Red Star Belgrade 1991: Yugoslavia’s Greatest on the eve of a National Collapse

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When the 1990/91 season started, Red Star Belgrade were hardly anyone’s favorites to win that season’s edition of the Champions Cup.
Italy’s AC Milan had won the two previous editions and beside themselves, the other potential champions appeared to be the usual suspects of Western European powers. France’s Olympique Marseille, under controversial President Bernard Tapie, had spent and spent for the previous few seasons for their goal of European Glory. In fact they had just enrolled Red Star Belgrade’s jewel in the crown, Dragan Stojkovic.
Diego Maradona’s Napoli, West (soon to be unified) Germany’s Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Porto were the other contenders for this prestigious trophy.Many observers had forgotten that Red Star (containing some of the current crop) had given AC Milan its greatest scare and hardest test on their way to triumph in the first of their Champions Cups in 1989.The sides had been drawn in the second round of the 1988/89 edition. Red Star had earned a creditable (1-1) draw in the first leg at Milan.

The second leg is remembered for the thick fog that potentially saved Milan from elimination. On November 9th, Red Star hosted Milan in Belgrade and were leading (1-0) and had them on the ropes when the Referee abandoned the match due to the fog. The match was replayed the following day and despite a better performance from Milan, they could only muster another (1-1) against such a talented Red Star squad. The match went on penalty kicks and Milan saved themselves via a penalty kick shoot-out. To many observers that Red Star squad has been equal if not better than that great AC Milan side.

The genesis of this current Red Star squad could be traced back to a few seasons before that. In 1986, with Velibor Vasovic at the helm, Red Star welcomed Dragan Stojkovic (nicknamed Piksi) from Radnicki Nis.He would go on to play a key role in establishing Red Star’s dominance in the following years that included the League title in 1988.The side already contained goalkeeper Stevan Stojanovic for a number of years. Defender Slobodan Marovic joined the same year as Stojkovic from Osijek.

By the following year (1987), Refik Sabanadzovic (from Zeljeznicar) and Robert Prosinecki (from Dinamo Zagreb) joined the squad.The new additions were helpful in the League title win of 1988. The young Robert Prosinecki also stood out that season by helping the U-20 National Team to win the World Cup in Chile in the Fall of 1987.After the League win Vasovic stepped aside and Branko Stankovic was appointed as the new manager in the summer of 1988.He would not last the season and would be replaced with Dragoslav Sekularac.
In 1988, the Macedonian pair of Ilija Najdoski and prolific striker Darko Pancev arrived from Vardar Skopje. Defender Goran Vasilijevic joined from Radnicki Nis and brilliant midfielder Dejan Savicevic arrived from Buducnost Titograd.

Despite The arrivals, Red Star did not win the League title that season, but their encounters with AC Milan had many taking notice on their key players most notably Stojkovic.In the middle of that season (1988/89), Red Star welcomed the unexpected arrival of Miodrag Beloidedic. The Romanian International libero had fled his country and sought asylum in Yugoslavia. Dragoslav Sekularac maintained his coaching position for the 1989/90 season and secured the League and Cup double in 1990 in Dragan Stojkovic’s final season.This end of the season would be overshadowed with a number of incidents on the field of play that would give an indication on the Political State of the Nation.

The momentum for the impending break-up of the Nation, that included various ethnic Nationalities, was gaining steam.There had been a number of hints. When the Yugoslavian National Team played a Friendly in Zagreb in June 3rd 1990, just before the World Cup, the largely Croatian home crowd had jeered the National Anthem. In addition, the fans had booed every time a Red Star Belgrade player had touched the ball.Just weeks prior on May 13th (before a Red Sar-Dinamo Zagreb match), there had been the well-documented incident involving Zvonimir Boban. The Dinamo Zagreb (and Croatian) midfielder had kicked a policeman who was striking a Dinamo Zagreb supporter.

