The fortunes of Yugoslavia as a nation politically and in footballing terms could hardly have been in wider contrast in the early 1990s. On the pitch, the senior national side were just a penalty shoot-out away from reaching the World Cup semi-finals at the start of the decade, while several fledgling talents who won the Under-20 World Cup were also in the Red Star Belgrade side which triumphed in the 1991 European Cup. Sadly, this on-field success came amid the backdrop of a brutal civil war which led to the dissolution of the long-standing Yugoslav republic, as Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina all became sovereign states.
Yugoslavia had qualified for the 1992 European Championship but, only a couple of weeks before the tournament began, the ongoing conflict led to them being kicked out of the competition by UEFA. Denmark were instated in their place and, in one of the Euros’ biggest ever shocks, went on to win the trophy in neighbouring Sweden.
Yugoslavia, which by now comprised Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, re-emerged from the footballing wilderness to reach the 1998 World Cup, where they put in a respectable showing in reaching the last 16. However, they had to witness Croatia powering their way to third at the tournament in France, inspired by players in Davor Šuker and Robert Prosinečki, winners of the aforementioned Under-20 World Cup in the late 1980s.
In an inevitable twist of fate, Yugoslavia were drawn in the same group as Croatia and Macedonia for the Euro 2000 qualifiers, coming out on top as their two neighbouring countries both missed out, Republic of Ireland being the surprise runners-up before falling in the play-offs. Vujadin Boškov’s side were drawn against another former Yugoslav republic for the finals, providing the opposition for Slovenia’s first match at a major tournament.
Yugoslavia brought an experienced and talented squad to the tournament in Netherlands and Belgium. Captain Dragan Stojković was a veteran of the 1990 World Cup, while strikers Predrag Mijatović and Savo Milošević had made a telling impact in Europe’s biggest club competitions, the former scoring Real Madrid’s winning goal in the 1998 Champions League final. Full-back Siniša Mihajlović brought the twin threat of uncompromising competitiveness and a set piece threat, while there was also a smattering of emerging talents such as Dejan Stanković and Mateja Kežman.
Victory over Slovenia seemed a formality, and Yugoslavia took to the field in Charleroi to the news that Norway had shocked Spain in Group C’s earlier match that evening to throw the group wide open. This was the Yugoslavs’ ideal opportunity to rack up an emphatic scoreline and put themselves in a commanding position in the group.
Alas, they didn’t quite count upon the indefatigable zest of their first-timing opponents, who dominated the early exchanges and took a deserved lead midway through the first half through the gifted yet temperamental Zlatko Zahovič. A niggly first 45 minutes ended with Slovenia 1-0 to the good and Yugoslavia losing not just the match, but their tempers as well.
Early in the second half, Boškov rolled the dice with his second substitution of the night, Milošević coming on for the ineffective Darko Kovačević. No sooner was the former Aston Villa marksman on the pitch than Miran Pavlin was doubling Slovenia’s lead. A few minutes later, Mihajlović picked up a yellow card for having one critical word too many for the referee (not in the least bit uncharacteristic for him). The full-back’s mind still seemed fogged by his booking when he played a stray pass straight to Zahovič, who promptly sent it past Yugoslavia goalkeeper Ivica Kralj for 3-0.
Yugoslavia were staring into the abyss of a national disgrace, their situation not helped (or maybe it was, considering how badly his night was going) by a red card for Mihajlović. Midway through the second half, with the match all but beyond them, came what one might deem an eventful six minutes.
A penalty box poaching masterclass from Milošević pulled one back in the 67th minute, Ljubinko Drulović made it 3-2 on 70 minutes and then turned provider for Milošević’s second goal on the night for the 73rd-minute equaliser. It wasn’t just Liverpool who pulled off six-minute comebacks from 3-0 down during the 2000s. As if there hadn’t already been enough drama in Charleroi, it took a goal-line clearance from Ivan Dudić in stoppage time to ensure that the quickfire comeback wasn’t in vain.
Despite the unlikely rescue act with 10 men, a draw was still not a good result for Yugoslavia, who would need to be a lot better if they were to topple Norway five days later in Liege. Given the 3-3 thriller in their previous game, it came as no surprise that the deadlock was broken inside eight minutes here. Milošević, sensibly added to the starting line-up following his two-goal salvo against Slovenia, got a toe to an inswinging free kick to give his side an early lead.
Neutrals’ hopes of another goal fest involving Yugoslavia proved unfulfilled, with that being the only goal of a tepid encounter, although Boškov’s team created enough chances to have won by more. Still, their tally of four points had them top of Group C going into their final match against Spain, with the knowledge that a draw would be good enough to take them through and potentially win the group.
Brugge’s Jan Breydelstadion was set for one of the all-time epic European Championship encounters. Milošević, whose fortunes at Aston Villa were somewhat chequered, was in the form of his life at Euro 2000, scoring his fourth goal in three group games to open the scoring on the half-hour. Alfonso Pérez soon equalised, though, and Yugoslavia had to withstand a late first half onslaught to maintain parity at the interval.
