How history defeated a great era of Yugoslav national team talent

How history defeated a great era of Yugoslav national team talent

SOME TEAMS HAVE LEFT THEIR MARKS ON TOURNAMENTS, only to watch on as another team won. Hungary in 1954 and the Netherlands in 1974 had risen to the World Cup final but then lost to West Germany. In 1982, what was seen as the best Brazilian national team ever with Zico and Socrates lost to Paolo Rossi’s Italy. Yugoslavia may also be counted among these unfortunate teams. Had it not been for the civil war, they may have left their mark on Euro 92 and the entire 1990s. However, it was not their rivals who defeated Yugoslavia, it was history.

The date 4 May 1980 marks not just the death of Yugoslavian president Tito, but also the beginning of the end for the country. From that day on, nothing would be the same in Yugoslavia. Developments in Eastern Europe towards the end of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union had a strong impact on the country, and from Slobodan Milošević’s taking power in 1989, the collapse gathered pace.

As economic and political crises set in after Tito, the multi-ethnic structure of Yugoslavia brought about the risk of civil war. Despite the negative course of the country, Yugoslavia was experiencing its golden age in sports at the same time. The basketball team coached by Dušan Ivković had won silver at the 1988 Olympics, and gold at the 1989 Euro Basket and 1990 World Cup. Monica Seles, who won a number of Grand Slams in the early 90s and topped the WTA rankings, was Yugoslavian.

In football, the 1987 Under-21 World Cup showed that the future of Yugoslav football was bright. At the 16-team tournament held in Chile, Yugoslavia easily made it to the final where they defeated West Germany, coached by Berti Vogts and including Andreas Möller, on penalties to become world champions. Some of the young Yugoslavian team would later become household names, such as Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker, Igor Štimac, Robert Prosinečki and Predrag Mijatović.

Having emerged from the qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup as group leaders, Yugoslavia went to the finals in Italy with experienced players as well as some of the young players who had been crowned under-21 champions three years earlier. However, an important name was missing. Zvonimir Boban, who was widely seen as the most talented footballer in the country, was not included because of an incident that had occurred before a Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star game two months earlier.

The tensions between Serbs and Croats in the country had spread to the Maksimir Stadium, and what happened on the field was a mirror image of what was going on in the country at large. Željko ‘Arkan’ Ražnatović, who would later be tried as a war criminal, was the leader of the Red Star fans. Dinamo were the favourite team of Franjo Tuđman, who would go on to govern Croatia from 1991 onwards. Tension was inevitable.

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Despite the match being played in Zagreb, security forces consisted of Serbian police officers. Instead of preventing the Serb-Croat aggression in the stands, they supported the Serbian side and caused an escalation of the events. Boban kicked a policeman who was trying to attack Dinamo supporters on the field, later becoming a symbol for Croatia.

However, his actions would have a major impact on his international career. The Yugoslavian Football Federation suspended the player for six months; as a result, he wasn’t selected for the 1990 World Cup. The Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star game was for many the beginning of the Yugoslavian Civil War. What Boban had to say on the incident seems to support this opinion. “I risked everything that day; my life, my career and all that fame would bring. It was all for one thing. For Croatia.”     

Despite low morale after the event and the lack of Boban, Yugoslavia performed better than expected at the 1990 World Cup, reaching the quarter-finals. Coming up against Argentina, they gave their opponents a hard time but lost in a penalty shootout. This was not the last tournament the Yugoslavian team would participate in, but it was the last time a national team would consist of Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian and Montenegrin players. The events that would unfold within a year ensured that these players never played together again.      

Having enjoyed reasonable success at the 1990 World Cup, Yugoslavia now geared up for Euro 92. In the qualifiers, Yugoslavia were in the same group as Denmark, Northern Ireland, Austria and the Faroe Islands, and won their first two games. For what was considered the defining match of the group, Yugoslavia then faced Denmark in Copenhagen and won 2-0, with Baždarević and Robert Jarni scoring. Having won all of their first three games, Yugoslavia were now the favourites of their group.

There was more good news for Yugoslav football, this time from their clubs. Red Star represented the country in the 1990.91 European Cup and were heading towards the final. Having defeated Grasshopper Zürich, Rangers and Dynamo Dresden, they faced favourites Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. Red Star won the first leg at Munich’s Olympiastadion 2-1 and had a great advantage for the return match in Belgrade. After the second leg ended in a 2-2 draw, the Yugoslavs were through to the final.

In their way stood Marseille. The final in Bari on 29 May 1991 was a milestone not just for Yugoslavia, but also for European football, as Red Star won the penalty shootout and were crowned European champions. This was the last such success Yugoslavia and Eastern European football would enjoy. The industrialisation of football in the coming years and the lifting of limits on hiring foreign players would prevent representatives of smaller leagues from winning the cup again. 

Red Star’s success was directly related to that of the national team. Other than Romanian Miodrag Belodedici, all of their players were Yugoslav and played at a national team level. For Euro 92, to be held in a year’s time, manager Ivica Osim had the opportunity to select an entire team from a club that had just won the European Cup.

