It was 1992 and Inter Milan were desperately clambering alongside the likes of Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid to secure one of the most prized strikers in Europe at the time; a man who had recently won the European and Intercontinental Cup. The man in question was enigmatic Red Star Belgrade hit man, Darko Pančev.
After becoming one of the most feared strikers in Yugoslavia with Vardar Skopje, where he scored a highly respectable 84 goals in 151 appearances, Pančev inevitably opted to move to one of the regions finest clubs in the form of Red Star Belgrade.
At the Belgrade giants he evolved into one of the world’s deadliest forwards, becoming a crucial element within one of the most memorable European Cup-winning sides.
He was supported well, with the likes of Dejan Savićević and Robert Prosinečki consistently supplying him with their customarily sublime through balls. This, in combination with his excellent movement inside the box and ability to anticipate where to position himself as well as speed on the break, made him a very slippery customer for any defence to deal with.
Although his time at Red Star was initially interrupted due to him having to fulfil his mandatory army service in 1988, he debuted for the club in 1989 and went on to play three seasons. And what a three seasons they were. He won three consecutive league titles, one Yugoslav Cup, one European Cup and one Intercontinental Cup.
On a personal level, he won three straight league top goal-scorer award, won the European Golden Shoe in 1991 and even finished equal second with teammate Dejan Savićević and Inter’s Lothar Matthäus in the Ballon d’Or of the same year, behind eventual winner Jean-Pierre Papin.
His time to enter Serie A came in 1992, with Inter Milan winning the race to sign him for a reported £7 million; he joined a league where so many of his fellow Red Star colleagues ventured over to – Dejan Savićević joined AC Milan, Siniša Mihajlović signed for Roma and Vladimir Jugović went to Sampdoria.
“I am very happy for this transfer. To the Champions League I will return next year, but with Inter. I know that the competition will be ruthless, but that is rather fine because, as for most goals, the more difficult it is, the juicier its taste, once you reach it.
“I have a special gift, shared by few: I score. And the goals are especially good for a team like Inter that has a hard time finding the back of the net,” explained Pančev.
While his former associates enjoyed highly impressive careers in Italy, the same could not be said for Pančev. The Macedonian-born forward became one of the highest profile failures in calico history. Entering one of Europe’s finest leagues in his prime at age 27, on the surface at least, it looked like a very promising move indeed.
The previous campaign had ended disappointingly for Inter, as they finished eighth, so to start the new season Osvaldo Bagnoli came in for the legendary Luis Suárez as manager. The German trio of Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme all left too. The club was looking for a fresh start heading into the season, which in reality should’ve meant circumstances were primed for Pančev to put his best foot forward.
The major reason why he didn’t succeed under Bagnoli, however, was the pair’s fundamental disagreement on their respective philosophies. Bagnoli wanted him to work harder for the good of the team, but Pančev just wanted to be the man to score the goals, with no additional caveats. It was a recipe for disaster, and that’s what eventuated. As a result, Bagnoli opted to comprise his strike-force of the Uruguayan Rubén Sosa and Italy’s World Cup hero from 1990, Salvatore Schillaci.
Bagnoli was more than willing to give Pančev a chance, saying at the beginning of the 1992/93 campaign: “The Macedonian is a great opportunist, he deserves my trust.”
The manager quickly lost patience, though, and was clearly frustrated midway through the season, but importantly still remained hopeful.
“His mentality has to change, if he wants a safe place in the team. He must participate more to the action and go back when needed. I know he can make it and I will insist on this. Milan managed to do it with Marco van Basten, who now moves more and changes position with Papin, I do not see why it should not happen with Pančev.”
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Read | Red Star and the immortal triumph of 1991
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Unfortunately neither man was willing to change or even compromise, and the end result was inherently one where Pančev rarely played; when he did, he was average. Struggles in adapting to well-organised Serie A defences didn’t help either. His inability to find the back of the net was obviously correlated to his lack of playing time, but it’s hard not to think if only he’d adjusted his attitude things might have been so much better for him. Pančev’s is a sad case of what might have been.
The Skopje-born star fired back at his coach by saying: “There are attackers who run and players who do not run. I was one of those innately talented in scoring and was running only within 30 metres from the door. And Inter would not accept the way I play.”
The enduring struggles of Pančev were well demonstrated by the fact he had to wait until after the winter break to score his debut league goal, which came against Udinese in January 1993.
Bagnoli’s rebuttal on his style almost sounded like a final warning. “I understand, he has played a lot this way, scored a lot and won a lot. But I expect more. He may be Slavic. I am from Milan. And here we’re not idiots. He must understand that at Inter he can play differently.”
The only real upside to his first season at Inter came courtesy of his four Coppa Italia goals. In a season where he could only muster one league goal in 12 appearances, this would’ve given him little solace.
The arrival of Dennis Bergkamp for the 1993-94 campaign sent him further into Bagnoli’s rear view mirror. Upon parlaying this with his deteriorating relationship with the manager, it meant the striker enjoyed no minutes until the winter break. The break signalled some relief from his unhappy predicament, though, for it allowing VfB Leipzig to acquire him on loan for the remainder of the season.
Moving to Germany saw Pančev receive greater playing time, but sadly he couldn’t save the side from relegation. Consolation from his loan move came in the form of two league goals in his 10 outings.
Now 29, the attacker returned to Milan for the 1994-95 season, and the early signs indicated his situation might improve under new manager Ottavio Bianchi. Despite a positive start to the new campaign, which included goals against Fiorentina and Bari, injuries and a dip in form saw him return to the side-lines.
“I started well, with five goals in the Italian Cup and the league, but in Foggia I suffered a muscle injury with two other repercussions. It happened because of the two years in which I had not played on a regular basis,” he said.
Come the end of the season, his Inter nightmare was over as he signed for Bundesliga club Fortuna Dusseldorf. Injuries derailed his attempts to get his career back on track, as Pančev lamented it was “always in the calf.” Nevertheless he still made 14 appearances and bagged two goals.
Last stop on his eventful playing journey arrived in Sion, the club with whom he announced his retirement, aged 32. After such a bright start to his career with Vardar and Red Star, it was sad to see the man who performed so well at the 1990 World Cup with Yugoslavia endure such a horrible downturn in fortune.
Intriguingly, his former teammate, Dejan Savićević, also went through similar troubles at AC Milan, where his attitude constantly caused issues between him and Fabio Capello, but luckily for Savićević his unbelievable technical talent made certain that he shone when he was called upon.
“Inter was the biggest mistake of my life, because of Italy I closed my career early. In ’91 I wanted Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid. I was the most wanted and ended up at Inter, who practiced a defensive football and offered me a maximum of two chances per game. Inter ruined me.
“But I was not the only one to pay for it: Inter even ruined players like Jonk, Sammer, Shalimov and Bergkamp,” Pančev reflected.
The man who arrived in Italy with a fearsome reputation and sported the intimidating nickname of “The Cobra” was soon reduced to being labelled “The Green Lizard”. This unwanted stigma undoubtedly symbolised the fall of the once great man who used to terrorise defences all over Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It’s nice to remember the many positive moments in Pančev’s career, though. After all, he did win a European Cup as a key component of that incredible Red Star team, and came second in the 1991 Ballon d’Or. But it’s also hard to forget those dark days he endured in Italian football. It’s hard not to think that everything could’ve been different if only he’d chosen a different club back in 1992.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing.
By Edward Stratmann. Follow @licencetoroam