It’s almost a quarter of a century since the former Yugoslavia began to split up, as several regions declared their independence. This is the first part of three articles which explore the possibilities of how football might have been different if Yugoslavia had stayed together as one nation. It’s quite ironic that the country fell apart just as they seemed to be on the verge of dominating European football, both at club and international level. No team epitomises this more than the 1991 Red Star Belgrade team, who won the European Cup.
This superb side, made up of ten Yugoslav players and just one foreign import, had terrorised Europe throughout the 1990 – 91 European Cup campaign. In the days before you could click onto a video online to view the highlights of any team or player, Red Star were a bit of an unknown quantity. With sides such as the holders Milan, Italian champions Napoli and former holders Porto, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid all in the tournament, Red Star were hardly thought of as one of the favourites for the trophy.
With no expectations placed on them, they eliminated Grasshoppers Zurich, Glasgow Rangers, Dynamo Dresden and Bayern on their way to the final. But what stood them apart from the crowd was the way they would tear teams apart with their speed and skill; in terms of counter attack, nobody could match them.
Their opponents in the final were the expensively assembled Olympique Marseille, who boasted the likes of Chris Waddle, Jean-Pierre Papin, Basile Boli and Abedi Pele, as well as the former Red Star hero Dragan Stojković. With so much skill on show, it was a match that wetted the appetite of anyone who followed European football. Unfortunately, a match that was highly anticipated featured 120 minutes of what can only be described as anti-football.
With the game finishing 0 – 0, Red Star won on penalties. Sinisa Mihajlovic later admitted that the Red Star manager, Ljupko Petrović, had played for the draw with the hope of it going to penalties. The reason for this is believed to be because, in the 1990 – 91 Yugoslav First League, a bizarre decision saw matches that had ended in a draw being decided by a penalty shootout, with a point being awarded to the victor. Petrović believed that this provided his team with a significant advantage. If this is true then it definitely worked, and provided the country with an all-time high before the horror of the next few years that would follow.
As always happens when a club from one of Europe’s less glamorous leagues achieves continental success, clubs with big money came circling around Red Star Belgrade’s best players (Ajax in 1995 and Porto in 2004 are obvious examples of this). Unfortunately, because of the conflict Yugoslavia was deemed unsafe by UEFA and all of their clubs had to play their home ties in neutral venues. The 1991 UEFA Super Cup, back then always a two legged tie, was played as a one-off contest at Old Trafford against the holders of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Manchester United.
While Red Star were allowed to defend their trophy in the 1991 – 92 season, their home ties were played in Hungary and Bulgaria, and a significant portion of their team had already departed. This was the first season that a group stage was introduced into the competition, which would lay the foundations for the Champions League in future. The difference was that the group stage was classed as the semi-final, with the winners of the two groups advancing to the final – Red Star’s depleted team missed out after losing both matches to Sampdoria.
In May 1992, Yugoslavia were banned as a nation from taking part in UEFA competitions. This commenced 10 days before Euro 1992, and saw the national team disqualified and replaced by Denmark – who ironically went on to win the tournament, having originally failed to qualify. This same logic was applied to the club competitions, and Slovenia were the only former Yugoslav state whose clubs were permitted entry into European competition for the 1992 – 93 season.
With no European football, Red Star were backed into a corner, and little more than twelve months later all of that magnificent team had departed for pastures new. Listed below are the eleven players who started that final in Bari, the nationalities by which they now define themselves and how their careers panned out.
Stevan Stojanović. Goalkeeper, 26. (Serbia)
Stojanovic wore the captain’s armband for the final in Bari, and saved a penalty from Manuel Amoros, which ultimately led to Red Star’s victory. In the summer of 1991 he joined Belgian side Royal Antwerp, where he remained until his retirement in 1999. He appeared in another European showpiece, the 1993 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, in which his side lost to Parma.
Refik Šabanadžović. Right Back, 25. (Bosnia)
Šabanadžović was the team’s utility player, equally adept in defence or midfield. He headed to Greece with AEK Athens following Red Star’s victory in Bari, rather than the more lucrative leagues of Spain or Italy. He also spent two seasons with Olympiacos before retiring in 1999 following a season with Kansas City Wizards of the MLS.
Ilija Nadjoski. Left Back, 27. (Macedonia)
Nadjoski stayed with Red Star for one more season following that European Cup victory, and left for Real Valladolid in 1992, by which time Yugoslav teams were banned from competing in European competition. He retired in 1997 following spells in Turkey, Bulgaria and Switzerland.
Miodrag Belodedici. Sweeper, 26.
The only foreign player in the Red Star squad, the Romanian international had already won the European Cup with Steaua Bucharest in 1986. Belodedici joined Valencia in 1992, and represented his country at the 1994 World Cup, as well as the 1996 and 2000 European Championships. Following spells at Villarreal and Valladolid, he returned to Steaua and retired in 2001.