This act became a symbol of Croatia’s defiance and desire for Independence and a sign of things to come.A few months into the new season (1990/91) on October 17th , a not-yet Independent Croatian National Team played an International match against the USA (2-1 win), to further highlight the impending division.On the Playing front, in the Fall of 1990, Red Star appeared weaker without their stand bearer Stojkovic. A number of key arrivals would compensate the loss of Stojkovic and play a significant role in that memorable season on the field (as well unforgettable off the field).

Future International Vladimir Jugovic arrived back to Red Star after having spent a season on loan at FK Rad, along with striker Ljubisa Milojevic. In addition, Defender Rade Tosic arrived from Hajduk Split.The most significant arrival would be that of midfielder Sinisa Mihajlovic from Vojvodina (He would delight the continent into the next decade with his specialty in free kicks).Dragoslav Sekularac had departed after the title win, the new man to lead the squad was Ljupko Petrovic. He had led Vojvodina to the title in 1989 with Mihajlovic amongst his squad.

Former Legend Dragan Dzajic served as a technical Director for a side that would become the best in its history and eclipse the 1979 squad that many regarded as its best up to that point (that side had reached the UEFA Cup Final and lost to Borussia Moenchengladbach).Despite the loss of Stojkovic, the squad was more than strong enough for domestic opposition. It was the European adventure that caught the eye of Europe.In the First two rounds, Switzerland’s Grasshopers Zurich and Scotland’s Rangers Glasgow were eliminated with relative ease. The same could be said of their Quarterfinal opponents Dinamo Dresden of (former East) Germany.Yugoslavian National Team were also leading their European Championship qualifying Group by displaying an attacking Football full of goals, with the Red Star contingent at the center of it all.

Darko Pancev was scoring at will at home, Europe and International level.Miodrag Beloidedic needed no introduction and was just confirming his status. Midfielders Robert Prosinecki and Dejan Savicevic were being touted as future superstars.They faced the mighty Bayern Munich in the semifinals of the Champions Cup in April 1991. On April 10th at Munich’s Olympiastadion, Red Star showed they were the real deal by inflicting a home defeat (2-1) on the powerful Germans with goals by Pancev and Savicevic.The return leg at Belgrade in two weeks time was a much more tense affair as Bayern needed to get a result.Mihajlovic gave Red Star the lead, however, Bayern replied twice in the second half and nearly took the match to extra time. However, the match ended (2-2) after an unfortunate Bayern own goal in the last minute.

Red Star had already done the unthinkable and reached a European Cup Final.France’s Olympique Marseille were their opponents in the Final. They had eliminated AC Milan in the Quarterfinals. The prospects of the Final seemed mouth watering with two attacking formations fighting it out.It was to be a duel between, Jean-Pierre Papin, Chris Waddle and Abedi Pele in one corner and Prosinecki, Savicevic and Pancev in the other.Incidentally, Marseille had Dragan Stojkovic in their ranks. Though, he had only returned from a serious injury and was not a starter.The media chatter and speculation turned around Red Star’s brilliant trio (Prosinecki, Savicevic and Pancev).They were constantly linked to Europe’s top teams.

It was even suggested that AC Milan, dissatisfied with its Dutch trio (Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard) seemingly in decline, were preparing to replace them with the Red Star trio. Prosinecki was also strongly linked to Real Madrid, which appeared to be his desired destination.But back to the actual Final that took place at Bari’s San Nicola stadium on May 29th, 1991.The encounter that had promised so much turned into an anti-climax as Red Star went off the script.From the opening kickoff it was clear that their game plan was to take the match into a penalty kick shoot-out.Petrovic deployed Pancev as sole striker with Binic dropping back with Savicevic and Prosinecki.Panvev was a lone figure with no support; in fact Prosinecki spent more time in his own half than the opposition’s.

Marseille’s most dangerous weapon, Jean-Pierre Papin was kept in check by Najdoski.The dour match predictably went into a penalty kick shoot-out as Red Star had hoped.The opening exchanges determined the fate of the match. Prosinecki scored from his attempt, while Marseille’s Manuel Amoros missed his.Binic, Beloidedic and Mihajlovic were just as successful with their attempts, as were Marseille’s next three. The stage was set for Pancev to score form his kick for the trophy. He scored and Red Star Belgrade were the Champions of Europe.Their approach in the Final would be criticized especially after their brilliant displays throughout the season.For Ljupko Petrovic, only the victory at any cost mattered that night and he stated that ‘tactics dominated the night’.

