An exclusive interview with Miodrag Belodedici, one of the greatest liberos in history

An exclusive interview with Miodrag Belodedici, one of the greatest liberos in history

Almost 30 years ago, Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup. It was Miodrag Belodedici’s second after winning the competition with Steaua Bucharest five years earlier. It hadn’t all been rosy, though. A defector, he escaped communist Romania for war-torn Yugoslavia, playing in the match which helped kick-start the Yugoslav wars.

Bari 1991; Belodedici steps up to the penalty spot facing Marseille goalkeeper Pascal Olmeta and, behind him, the sky-blue Marseille fans, banners and flags, with Red Star leading the penalty shootout 2-1. He stuttered in the run-up and coolly slotted the ball in the bottom corner, to the right of Olmeta. Jean-Pierre Papin and Carlos Mozer of Marseille and Red Star’s Siniša Mihajlović followed. All scored before Darko Pančev, later of Internazionale, fired in securing Yugoslavia’s first and only European Cup.

For Belodedici it was history made – no player before him had played in two European Cup finals with two different clubs and won them both. “On the field, after I lifted the trophy, I didn’t know that I was the first player to win the European Cup with two clubs,” he tells These Football Times. “I only found out afterwards from the club’s representatives. I was surprised and also proud for the accomplishment, it was and still is a great feeling.”

That final has been remembered as wholly unremarkable – “boring” being Mihajlović’s take – because their game plan was just to hand the ball to Marseille and counter-attack when possible. But as uneventful the 120 minutes were, Belodedici’s path to it was anything but.

Nine years prior to that game, Belodedici made his professional debut for Steaua Bucharest, where, in his first stint at the club, he would win five Romanian titles, four cups and, against all odds, the 1986 European Cup in Seville thanks to Steaua goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam saving all of Barcelona’s penalties in the shoot-out.

Two years into his first contract he even impressed enough to be called up for the national team, where he would have the pleasure of lining-up alongside Romanian great Gheorghe Hagi. “It was amazing for him to play with me,” he cheekily states. “I’m just joking. He was an extraordinary player, extremely talented. Whenever he received the ball, the opponent didn’t know where it was. He had this talent to hide the ball and, in a fraction of a second, to go right pass you without any possibility to catch him.”

The duo became club teammates too when Hagi joined the then European champions in 1987.

While everything couldn’t be getting any better on the pitch, off it things couldn’t get much worse. The country was collapsing and civil unrest was at its peak, leading to what would be the Romanian Revolution in December 1989. Romania had been under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, leader of the communist regime that was becoming increasingly totalitarian. Belodedici – then also serving in the army like many other players of Steaua which for all intents and purposes was the ‘Army Club’ – saw a chance to escape to neighbouring Serbia through a transfer.

Backed with trophy-laden success in Romania, he didn’t have much trouble finding a club – once he was recognised as a European Cup winner, anyway. Red Star and Partizan Belgrade in particular were after his services and he chose Red Star, the club he had always supported. His actions, though, didn’t go unnoticed – or unpunished.

“Being in the army at that time, my action was considered a desertion, but I was never sentenced [for treason],” he says. “I was suspended by UEFA for a year and, after playing two qualifying matches for the [1990] World Cup, I lost the opportunity to play in the final tournament. I also missed out on a Champions Cup final, the one Steaua lost to AC Milan [in 1989].”

But if he thought he was escaping a nation’s collapse, he had instead just stepped unsuspectingly into an even greater one.

Read  |  Red Star and the immortal triumph of 1991

Come May 1990, Ceaușescu had been toppled in Romania and his national teammates were preparing for the Italy World Cup he was suspended for because of defection. Across the border in Yugoslavia, however, all of a sudden Belodedici found himself in one of the most infamous football games in history: Dinamo Zagreb against Red Star. “I remember the match against Dinamo Zagreb that ended as a riot,” he says. “I saw the fans taking down the fences and running towards the field and [Zvonimir] Boban kicking the policeman.”

The Boban kick has become one of the most notorious moments in footballing history and showed just how close the country was to civil war. As a policeman was hitting a Dinamo fan, Boban kicked the man in uniform “for the Croatian cause” as he later stated. Meanwhile, the leader of the Red Star ultras fighting the Dinamo fans on the pitch, Arkan, would later be fighting as a paramilitary group commander in the war a year later.

“I ran with my colleagues towards the dressing room. Those were not pretty scenes to be involved in. But as a professional player, you get used to it even with that kind of an atmosphere – before the incidents. This is your work and you have to concentrate on what you are doing on the field. Also, as a player, you realise that sometimes if you get spat at, you just wipe yourself and get on with your game.”

And pick themselves up they did. Here they were, the following summer at the Adriatic coast in Bari, across the sea from Yugoslavia, celebrating winning Europe’s most prestigious club competition, a place where Belodedici would have been playing in his first World Cup game against the Soviet Union the previous summer had he been allowed to represent his country.

He became Romania’s most decorated player in history – more so than Hagi. It also sent the Red Star fans at the other end of the stadium into delirium just ten days after Croatia had held an independence referendum with a clear majority wanting away with Belgrade. In a sense it was Red Star fighting against not just against everyone else in Europe but many in their own country, and they somehow came out on top.

As a result of the Yugoslav war, Red Star would play the following season away from their home ground in the European Cup, instead playing at neutral venues in Budapest and Sofia for their home ties. Picking up three wins in their group, against Anderlecht and Panathinaikos twice, it still wasn’t enough as they lost out on the chance of entering the knockout stage to eventual runners-up Sampdoria.

Yugoslavia then broke-up, and Red Star haven’t appeared in the Champions League group stage since. As for Belodedici, he was signed by Valencia under current Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink before returning and retiring at Steaua Bucharest. He would also play in Euro 96 and Euro 2000 where Romania reached the last eight stage at the expense of England, coming via that dramatic late penalty after Phil Neville brought down Viorel Moldovan in the closing minutes of the game.

More importantly, he finally got his one chance to play in a World Cup for his country in the US 1994 tournament, helping his Romanian side reach the quarter-finals. It didn’t end quite the way he would have hoped, though. Against Sweden, the game reached stalemate after the match finished 2-2 after extra time. He stepped up to take another big penalty, and this time he missed. Romania were out and their most successful World Cup tournament was over.

He and the Romanians were dejected, but with a dangerous escape and a game which helped kick-start a war under his belt, on reflection the penalty for Belodedici could probably have been a lot worse.

He retired a modern legend, perhaps the last great sweeper of the modern era and a player who personified technical ability from the back. An intelligent man and footballer, Belodedici has spent his later years working with young players in the national youth teams on their play out of defence and their ability to dictate games. For those lucky youngsters, there are few legends in the world better equipped to be teaching them the art of the modern game.

By Dom Walbanke @DWalbanke

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