As the Iron Curtain descended over the Eastern Bloc countries of Europe, and Josef Stalin’s Soviet sphere of influence imprinted fear into the societies of countries like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, it became a section of the continent that was scarred with division from the Western world.
Political structures decayed and all-out war became standard practice, but in the case study of Yugoslavia, people found solace in the form of gegenpressing football and forgotten about superstars. While the country fell to its haunches, embroiled in chaos, it is a great shame that the successes of the national team in the 1990 World Cup and the immortal triumph of Red Star Belgrade in the following year remain relatively unhonoured in the history books.
Much like the great Liverpool teams of the 1970s and the Olympian successes of Real Madrid in the 1950s, Red Star’s only European Cup victory should have been remembered for centuries, having an everlasting impact on Eastern European football.
But as the Iron Curtain loosened its grip in the years that followed, paving the way for a better living standard in countries like Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro – the football played by Ljupko Petrović’s Red Star would fall into nonexistence, with all the greats of the squad leaving for European heavyweights such as AC Milan and Roma.
The collapse of the Soviet Union later in the 1990s also signalled the demise of Red Star’s flickering flame of glory that flies under the radar to this day. If Yugoslavia reaped any positives from their nationalist superintendents, it was the football they exhibited through Serbia’s modern-day capital city.
While Yugoslavia struggled with division in their war-torn homeland, with ethnic cleansing and religious tensions being at the forefront of a region in turbulence, it was Red Star Belgrade who would stand as the only emblem of unity, catalysed by the foundations of a great 1990 World Cup campaign from the national team.
Yugoslavia in Italia 90
During the Italian World Cup in 1990, one of the mesmerising underdog stories of the tournament was that of Yugoslavia. The nation was already an umbrella for youth prospects, with the Eastern Bloc country winning the 1987 Youth Championship in Chile.
But when thrown into Italia 90, Yugoslavia was still considered to be a little fish in a big pond. And when Lothar Matthäus scored a brace in a 4-1 West German victory over them on the opening game of the tournament, all the assumptions were verified.
Written off too early, though, Ivan Osim built a team around Dragan Stojkovic – a classic number 10 who had the vision, technique, and a defence-splitting pass that was perfect for linking midfield with attack.
The future Marseille superstar was aided by the abilities of Robert Prosinečki, Darko Pančev, Safet Sušić, Zlatko Vlujović, Dragoljub Brnović, and other talented players.
Together, the unity of the side illuminated the competition, as Yugoslavia would go on to finish second in Group F – albeit, level on points with West Germany – and then beat Spain 2-1 in the Round of 16, eventually losing to Argentina on penalties in the quarter-final.
Heroics from Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Coycochea saw Yugoslavia’s journey come to an end. As a result of the war during the 1992 European Championships and the umbrella of the country ceasing to exist in its Yugoslavian state by the 1994 World Cup, the great squad never played together again.
The young team of 1990 remains frozen forever in time – an unsullied force of amazing but unrealized potential. However, some of the squad would join forces at club level in the following year on a European tour under the reign of Ljupko Petrović at Red Star Belgrade.
Building a bastion in Belgrade
Setting his sights on using Yugoslavia’s World Cup success as a launchpad for greatness, Petrović saw the potential in his Red Star team from the offset. In his first move of the 1990/91 campaign, he took his squad on a pre-season tour to Britain, where he had hopes of competing against Manchester United and Arsenal.
Failing to acknowledge the quality of the Eastern Europeans, England’s elite clubs rejected friendly proposals to play Red Star. In the end, Petrović had to settle for fixtures against Torquay United, Merthyr Tydfil, Scarborough, Bradford City, Crewe Alexandra, and a 9-1 victory over Hinckley Town.
Red Star Belgrade were undermined by England’s top teams. But in their part of the world, they always knew they were proficient, and so a fugitive bastion of invincibility was built in the shadows of Europe’s illustrious football clubs.
Petrović instilled a relentless philosophy in his football during his managerial tenure at Red Star. The Serbian used energy as the key principle to his brand of football, with counterattacking at lightning speeds and persistent pressing embedded into his squad. It is a systematic approach still used by the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool.