For his part, Prosinecki stated that this was ‘one game when the spectacle had to take second place to the result’ and praised goalkeeper Stevan Stojanovic’s performance.Shortly thereafter it was reported that Yugoslavia National team manager Ivica Osim might have been partially responsible for the tactics deployed that night.Petrovic and Technical Director Dragan Dzajic believed they could not defeat Marseille on equal terms. They had sought the expertise of Osim with his vast International experience for a winning strategy.Miodrag Beloidecic became the first man to win the Champions Cup with two different clubs, having won the trophy with Steaua Bucharest in 1986 (also in a penalty kick shoot-out. In the years to come Savicevic (1994 with AC Milan) and Jugovic (1996 with Juventus) would join him.

The euphoria created by Red Star’s victory was short lived, in less than a month on June 25th, Slovenia and Croatia declared Independence and the Civil War started. In the next few years this would become the worst war on European soil since World War II.In almost no time, this Great Red Sar squad unraveled. In general, War or no War, an Eastern Bloc Nation would have been unable to hold onto its stars. Some saw an opportunity for more lucrative deals and some had reached the end of their cycle and took the opportunity to move abroad.Veteran goalkeeper Stevan Stojanovic left Red Star after nearly a decade and joined Belgium’s Royal Antwerp. Refik Sabanadzovic joined Greek side AEK Athens, while Dragisa Binic joined Slavia Prague.The lure of Western Europe even attracted Manager Ljupko Petrovic, who left after this memorable season to join Spain’s RCD Espanol.

The biggest transfer of the offseason was that of Robert Prosinecki, who got his wish and joined Real Madrid. National Team supremo Milan Miljanic had been planning to set an age limit regulation to stop prized assets like Prosinecki from leaving, but FIFA and UEFA had already dismissed such practices.Prosinecki became one of the youngest Yugoslavian Internationals to leave his Nation (It must be noted that in the recent past, players were only granted transfers after services rendered at about age 27-28).Red Star’s other two main stars Pancev (Europe’s top goal scorer) and Savicevic decided to stay at least one more season.A somewhat weakened side was now led by new Manager Vladica Popovic. The League itself was deprived of quality with the departures of Croatian and Slovenian clubs.

Red Star did manage to win the League title that following season (1991/92), but were eliminated in the Champions League in a Group won by Sampdoria.In the middle of that season, Slobodan Marovic and Vlada Stosic also jumped ship by joining IFK Norkopping and Real Mallorca respectively.But the biggest clear out occurred during that summer of 1992 and the Great Red Star squad was completely decimated.Initially, Savicevic had been programmed to join AC Milan in 1993, but the intensification of the civil war (now involving Bosnia-Herzegovina as well) forced the deal to go through sooner and he joined them a year ahead of schedule.Darko Pancev joined cross-town rivals Internazionale Milano.

Vladimir Jugovic also joined the Serie A and Sampdoria. Likewise, Sinisa Mihajlovic began his Italian adventure that has lasted in one capacity or another until today. He joined Yugoslav Manager Vujadin Boskov at AS Roma. Romanian sweeper Miodrag Beloidedic joined Spain’s Valencia and Macedonian defender Ilija Najdoski joined Real Valladolid.A further weakened Red Star would lose out on the next two League titles to rivals Partizan but would regain the title in 1995.Despite winning League titles since, the chance of building a European Cup winning team from what is now called Serbia in the Post-Bosman era is an impossible task.

Red Star’s achievement in its day was already beyond most experts’ reasonable expectations.The 1991 Red Star leaves behind the memory of an excellent attacking side that came to fruition at the worst of times for a Nation on the verge of a break-up.
Read 4401 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 May 2016 13:13
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