The Team Dismantled by War: Red Star Belgrade's Final European Triumph
24 years ago, two brilliant attacking sides played out a dire 0-0 draw in the European Cup final. For Red Star Belgrade, it was a last hurrah at the pinnacle of continental football.
"In the past the Champions Cup final has sometimes proved a damp squib. But this surely is a night for the sparklers."
These words, spoken in the oak tones of the BBC's David Coleman on May 29th 1991, were delivered as a lead-in to Olympique Marseille against Red Star Belgrade, before the teams contested the final of the last ever all-knockout European Cup competition in Bari's Stadio San Nicola. In a distinguished career pockmarked by very public verbal misnomers, this would rank among Coleman's wildest.
Coleman, formerly the voice of football on the BBC and by 1991 a veteran of some 37 years, who once broadcast the words "He just can't believe what's not happening to him" and observed that "Nottingham Forest have now lost six matches without winning", disclosed no lesser gibberish when he billed "Here are two teams better equipped to attack than defend – all around Europe there are expectations of fireworks." What inevitably followed was a doleful two hours of heavy-legged attrition, cursed by Coleman's optimistic bluster and the weight of a continent's expectations. Yet Red Star's defensive approach was and remains a study in tactical suffocation.
The final was all set to deliver a European first. Neither France nor Yugoslavia had ever produced a champion on the continent despite Stade Rennes, St Etienne and Partizan all coming within a whisker in the final. The Marseille team had been built by one of the game's first modern mega-backers, loaded up with heavyweight names by businessman and politician Bernard Tapie. Before the dream-teams of Real Madrid in the late '90s and '00s, Tapie's were the original Galacticos.
Chris Waddle, fresh from Italia 90, fed Jean-Pierre Papin in attack with Jean Tigana, prolific for France, supporting. In too came Red Star's former favourite son Dragan Stojković, one of Yugoslavia's most celebrated talents who in Bari would be brought face to face with his boyhood club. On the left was Europe's first African superstar in Abedi Pele; from the bench came France striker Philippe Vercruysse. As Tapie's millions flowed, so did the goals.
No such indulgence behind the Iron Curtain. Success instead came from the staid defensive organisation of communist cliché, bleeding gently into brilliant fluidity in attack. Robert Prosinečki, seven years before dragging Croatia to a World Cup semi-final, glimmered alongside the fleet-footed genius Siniša Mihajlović. There was pace too to go with the sublime footwork and judgement; out wide Dragiša Binić boasted he could cover 100m in 10.5 seconds. "When Carl Lewis came to an athletics meeting in Belgrade I wanted to race him" he would later claim.
Binić had already put his muscle where his mouth was in the semi-final against Bayern Munich. With Red Star trailing 1-0 in the Olympic Stadium in Munich in the first leg the wide man had raced onto Prosinečki's threaded through ball with electric speed to set up Europe's hottest marksman Darko Pančev arriving to slide the ball home. It was vision, control and unpredictable quickness that had moved the ball the full length of the pitch in just 12 seconds, and it shouted out everything that was compelling about Red Star.
When Graham Souness's Rangers drew Red Star in the second round assistant manager Walter Smith was duly despatched behind the Curtain to run the rule over an opponent about whom, in the pre-digital age, little was known. On returning to Scotland from Belgrade Smith's report was deliciously direct and captured the scale of the challenge with familiar Glaswegian frankness: "We're fucked". Even the much-travelled John Motson in the BBC commentary box was overwhelmed by the style with which the Yugoslavs dismantled Souness's team. "These players move the game so fast" he purred as Pančev swept in the third in a 3-0 stroll. Later Souness conceded his team had never been so outplayed on foreign soil.
The lightening-footed Binić, who once beat a professional Yugoslav sprinter for a newspaper publicity stunt, wasn't the only member of the side with bragging rights. All around this Red Star team there were stories to be told, and mammoth achievements to support them.
Miodrag Belodedici, the centre-back, had defected from the totalitarian Ceausescu regime in Romania in 1989, for which he received a 10 year jail term in absentia, later quashed. He had signed for Red Star by turning up at the stadium in Belgrade and asking if they needed a player; having been a European Cup winner with Steaua Bucharest in 1986 the offer was warmly accepted. It was his composed ball out of defence in Munich that had fed Prosinečki to release Binić. That night in Bari, Belodedici was billing to become the first player to win the tournament with two different clubs.
Feeding off the work of Mihajlović and Prosinečki were Pančev and the devastating Dejan Savićević, for who second place in the 1991 European Footballer of the Year stakes beckoned. Savićević had famously come within inches of sending Yugoslavia to a World Cup semi-final a year earlier in Florence, sweeping over the bar from six yards in the quarter-final against Argentina with the goal gaping, whilst Pančev had already netted 34 goals for Red Star in the 1990/91 season en route to collecting the European Golden Boot. All four would go on to distinguish themselves in Europe's top leagues as Yugoslavian football enjoyed its golden age.
