This article first appeared in Issue 8 of The Football Pink
They arrived at Italia ’90 as the young, vibrant dark-horses. Within two years they were torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, as CHRIS ETCHINGHAM explains.
Football so often is a tale of journeys, of teams, individuals and clubs. For some, those journeys end in glorious triumph; the Germans’ victory in the World Cup last year was the culmination of 14 years extraordinary work following their awful performances in Euro 2000. For most though, the journey ends in failure and the empty feeling of what might have been. One team that had so much promise to be cruelly wrenched away from them by politics and civil war was the Yugoslav team of the early 1990’s, and in particular, its team at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
The team was made up of a mixture of seasoned professionals and those who had graduated from the side which won the 1987 World Under-20 championship in Chile. With the experienced Dragan Stojkovic and promising Robert Prosinecki, Yugoslavia had two of the most natural and creative talents at the World Cup – with the obvious exception of Argentina’s captain and number ten.
Though much of the squad was based within Yugoslavia and played for the powerhouses of the Belgrade clubs Red Star and Partizan as well as Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, several were based abroad in France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. They were all gifted footballers, not your typical Eastern bloc international team, and there was a real feeling that they were a part of something and that their time was now. Within two years a team from Yugoslavia would be European champions and the country would be tearing itself apart in an orgy of violence, destruction and brutal nationalism. The Yugoslav team which qualified for Euro ‘92 were expelled from the tournament. Italia ‘90 was to be the Yugoslavs’ last chance to play together as the six republics which made up the state before the inevitable oblivion. The end had already begun, the riot at the Maksimir football stadium in May 1990 had ramifications for the Yugoslav team as Zvonomir Boban – the gifted playmaker – was banned because he assaulted a policeman on the pitch in the middle of the riot.
This was all in the future though; the real story for this Yugoslav team began three years earlier on the other side of the world at the Under-20 World Cup in Chile.
Initially reluctant to take part in the tournament, the Yugoslavian FA only sent a team to satisfy their obligations to FIFA. The team was already depleted as captain Aleksander Djordjevic was serving a four match ban for being sent off in the final qualifier, several players were injured and Sinisa Mihajlovic, Alen Boksic and Vladimir Jugovic were advised to stay at home as it was felt that they would gain more by playing for their respective clubs than in the tournament itself.
They beat hosts Chile 4-2 in the opening game of the tournament, a victory which was as sublime as it was fluent in the way they played. Suddenly these uninterested players found a belief, they also realised that if they won their next two games, they would be able to stay in Santiago for the rest of the tournament. Santiago had a large population of Yugoslavian extraction and it also had nightlife. A lot of nightlife. Journalist Toma Mihajlovic who followed the team to Chile said that expectations were that the team would fulfil their three group fixtures and return home but “when they got to Chile those players found another face. They found a nice country and good accommodation…and so many girls” Indeed, defender Igor Stimac had fallen for the winner of Miss Chile 1987 and the team decided that they wanted to stay after all.
Next up was Australia who were beaten 4-0 followed by another win over Togo (4-1) and with Brazil next in the quarter finals, suddenly Yugoslavia felt that they could achieve something. The players began to feel a sense of togetherness (a feeling which Slaven Bilic says carried on through subsequent teams as far as the Croatian squad of France 1998) and that they could win the entire tournament.
Red Star decided to recall Prosinecki, the star of the tournament to that point, for a UEFA Cup match but he didn’t want to leave. The players protested to both the competition organisers and also FIFA. Red Star relented. Prosinecki gave thanks to his teammates by scoring a last minute winner against Brazil to set up a semi-final with East Germany which they subsequently won 2-1. Victory came at a price though; both Prosinecki and Pedrag Mijatovic were suspended for the final against West Germany.
Boban, their other gifted midfielder, gave Yugoslavia the lead in the 85th minute before the Germans equalised through a Marcel Witeczek penalty. Ironically, it was Witeczek who missed the decisive penalty in the shoot out giving Yugoslavia a thoroughly deserved success. Not surprisingly the squad spent the next few days celebrating in Chile, extending a special invite to the dentist who had repaired Dubravko Pavlicic’s teeth after they were knocked out by East Germany’s Matthias Sammer. When the squad returned home to Yugoslavia there was a real feeling that this was the start of something big; players cried when saying their farewells and midfielder Srecko Katanec believed that they were on the verge of something special and given the chance they could “crush the world”. Italia ‘90 would be their opportunity.
Five of the team who played in Chile made it to Italia ‘90 with the full national team – goalkeepers Tomislav Ivkovic and Dragoje Lekovic as well as Robert Prosinecki, Robert Jarni and Davor Suker joined a squad that was bursting at the seams with talent. Alen Boksic, Darko Pancev, Dragan Stojkovic and Dejan Savicevic were just some of the other names that leap off the page as you read the names of the players involved. There was no room for Sinisa Mihajlovic, Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic whilst Zvonomir Boban was left out as he served his suspension for his Maksimir misdemeanours.
