As the Iron Curtain descended over Eastern Europe following the Second World War, when Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union held onto – or at the very least controlled – the land that it had gained as it fought back against Nazi Germany, it wasn’t just the political structures of the Eastern Bloc countries that were affected. Their entire societies were altered. Groups of people were persecuted, secret police terrorised the population, and secrecy was the order of the day. Seemingly a minor effect of this change was what happened to association football in these countries.
It is an unfortunate impact of the Second World War that many wonderful players remain largely ignored by the Western world, simply because they never got to see them. Bearing in mind it was rare to see foreign players at all throughout the 1960s, it was virtually impossible to see many great Eastern European players because of the isolationist nature of the Soviet countries. Even towards the end of Soviet rule, many great sides were ignored or forgotten.
One such side is the European Cup-winning Red Star Belgrade side of 1991, who defeated Marseille, the galácticos of the early 1990s, in the final. It seems almost bizarre to say that a European Cup-winning side has been forgotten by history, but the 1991 Red Star team often have. If you Google ‘great football club sides’ you won’t find much mention of them. In fact, a recent article of the 20 great club sides ever featured many standard teams that you’d expect, such as the great Totaalvoetbal Ajax team, or Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, or the 1967 Celtic side. However there is no mention of Red Star. Not even a passing line or two.
It’s perhaps as a consequence of what was going on in Yugoslavia at the time, making Red Star’s achievement relatively unimportant as Yugoslavia fell apart and descended into chaos as a result of ethnic cleansing and religious tensions going back centuries. Much like the great Honvéd side or the great Real Madrid sides are remembered, we need to remember the ’91 Red Star side; they oozed class and represented to the West what Eastern football can be.
They played a style that mirrored gegenpressing, or counterpressing in the modern game. The few articles that exist of them have described them as a team who sat deep and countered with pace, but this could not be further from the truth. They countered with great pace, but they also pressed extremely aggressively in midfield, leading to this counter attacking. It really is very close to the style of play which is so successful in the modern game, used by teams such as Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Leverkusen.
The side also featured that great bastion of football history, a Libero, in Miodrag Belodedici, whose story is something out of a Cold War novel. Belodedici was a Romanian who had previously won the European Cup with Steaua Bucharest in 1986, defeating Barcelona in the final and becoming the first Eastern European team to win the illustrious competition.
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However, all was not well in Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutal regime, and Belodedici defected to Yugoslavia in 1988. Stating that he would only play for Red Star – rejecting rivals Partizan in the process – he sat out a one-year suspension (whilst Romania found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to ten years in prison) before becoming a key part of the European Cup-winning side, marshalling the defence, and sweeping up elegantly, earning his nickname ‘The Deer’ for the sheer elegance of his style.
Another unforgettable player from the great Red Star side was Robert Prosinečki, the master in midfield for the side, and a player who at times seemed to be on another level to the other 21 players on the pitch. With refined technique and flair, Prosinečki pulled the strings for the side, working the ball forward towards the attacking players and move-finishers in Dejan Savićević and Darko Pančev. A great and forgotten playmaker-striker partnership, both Savićević and Pančev still claim that the other was the best partner they ever played with.
Savićević is most remembered for his time with AC Milan, where he became a household name in Serie A, but at Red Star his pace and creativity worked beautifully with Pančev, who was nicknamed ‘Kobra’ for his lethal finishing ability. Pančev’s finishing ability was so good that he won the European Golden Shoe in 1991 and was runner-up in the Ballon d’Or that same year. The final piece of the puzzle was the mercurial Siniša Mihajlović, who marauded up and down the left wing and featured a lethal left foot, which was best exploited in free kick situations, where he was deadly.
However, to focus on the key players is almost to do an injustice to the ’91 Red Star team, who were a unit in every sense of the word, and all worked together for the collective good. This wasn’t socialism, just good teamwork, with eleven men giving everything for the team.
They opened their European Cup campaign against Swiss side Grasshoppers, and laboured to a 1-1 draw in Belgrade, before demolishing the Swiss champions 4-1 in Zürich to progress to the next round, where they would face Graham Souness’s Rangers side. Prior to the game, Souness sent his then-assistant manager Walter Smith to scout Red Star, and he came back with an ominous report: “We’re fucked”.
Smith wasn’t wrong.
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Souness remembers both games well, identifying that at the time, Rangers were dominating Scottish football and had become accustomed to having the lion’s share of the ball to control the game. The former Liverpool midfielder admits that never happened in either leg of the tie, and Rangers were simply frustrated by how technically proficient and how skilled the Yugoslav side were.
Prosinečki was the star of the tie as Rangers were defeated 3-0 at the Marakana in front of 75,000 fans. The tie was wrapped up in Glasgow with a 1-1 draw. This sent Red Star through to the quarter-finals, where they would remain behind the Iron Curtain, facing East German champions Dynamo Dresden.