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At the same time, Yugoslav players began to move to major European clubs. The first such transfer saw Boban go to Milan, one of the best teams at the time, in the summer of 1990. The same year Dragan Stojković began playing for Marseille. In 1991, Davor Šuker moved to Sevilla, Jarni to Bari and Prosinečki to Real Madrid.

Throughout the qualifiers for Euro 92, Yugoslavia made good use of their victory over Denmark in Copenhagen and topped the group. However, in the summer of 1991, political turmoil had peaked at back home. Referenda in Croatia and Slovenia had resulted in calls for independence. Within a few months, these two countries would declare their independence and formally set up the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and by default of the national team too. 

Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence and were recognised with international treaties that had escalated the political crises. The Milošević administration did not recognise the referenda and the Serbian military intervention began, with the aid of the Serbian minority in Croatia. As civil war took hold, a similar referendum in Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 1992 exacerbated the crises and the fighting. The war had now spread to all territories of former Yugoslavia. The world that had witnessed the end of the Cold War and the rise of democracy in eastern Europe just a few years earlier now watched on as the bloodshed in the Balkans continued.

Yugoslav footballers, who for the past two years had been affected by the political events in their country and the split-up of their team, had nevertheless won the right to play at Euro 92. The draw landed Yugoslavia in the same group as Sweden, France and England, which they probably would have dominated. Despite their difficult circumstances, the team prepared for the tournament under manager Osim.

However, the bad news came on 1 June 1992, just 10 days before the tournament. The United Nations had imposed sanctions on Yugoslavia, which included exclusion from sports events. Having to abide by the sanctions, UEFA barred Yugoslavia from Euro 92. Furthermore, Yugoslavia would not get to participate in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup, which would begin in the autumn. This meant that Osim and his players would not get to participate in international tournaments again.

In place of Yugoslavia, Denmark were included at Euro 92 having finished a point behind the troubled nation in the qualifiers. Arriving almost completely unprepared and without their best player in Michael Laudrup, Denmark proved to be a wild card. Having cleared the group stage, Denmark first beat the Netherlands and then Germany in the final to win the trophy and became the unexpected heroes of one of the most intriguing episodes in European football history. Had Yugoslavia played instead of Denmark, would they have achieved the same? Many think so.

Despite the United Nations’ efforts, the war in Yugoslavia continued until 1995. Efforts at peace had failed and many people were killed, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Dayton Peace Agreement of 14 December 1995 saw the Yugoslav Civil War end, leaving behind a shattered country and hundreds of thousands dead. The name Yugoslavia lived on, but Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia were now independent. The country, which had enjoyed decades of peace under Tito, had disintegrated, with only its name living on. In the early 2000s, the name would be dropped too.

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Croatia inherited the successful record of Yugoslavian football. They emerged as the leaders of their qualification group for Euro 96, and for the finals were pitted against Portugal, Denmark and Turkey in group D. The second game of the group between Croatia and Denmark was of historical importance. Denmark had attended the previous tournament instead of Yugoslavia and had gone on to win it, but were defeated 3-0 by Croatia, with goals scored by former Yugoslavian internationals Šuker and Boban. Croatia were eventually knocked out of the tournament in the quarter-finals by Germany, but showed that they were a world-class team.

With the formal end to the civil war and the lifting of FIFA sanctions, Yugoslavia were allowed to play in the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup. Coming second in their group behind Spain, Yugoslavia beat Hungary in the playoffs and went to the finals. Croatia had a similar journey in France, defeating Ukraine in a playoff.

In the finals, Yugoslavia were knocked out by the Netherlands in the second round courtesy of a goal by Edgar Davids in the 92nd minute, but Croatia were the surprise team as they beat Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals in a contest that resembled the final in 1987. Germany were again coached by Vogts, with Möller in the team, while Croatia’s side included Jarni, Stimać, Boban, Šuker and Prosinečki from the young champions from a decade earlier.

Despite taking the lead against France in the semis, Croatia were knocked out, but emerged as the most talked about team of the tournament. Despite the disadvantage of venue and support, as well as controversial refereeing decisions, Croatia had left the tournament with dignity.

Imagine, though, if players such as Siniša Mihajlović, Stojković, Mijatović, Dejan Savićević and Vladimir Jugović had played along with them. These were some of the finest footballers not just in Yugoslavia, but in Europe. Had Yugoslavia entered the tournament as one team, instead of as Croatia and Yugoslavia, could they have won it?

The civil war ended in December 1995. However, crises continued as Milošević led the shattered country. In March 1998, fighting began in the Kosovo region. To prevent a repeat of the events of the civil war, the United Nations became involved within months and took control. A new period began for Yugoslavia in October 2000. The election denied Milošević the presidential seat, with Vojislav Koštunica elected in his stead. Two years after the election, the trial of Milošević for war crimes began at the Hague, but the infamous leader died on 11 March 2006, before his trial was concluded.

After the civil war, the name Yugoslavia continued to be used for eight more years, only being dropped when the country became Serbia-Montenegro in 2003. On 21 May 2006, with the independence of Montenegro, this name too was dropped. As the last slither of one of the most glorious international sides that never quite was melted away, Yugoslavia was no more 

By Onur Bilgic

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