The 1990 Red Star philosophy also revolutionised the Libero in the shape of Miodrag Belodedici – whose story was remarkable itself. Belodedici was a Romanian who had previously won the European Cup with Steaua Bucharest in 1986, defeating Barcelona in the final and becoming the first Eastern European team to win the illustrious competition.
He would later reject a move to Partizan in 1988 after moving to Yugoslavia in refuge from Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutal regime in Romania, insisting that he would only play for Red Star. He sat out a year of suspension while his home country found him guilty of treason before marshalling the Red Star defence to their first and last European cup. Earning the nickname ‘The Deer’ for his elegant playing style, Belodedici became the first footballer to win the competition with two different clubs.
Another unforgettable component of Red Star’s continent-beating team was the aforementioned Prosinečki – who always seemed to be head and shoulders above every player on the pitch when he played. His role of playmaker made life for Dejan Savićević and Darko Pančev plain sailing in attack – with the latter of the two later being distinguished as ‘Kobra’ for his lethal finishing ability.
Darko Pančev is one of the finest strikers to ever grace the European Cup, and while his Golden Shoe award in the 1991 competition was impressive, his career total of 15 goals in 29 European fixtures was even more admirable.
The crowning achievement during the building process of Belgrade’s bastion was the mercurial left-winger Siniša Mihajlović. The Croatian unlocked Red Star’s untapped potential with his bountiful energy and pinpoint crosses into the corridors of uncertainty that would usually result in a goal at the end of the move.
But to suggest that Red Star Belgrade’s bastion was built on the belief that individuals were paramount to success would be criminal. While the country around them fell apart, the team that Petrović built paraded an uncharacteristic togetherness. Certainly, this set of players was astonishing, but above all, they were 11 men who joined forces to give everything to their football club.
Start like they mean to go on
Red Star opened their European Cup campaign by labouring Swiss Champions Grasshoppers to a 1-1 draw before demolishing them 4-1 in Zurich to progress to the next round against Graeme Souness’ Rangers.
Before the fixture, Souness sent a scout to analyse their opponents. Without knowing the artillery that Red Star had before the trip, Walter Smith returned to Scotland with a forbidding warning that read: “We’re fucked”.
And he wasn’t wrong. Despite Rangers dominating domestic football in the 90s, Red Star gave the Scottish side a footballing masterclass with a 3-0 triumph in the first leg at a raucous Marakana Stadium. The tie was wrapped up a week later with a 1-1 draw in Glasgow.
Souness recollected the football that Red Star played as nothing he had ever seen before, praising their fluidity and abundance that brushed his team aside with ease. Although little was known about Petrović’s Yugoslavians before the 1990/91 campaign, their European endeavours quickly placed their prospects on the map.
At the quarter-final stage, it was Dynamo Dresden of Western Germany who would next be in the firing line of Belgrade’s bastion. Although a German team should never be considered a walkover fixture in European competition, Red Star went on to steamroll their Iron Curtain opponents with a 6-0 aggregate score.
Although, the circumstances were a lot starker than how they looked on paper.
Red Star won the first leg at the Marakana Stadium with a 3-0 scoreline, but when the second leg reached the 75th-minute in Dresden, a riot broke out in the stands. Red Star had taken a 2-1 lead on the night, but after Dynamo Dresden fans took matters into their own hands, the referee halted the game.
It would later be determined that Dresden would face the consequences by being brandished with a 3-0 loss and a ban from European competitions in the following season.
In the semi-finals, European giants Bayern Munich awaited the perceived minnows. The German heavyweights hadn’t lost at home in Europe for 47 games, which posed the biggest threat to Red Star’s wishful hopes of winning the competition.
But over the two legs, the fixtures against Germany’s most successful football club proved to embody everything that Red Star Belgrade stood for. They pressed Juup Heynckes’ Bayern Munich as soon as they entered the midfield strata, and once they won possession, they attacked fearlessly, with the ball reaching the opposition third in very little time.