Qualification from the group stage was fairly pedestrian despite an opening 4-1 reverse against a rampant West Germany. Yugoslavia’s next match was a 1-0 victory over Columbia followed by a more emphatic 4-1 win over the United Arab Emirates which featured a brace by Pancev. They met Spain in the last 16 and it was here that Stojkovic left his mark on the tournament.
The score was 0-0 after 77 minutes when a cross came in from the left which was flicked on by Katanec towards Stojkovic. He had plenty of time in which to volley the ball from ten yards out into the back of the net. Being Stojkovic, however, he killed the ball stone dead with his right foot and whilst the Spanish defender – who was fully expecting to make a last ditch block onto a volley that never came – slid straight past, Stojkovic calmly slammed the ball into the back of the goal. It was a truly breathtaking piece of skill. Spain equalised through Julio Salinas and forced the game into extra time, where in the 93rd minute Stojkovic struck again. Savicevic was fouled some 25 yards out and in the centre of the pitch and whilst everyone knew what was coming it was very difficult for anybody to do anything about it. Stojkovic curled the ball with his right foot around the wall and beyond the despairing grasp of Spanish keeper Andoni Zubizaretta to give Yugoslavia a 2-1 win.
In the quarter-finals they met an Argentina team which had toiled from the beginning and had been dragged kicking and screaming into the last eight by Diego Maradona. They had finished third in their group having famously lost to underdogs Cameroon. They scraped a draw with Romania before making heavy work of dispatching an underwhelming Brazil 1-0 in the last 16.
The match itself was a tense 0-0 and would be decided in a classic penalty shootout which featured twists of epic proportions. Jose Serrizuella scored first for Argentina before Stojkovic stepped up for Yugoslavia. Of all the players, he was the one considered most reliable to get the team off to a steady start in the shootout. As it was, Stojkovic hammered his penalty onto the crossbar. Jorge Burrachaga and Prosinecki then scored their respective penalties before, inconceivably, Maradona had his attempt saved by Ivkovic diving to his right. Savicevic scored his penalty and with Pedro Troglio missing again for Argentina, Yugoslavia were agonisingly close to a semi-final spot. However, Dragoljub Brnovic missed his and with Gustavo Dezotti slotting his penalty away, Faruk Hadzibegic had to score to take the shootout to sudden death. He struck it towards the left hand side of the goal and Sergio Goycochea, who was having the tournament of his life in goal for Argentina, guessed correctly and made a comfortable save. That was that. Heartbreak for a Yugoslavian team who had promised so much. They went home in the most dramatic and gut wrenching way possible.
This was not the end for Yugoslavian football though; it had one last shot at making history. This time though at club level as Red Star took on Marseille in the 1991 European Cup Final in Bari, Italy. Four of the starting line up for Red Star represented Yugoslavia at Italia ‘90 and curiously enough, Stojkovic was named amongst the Marseille substitutes too. The match itself was a drab, goalless affair and went to penalties. Red Star scored all theirs and it was left to Manuel Amoros to be the Marseille fall guy as he missed his spot kick. Red Star were champions and what began as a few youngsters travelling to Chile to half-heartedly take part in a tournament they didn’t really want to be at, ended with a Yugoslav club team reaching the peak of club football, all via World Cup heartbreak along the way.
Unfortunately, this was as good as it got for Yugoslavian football. The nationalist genie let loose by both sides at the Maksimir riot the previous year was never going to be placed back in the bottle. Srecko Katanec was supposedly left out of the Italia ‘90 quarter-final against Argentina having been forewarned of consequences should he take part in the match. Prior to the second half of the 1991 European Cup Final, Red Star fans unfurled an enormous Serb flag and began passing it amongst themselves in a show of nationalist solidarity. Within weeks the country was beginning to fall apart. Slovenia broke free after a brief war in June 1991 and Croatia began its bid for independence shortly afterwards. Bosnia Herzegovina soon followed suit. The national team continued, however, and qualified for the Euros in 1992. Had the country somehow managed to stay together and the team not been thrown out of the competition due to the civil war, then they stood a very good chance of matching Red Star’s achievements and winning a competition at international level. As it was, the sunbathing Danes took their chance and took everyone by surprise and won.
Football then is a tale of journeys, from humble beginnings to great achievements and the story of the Yugoslavian national team from the late 80’s and early 90’s is no exception. There was no happy ending; only tragedy. Robert Prosinecki was named the best young player at Italia ‘90, a foretelling of what could have been for him and the fractured generation of Balkan talent he belonged to.
CHRIS ETCHINGHAM – @CArmband