Slobodan Marović. Centre Back, 26. (Serbia)
Marović left Belgrade in January 1992, joining Swedish side IFK Norrköping where he spent two years before joining Danish side Silkeborg IF. He retired from football in 1995, before reversing the decision and briefly joining Chinese outfit Shenzhen Pingan for the 1996 – 97 season.
Robert Prosinečki. Centre Midfield, 22. (Croatia)
This midfielder was the one player that everybody expected to become one of the game’s all-time greats. He stood out for reasons other than his blonde hair, with incredible skill and close control giving him the ability go past opposition players as if they weren’t even there. Prosinečki left Belgrade in the summer of 1991 to join Real Madrid, but a succession of muscle injuries severely hampered his progress. Real offloaded him to Real Oviedo in 1994, by which time he just did not look the same player. Prosinečki battled back and impressed enough to join Barcelona, but his spell at the Nou Camp did not see him rediscover the form that had made him one of the most sought after players on the planet.
Spells at Sevilla and Dinamo Zagreb (among several other clubs) preceded a season playing for Portsmouth, which saw him become an icon at Fratton Park. He retired in 2004.
Vladimir Jugović. Centre Midfield, 21. (Serbia)
Jugovic left Belgrade for Italy in 1992 and went on to have a very impressive, trophy-laden career. He joined Sampdoria and after three seasons in Genoa, topped off with a Coppa Italia win, he was recruited by Juventus manager Marcello Lippi. He capped a superb first season in Turin by scoring the winning penalty in the 1996 Champions League Final. He later played for Lazio, Atlético Madrid, Inter and Monaco, before retiring in 2005 following spells in Austria and Germany.
Siniša Mihajlović. Left Midfield, 22. (Serbia)
Another superb player, adept in a variety of positions with an absolute rocket of a left foot shot, widely considered to be one of the greatest free kick takers of all time. In 1992, Mihajlović moved to Italy where he would spend the rest of his playing career, initially joining Roma. He later played for Sampdoria before becoming part of Lazio’s great team that won the Serie A title in 2000, and who were the last ever winners of the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup.
He hung up his boots in 2006 after a two year spell with Inter. Earlier this week, he was fired as the manager of AC Milan, the fifth Italian club he has managed.
Dragiša Binić. Right Midfield, 29. (Serbia)
Often deployed as a striker, Binić had unbelievable pace and even boasted that he could cover 100 metres in 10.5 seconds. Although not a consistent goalscorer, it is quite surprising that such a vital cog in the Red Star attacking unit was not snapped up by one of the clubs from Europe’s big leagues. In the summer of 1991, he transferred to Czechoslovakian side Slavia Prague, eventually winding down his career in Japan before retiring in 1995.
Dejan Savićević. Attacking Midfield, 24. (Montenegro)
The playmaker in the Red Star team, and main link between defence and attack. Like several of his team mates, his career took him to Italy in 1992 where he joined Milan. Despite a difficult start, Savićević overcame his initial troubles to lead his side to a 4 – 0 victory over Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League Final, in which he scored a memorable goal. In addition to this, he won three Serie A titles during his time at the San Siro before leaving in 1998.
Following a brief return to Red Star, he finished his career with Austrian side Rapid Vienna leading up to his retirement in 2001.
Darko Pančev. Striker, 25. (Macedonia)
In his three seasons at Red Star, Pančev scored an astonishing 94 goals from 92 league games, in what was a very strong division at the time. He also scored the decisive penalty kick that saw the European Cup head to Belgrade for the only time. He was one of the hottest properties in world football when he headed to Inter in 1992, in what was to prove a disastrous move. Going from an all-out attacking side to a defensive minded team in an equally defensive league saw both his goals and confidence dry up very quickly. When Inter bought Dennis Bergkamp the following summer, Pančev suddenly found himself surplus to requirements.
In 1995, after scoring just three Serie A goals in three years, he was sold to German side Fortuna Dusseldorf for a fraction of the £7 million Inter had paid for him. By now injuries had started to take their toll, and he never rediscovered his devastating goalscoring best. In 1997, following a brief spell with Swiss side FC Sion, he retired aged just 32 having been the European Golden Boot winner just six years earlier.
The truth is that nobody can accurately predict just how far Red Star Belgrade could have gone had the war not decimated their country. It is a fact, however, that Yugoslavian clubs had always been powerless to stop their big stars leaving. Ironically, Marseille had a Red Star legend on their substitute’s bench, Dragan Stojković, who had moved to France the previous summer. The chances are that players such as Savicevic, Prosinecki, Mihajlovic and Pancev probably would have left at some point anyway, given how they had played throughout the 1990 – 91 season. It is possible, however, that they may have been persuaded to stay a bit longer as the increased income from Red Star’s European triumph would have provided the club with sufficient funds to build on that campaign.
It’s a sad fact that circumstances outside of football changed the future of one of Europe’s original big clubs, and that we’ll never know exactly what the 1991 Red Star Belgrade team could have achieved. Many pundits believe that they were strong enough to achieve total European domination.