The blueprint was mapped out perfectly in the first leg at the Olympiastadion. Savićević and Pančev combined perfectly to score Red Star’s two goals in the tie, ensuring the Yugoslav side would take a 2-1 lead back to Belgrade, where a fiery Marakana Stadium awaited.
Red smoke filled the air and an omnipotent roar swept over Belgrade in the return fixture. While the ear-splitting Red Star Delije (the name given to Red Star’s infamous Ultras group) scorched the atmosphere in the stands, Petrović’s men contained excitement on the pitch with caution.
Applying prudence to the second leg worked in Red Star’s favour early in the game when Mihajlović opened the scoring in the 25th minute with a classic free-kick that left the Bayern keeper Raimond Aumann rooted to the spot. But the game changed entirely when Stojanović went to make a fairly routine save from a Bayern free-kick and allowed the ball to squirm under his body and into the goal.
Moments later and Manfred Bender popped up in the box to level the aggregate score. In the process, the atmosphere in the stadium fell to silence. However, it wasn’t an end to the game that everyone in the Marakana would’ve expected.
As the clock ticked, Red Star found a lease of life in the remaining minutes of actual time. Mihajlović picked up a loose ball high-up on the left-wing, and just like he had done earlier in the night, the Croatian made an impact with the ball at his feet. Although his floated cross into the box never reached its intended target of Darko Pančev, it did confuse the Bayern defence.
Captain Klaus Augenthaler’s attempted clearance left the ball sweeping towards goal. For reasons that are difficult to understand watching the footage, the Bayern keeper Aumann was unable to cope with the dipping ball, palming it into his own goal, making it 2-2 on the night.
As the final whistle was blown, Red Star ran out 4-3 victors over two hard-fought nights, securing the Eastern European minnows their first European Cup final. Their last test of the tournament would come against Marseille in Bari’s Stadio San Nicola.
The 1991 European Cup final
Marseille boasted an embarrassment of riches in the early 1990s, with the likes of Eric Cantona, Chris Waddle, Abedi Pele, Jean-Pierre Papin and former Red Star attacking midfielder Dragan Stojkovic making up a stellar lineup of established winners.
A challenge against the French giants was never an easy task no matter who the club was, but when Petrović organised his team, he had one last trick up his sleeve.
Despite being accustomed to a high-octane brand of football, the Serbian head coach altered his philosophy entirely, with the emphasis being placed on killing the game and taking the 1991 European Cup final to penalties.
It was a tactic that is rarely seen in the modern version of the game, with the lottery of a penalty shootout being many managers’ worst nightmare. But all becomes clear when it is realised that Yugoslav’s top division, which was won by Red Star Belgrade, had all their draws decided in a penalty format.
This meant that the great Red Star team was already well-equipped physically and psychologically for the obstacles posed by a shootout. And their tactic played out just as they intended, with the Eastern Europeans winning 5-3 on penalties against a stunned Marseille who were managed by fellow Yugoslavian Tomislav Ivić.
The triumph of Red Star’s Belgrade bastion in the 1991 European Cup remains one of the greatest underdog tales in football history, despite the Western world’s naive amnesia of such achievement.
Yugoslavia was home to one of the best footballing club sides of all time, but as the country around Red Star Belgrade fell apart, so did the squad that produced unreplicable moments.
Prosinečki moved to Real Madrid, and Pančev, Mihajlović and Savićević all went to Italy with Inter, Roma and AC Milan respectively. Stojanović joined Royal Antwerp, Refik Šabanadžović signed for AEK Athens, and Slobodan Marović joined Swedish side Norrköping. Vladimir Jugović joined Sampdoria and Binić left to join Slavia Prague. The team was completely dismantled within a couple of years, never to play together again.
An era had ended before it had even begun.
The Red Star Belgrade team of 1991 saw unity amidst the division of war in Yugoslavia. It was amazing that a team made up of divisive nations could co-exist to conquer a continent – a crowning achievement at the end of the Soviet Union’s demise.
Regardless of the lack of recognition from the Western regions, Red Star’s 1991 immortality will forever be etched into the history of European football, with the remarkable story being one of the best to ever be told.