But before that there was the small matter of a European Cup final to contest, and a Marseille side who had charmed Europe with their attacking delicacy en route to Bari. Tapie's side had netted 22 times in the four rounds leading up to the final, but then Red Star themselves had been free-scoring. Both sides had registered at least four goals in every round, with Marseille putting eight past Lech Poznan of Poland in October. Should we be surprised that Coleman called it wrong? Lining up that night in Italy were two of Europe's most watchable attacking teams – European flair versus Balkan precision – and the world waited restlessly.
"I think it was the most boring final in European Cup history" reflected Mihajlović years later, on two hours of football with no goals and hardly an attack worthy of the name which sent Europe into a fitful doze. Papin had a sight of goal early on but blazed wide; later Waddle rose to meet Papin's cross but glanced his header past the post, and from there the game crawled along in first gear towards the inevitable penalty shoot-out. So why had Europe's most virile attacking teams produced such dour fare on the biggest stage of all?
"Had we approached the match with attacking mentality, we probably would've lost, not because Olympique were necessarily better than us, but because their players were used to playing big matches like this one" said Mihajlović. "We had a squad full of 21, 22, and 23-year-old kids."
Then, on the eve of the game, with pockets of the European underworld believing the kids of Belgrade could be bought-off, temptation came knocking. "It's not a secret" he said in 2011 of a meeting that took place on the evening of May 28th in the team hotel. "I have been saying this for a while and I have never denied it: 500,000 marks were offered to us [to throw the game]. We refused it because it is not in our character. But everyone knows it happened." The Red Star mandate was clear. The trophy would return with them to Belgrade by fair means or not at all. But how to tame the Olympique Galacticos?
"A few hours before the match, seven of us were shown tapes of Olympique matches" recalled Mihajlović. "I remember [manager] Ljupko Petrovi telling us: 'If we attack them we'll leave ourselves open for counterattacks', to which I asked 'so, what do we do then'. His answer was: 'When you get the ball, give it back to them'. So we spent 120 minutes on the pitch practically without touching the ball."
It was the fourth time that the final would be decided from the penalty spot, but by now the planets were beginning to align for Red Star. In a quirk of fate the Yugoslavian league had that season, bizarrely, settled drawn matches from the penalty spot, leaving the team from Belgrade well rehearsed for the test of nerves that lay ahead. Recent history too was on their side.
For two of Marseille's players involved that night the prospect of a shoot-out on Italian soil proved too much to bear. 10 months earlier Prosinečki and Savićević had netted for Yugoslavia in their doomed World Cup quarter-final tie-breaker against Argentina but Stojković, formerly of Red Star but now in the blue and white of Olympique, had missed his kick as Yugoslavia crashed out. Four days later in Turin Waddle blazed over the bar against West Germany as England failed to make the final. Despite being assured dead-ball takers, neither player volunteered in Bari.
Instead it was the right-back Manuel Amoros who stepped up first for Marseille, and saw his kick saved by Red Star goalkeeper and captain Stevan Stojanović. The next seven penalties were despatched without fuss, before Pančev came forward to riffle past Pascal Olmeta with Yugoslavian football's defining kick.
But as the players celebrated with the famous trophy in the Mediterranean, back home their country was beginning to splinter and break. By the time Red Star began the defence of their title the following September the Yugoslavia which had given the world Mihajlović, Prosinečki and the rest hardly existed in any recognisable form, as the Balkan peninsular collapsed into civil war. The great Yugoslavia team denied so cruelly in Florence were thrown out of Euro 92 as the country broke apart, and Red Star's class of '91 never competed together on the international stage again.
"We could have gone on winning for years [but for the war]" lamented Belodedici. "Some players would have inevitably left but we had very good young players." Stojanović too, years later, remained haunted by the thought of what might have been: "The tragedy is that we will never know how good we could have been".
A brief trawl through the archives sets the cogs of the imagination turning. In 1998 Prosinečki's newly independent Croatia finished third at the World Cup in France, but how far might he have taken them with his Red Star cavalry – now scattered amongst the new Balkan republics – in support? With Savićević supplying a front-two partnership of Pančev and Golden Boot winner Davor Suker, and with Mihajlović setting the tempo alongside the mercurial Croat Robert Jarni, could anyone have stopped them in France? Where would the team-that-wasn't have ranked among Europe's all-time greats? Football will never know how heavily it paid for the war in the Balkans.
Within a year of Bari the Red Star team was no more. Prosinečki moved to Spain and Real Madrid; Pančev, Mihajlović and Savićević were lured to Serie A in Italy where they would rack up over 400 appearances between them. Through this reach, Red Star's legacy would help plot the map of European and world football for another generation as the world re-ordered itself after the fall of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, but the unilateral flow of talent and resources westwards from the Balkans has meant no eastern European side has reached the final since. But, for the proud football fans in the former Yugosphere, there will always be Bari.