The first leg was the European debut of Mihajlović, in front of a raucous 80,000 at the Marakana. Red Star were a far superior team to Dresden, and comfortably defeated them 6-0 on aggregate, winning 3-0 in each leg.
It was semi-final time. Bayern Munich, giants of European football, awaited the perceived minnows from 900 kilometres away.
These were the two legs that embodied the style of the 1991 Red Star Belgrade side. They pressed Bayern aggressively once the ball entered the midfield strata (all teams allowed their opposition to build up play somewhat back then), and once they received the ball, they attacked directly, reaching the opposition goal in very little time. This game plan was executed perfectly in the first leg at the Olympiastadion, where the deadly relationship between Savićević and Pančev was on show for all to see, with both men scoring wonderful counter attacking goals to take a 2-1 win back to Belgrade. Prosinečki was masterful in midfield, executing a glorious pass down the right flank for Binić to cross for Pančev’s goal.
History would suggest, often rightly so, that you should never discount a German side, and true to form the Bavarians fought back in Belgrade in front of another raucous crowd, leading 2-1 going into the final few minutes. The game had started so well for Red Star, with Mihajlović opening the scoring in the 25th minute with a classic free-kick that left the Bayern keeper Raimond Aumann rooted to the spot. However, the game switched on its axis when Stojanović went to make a fairly routine save from a Bayern free-kick and allowed the ball to squirm under his body and into the goal. Five minutes later, Manfred Bender popped up to make it 2-1 to Bayern, and level the tie, in the process silencing the Marakana.
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Then, with only a few minutes to go, Prosinečki found himself with the ball in Bayern’s box, but was chased out. The ball moved back to Mihajlović, high up on the left wing. He crossed the ball, seemingly looking for Pančev at the far post. Of course, the ball never reached Pančev, with Bayern captain Klaus Augenthaler attempting a clearance, but instead leaving the ball scooping up towards goal. For reasons that are difficult to understand watching the footage, the Bayern keeper Aumann was unable to cope with the dipping ball, palming it into his own goal, making it 2-2 on the night. When the final whistle went, the aggregate score was 4-3 to Red Star, sending them through to their first ever European Cup final, where they would face Marseille, a team of superstars.
Marseille really were the dream team of their era, boasting the likes of Abedi Pele, Chris Waddle, Jean-Pierre Papin, former Red Star man Dragan Stojković and Jean Tigana. It was a daunting task for a team that Siniša Mihajlović says were “a squad full of 21, 22 and 23-year-old kids”.
Faced with this challenge, Red Star manager Ljupko Petrović made a brave, albeit negative, decision to kill the game and play for penalties. In what is perhaps the greatest shame in football history, two great teams played a boring stalemate for 120 minutes, with the game ending 0-0 and going to penalties. Petrović’s decision seems strange, especially considering the lottery that a penalty shoot out can be, but all becomes clear once it is explained that in the Yugoslav First League, all games ending in draws went to penalties in order to decide the winner. As a result, all of the Red Star players were accustomed to taking penalties, and therefore dealt with the pressure far better than most.
The tactic paid off with Red Star winning 5-3 on penalties. Prosinečki, Binić, Belodedici, Mihajlović, and Pančev all tucked away their penalties, making Red Star Belgrade European Champions. It was an astonishing achievement for an Eastern European side, especially considering the turmoil that was occurring in Yugoslavia (with many of the players’ families affected) at the time, with the country quite literally falling apart.
Sadly, the team would fall apart too. As Yugoslavia collapsed, football fans were robbed of perhaps the greatest counter-attacking team the world had ever seen. You couldn’t even see the players perform together for the national team, with Yugoslavia being thrown out of Euro 92 due to the violence erupting in their country.
Prosinečki moved to Real Madrid, and Pančev, Mihajlović and Savićević all went to Italy with Inter, Roma and AC Milan respectively. Stojanović joined Royal Antwerp, Refik Šabanadžović signed for AEK Athens, and Slobodan Marović joined Swedish side Norrköping. Vladimir Jugović joined Sampdoria and Binić left to join Slavia Prague. The team was completely dismantled within a couple of years, never to play together again. An era had ended before it had even begun.
Of course, the football was a sideshow to the war that engulfed Yugoslavia and led to countless tragedies, but as a football fan, it is possible to mourn the loss of the great Red Star Belgrade team of 1991. It is amazing to consider that while Yugoslavia fell apart due to societal, racial, political and historical issues, the Red Star side were incredibly successful at featuring players from the various states within Yugoslavia, players that all co-existed and worked together to conquer Europe.
Their triumph is immortal and remains one of the greatest achievements in the history of Eastern European football.
By Jonathon Aspey. Follow @JLAspey