoslavia at the 1990 World Cup, narrowly missing a chance against Argentina to put his side through to the semi-final.
This would also prove to be the most successful period in Red Star’s history. In addition to three league titles, they won the 1991 European Cup, becoming the first Yugoslav club to do so, and Savićević was the man who made that side tick. His importance to the side was shown during the semi-final against Bayern Munich when he scored the winning goal in the first leg in Germany. As Bayern were seeking to take the lead, they committed too many players forward, which resulted in a superb counter attack which Savićević finished off after leaving his marker for dead.
The final, against Olympique Marseille in Bari, was a dull 0 – 0 draw which Red Star Belgrade won on penalties. This team, many pundits believed, was strong enough to dominate European football for many years to come. Players such as Vladimir Jugović, Siniša Mihajlović and Robert Prosinečki were among their stars. In Darko Pančev, they had the European Golden Shoe winner.
English football fans were treated to a glimpse of the talents that were contained within this side during the 1991 UEFA Super Cup. Due to the ongoing conflict which would become the Balkan War, Yugoslavia was declared unsafe. Manchester United had won the European Cup Winners Cup earlier that year, and the usually two-legged match was switched to a one-off tie at Old Trafford. Even the most biased United fan in the world would struggle to understand how the Red Devils won that game.
Savićević absolutely controlled the game from start to finish, showing why he was joint runner-up in that year’s Ballon d’Or. United couldn’t get near him, yet managed to win the game 1 – 0, having earlier missed a penalty. They were the only real chances United managed.
By the summer of 1992, the political instability surrounding Yugoslavia had gone full circle, and the national team was banned from competing in that summer’s European Championships. Coincidently, they were replaced by Denmark, a team that had originally failed to qualify, and they went on to win the tournament.
Red Star, having had to play their European home games at neutral venues due to safety fears, had failed to retain their crown, and all the players had now been sold. Savićević joined Italian champions Milan for a fee of approximately £10 million.
Initially, the move to Italy was a frustrating one for Savićević. Milan were one of the best sides in Europe at the time, but UEFA’s short lived “three foreigner” rule severely restricted his playing time. With players such as Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Jean-Pierre Papin ahead of him, he made just ten league appearances in his first season. It was also no secret that Savićević was actually not a favourite of Milan manager Fabio Capello, having been signed by the owner Silvio Berlusconi, who nicknamed him Il Genio (The Genius). Savićević handed a in a transfer request, and there were enquiries from clubs in France and Spain, but he remained at the San Siro.
The 1993 – 94 season would begin in the same frustrating fashion, and was not helped by a fractious relationship with Capello, who questioned Savićević’s work rate. There was one notable incident in training where his Croatian team mate Zvonimir Boban was acting as translator, as Savićević was still learning Italian. Boban refused to translate the simple, two word message to Capello. Despite these troubles, he started to become a key player in the second half of the season. Of the four goals he scored, three of them were in Europe.
Milan were not in great form going into the 1994 Champions League final against Barcelona in Athens. Despite retaining the Serie A title, they failed to win any of their final six league games. In addition to this, they were without their suspended first choice centre-backs, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta. Facing the might of Romário and Hristo Stoichkov with a makeshift defence, the odds were heavily stacked against Milan. The defence-minded Fabio Capello had only one option—all-out attack.
With the team centred around him, Milan took the initiative and absolutely battered Barcelona, and were 2 – 0 up at half time, thanks to a double from Daniele Massaro. Savićević had already set up the first goal with a fantastic piece of play, but then added the kind of goal rarely seen in a game of that magnitude.
Charging down a clearance from Miguel Ángel Nadal, he spotted Andoni Zubizaretta off his line and chipped him from 25 yards. At 3 – 0, there was no coming back for Barcelona, and Marcel Desailly later added a fourth to complete their humiliation. But all anybody could talk about was the goal from Savićević. Quite incredible.
At the start of the 1994 – 95 season, Milan cleared out their squad. Ruud Gullit’s return lasted a matter of weeks, and Marco van Basten was later forced to retire through injury. This left Savićević, Desailly and Boban as the only foreign players in Milan’s squad. Playing in an attacking role, he began to score more regularly. In the Champions League semi-final, his two brilliant goals saw off Paris Saint-Germain. Unfortunately, he didn’t make the squad for the final, having failed a fitness test, and Milan lost 1 – 0 to Ajax. According to reports, to this day Savićević insists he was fit to play.
Milan spent big during the summer of 1995, adding George Weah and Roberto Baggio to their ranks, but Savićević remained a vital player for the team as they regained the league title they had lost to Juventus the previous year.
In 1996, Capello left Milan to join Real Madrid and this was the start of a downward spiral for the club. They failed to qualify from their Champions League group, and finished 11th in Serie A. Even when Capello returned for the 1997 – 98 season, he could not turn around their fortunes and was sacked after finishing in tenth place. Savićević left at the same time, no longer an automatic starter, and was given a free transfer. In Milan, he is regarded as a legend.
Having been banned from international competition for almost four years, Yugoslavia were allowed to compete once more and qualified for the 1998 World Cup. Savićević played in two of his nation’s four games, but they were eliminated by Holland in the second round. The war and the resulting sanctions on Yugoslavia had robbed him of the chance to display his immense talents on the biggest stage of all during his peak years.
After the World Cup, Savićević returned to Red Star Belgrade, bizarrely only making three appearances. In 1999, he joined Austrian side Rapid Vienna where he would spend the final two years of his career. Relieved of any defensive duties and given a free role, Savićević flourished in the Austrian league and thoroughly enjoyed the final part of his playing career.
After retiring in 2001, he took over as manager of Yugoslavia (which would become Serbia and Montenegro during his tenure), who were already out of contention for the 2002 World Cup. Things didn’t fare much better in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2004. Savićević resigned in 2003 after a fifth straight defeat, to Azerbaijan, meant that there was no hope of qualification.
Today he is the president of the Montenegrin Football Association: a post he has held for more than a decade. There is no doubt that the ban from international competition took away a lot of exposure from the attacker. Nobody will ever know what he, Red Star Belgrade or the Yugoslavian national team could have achieved had that not been the case.
What is certain, however, is that he was one of the best players in Europe. One who doesn’t get the credit he deserves.