Impact substitutes were becoming a theme of the Yugoslavs’ tournament and Boškov got it right again as half-time introductee Dejan Govedarica restored their lead within five minutes of his entrance to proceedings. Straight from the kick-off, though, Spain’s own supersub Pedro Munitis immediately clawed the teams level once more. If in-play betting existed at the time of Euro 2000, it would take a very brave or feckless punter to have called the final outcome in Brugge.
Having had Mihajlović sent off against Slovenia, Slaviša Jokanović (a name who would later become familiar in English dugouts) received his marching orders. However, just as Yugoslavia rallied after the former’s dismissal eight days previously, they did so again here as Slobodan Komljenović put them in front for a third time. Surely now they wouldn’t relinquish their lead yet again?
Heading into stoppage time, Spain were on the verge of group stage elimination unless they could summon a third equaliser. They managed it when penalty box bedlam gave Gaizka Mendieta the chance to score from the spot in the fourth minute of added time. As it stood, both teams were going through, so it all petered out nicely from there, right?
Wrong! Spain sent the ball forward once more and it fell into the path of Alfonso, who drilled it past Kralj to cap an incredible 60-second turnaround and spark scenes of pandemonium among the gleeful Spaniards. They had done their bit, but Yugoslavia were now vulnerable. Shock turned to relief as news filtered through that, in total contrast to the mayhem in Brugge, Norway and Slovenia played out a goalless draw in Arnhem. Yugoslavia and Norway were tied for second on points and goal difference, leaving goals scored as the defining separator. There was quite a disparity on this metric, though, the Scandinavians netting just once while the Yugoslavs scored (and conceded) seven in arguably the most manic group stage campaign of any team in the tournament’s history.
As in the World Cup two years previously, their reward for making it out of the group was a clash against the Netherlands. The Oranje had needed a stoppage time Edgar Davids goal to win the last 16 showdown in France, but Frank Rijkaard’s highly-rated outfit now had home advantage in Rotterdam.
Milošević went into the match as the tournament’s top scorer on four goals, one ahead of Portugal’s Nuno Gomes, who had netted twice in the previous night’s quarter-final win over Turkey. The Yugoslav marksman would likely be needed again if they were to avenge their 1998 heartache against the Dutch, who had won all three of their group games, including an epic 3-2 defeat of world champions France.
Perhaps backing themselves to potentially outscore the co-hosts, Yugoslavia started brightly and Edwin van der Sar was called upon to make a couple of early saves. However, Netherlands upped the tempo after a slow start and broke the deadlock midway through the first half, Patrick Kluivert latching onto Dennis Bergkamp’s exquisite through ball to open the scoring. The Barcelona predator doubled his tally and the hosts’ lead on 38 minutes, duly going level with Milošević in the Golden Boot stakes. Yugoslavia had clawed back a substantial deficit once already at the tournament, but the Dutch were a far less naive outfit than Slovenia.
Within 10 minutes of the second half starting, their fate was sealed. Kluivert thought he had his hat-trick in the 51st minute, only for TV replays to show that the final touch came off Govedarica, but the red-hot 23-year-old had to wait only three minutes to make sure he had his treble, his close-range volley taking him clear of Milošević in the Golden Boot standings.
Marc Overmars added a fifth in the closing stages for the Netherlands and, while a second Yugoslavia match in succession produced two stoppage time goals, this time they would be of a far less dramatic nature than against Spain. Overmars made it 6-0 with a simple tap-in shortly before Milošević deprived Van der Sar of a clean sheet. The Yugoslavia striker produced what was surely the most subdued reaction to any goal he had ever scored, although it at least spared his team from the outright heaviest defeat in the tournament’s history. It also left him with a share of the Golden Boot alongside Kluivert once the finals were said and done.
It was an understated end to what, for Yugoslavia, had been a tournament of mayhem. Their four matches produced a staggering 21 goals, and one of those games had just the solitary goal. Boškov’s team scored eight times at the finals and conceded a whopping 13, along with having two players sent off. Throw in their involvement on either side of two of the most stunning comebacks in European Championship history and you have the summary of a 13-day sojourn the likes of which no international football team are likely to experience.
Yugoslavia’s eventful foray at Euro 2000 proved to be historic in more ways than one. It was the last international football tournament to involve a team of that name, one which is steeped in footballing history. The nation ceased to be a federal republic in 2003, adopting the political union name of Serbia and Montenegro. Its football team competed under that guise at the 2006 World Cup – losing all three games in Germany, including a 6-0 drubbing by Argentina – the same year in which Montenegro seceded from the union to leave it and Serbia as separate sovereign states. Kosovo would then gain independence from Serbia in 2008.
Yugoslavia’s name belongs to a bygone era in international football, but their last stand under that famous moniker proved to be such a rollercoaster that it would not look out of place at an Orlando theme park. Slobodan Milošević was one of the most despised figures in the world, being charged by an international criminal tribunal for war crimes during the Balkan conflict, but his namesake Savo lit up Euro 2000 with a scoring spree as memorable as his team’s involvement in the competition.