“They don’t make players like him anymore’ is the sort of quip that generally coaxes eye-rolls from the super cynical among us. But in Dejan Savićević’s case, that couldn’t be more accurate.
Most people agree that hope is the biggest killer in football – the hope that your favourite team, even though they’re stuck in a repetitive cycle of mismanagement and hopelessly directed funds, might one day win the title; the hope that the big star everyone is talking about will join your club on transfer deadline day with a cheesy grin; the hope that modern football won’t always be all about money. The list goes on.
If football is the beautiful game, it’s because hope clouds our view with a rosé mist that makes everything seem that bit better. Hope is the filter we all scroll to in our mind’s eye when things are not going according to plan, for our national team, our club or our local side.
For Savićević, although he never relied on hope to achieve his lot in the game, it’s likely the Montenegrin star spent a sizable portion of his career hoping for a better hand to be dealt his way. That might seem a little greedy for a man who won so much during his career, but considering the ups and downs he went through during the peak years of his time in the professional sphere, there can be no mistaking just how short-changed he truly was.
Some class him in the same category as Michael Laudrup, Michel Platini, Marco van Basten and their ilk; he is often described as a generational great who had every bit as much talent as the best midfielders of any era. Others, most millennials of today perhaps, might not even know who he is.
Not normally referenced in the same breath as some of his more illustrious counterparts, Dejan Savićević does not always get the same kind praise heaped upon him. His name crops up in conversations about great players from the golden age of Yugoslavia and is listed in the odd online forum here and there, singled out for praise by die-hard fans who remember his unique genius, but when it comes to hyperbolic mainstream praise, Savićević, for some reason or other, misses out.
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Make no mistake, there are plenty of reasons that even now as moves into his 50s, years after his retirement, people should swipe right in their heads at the mere mention of his name because he was a genuine great. Plus, he seized the necessary honours which ought to mean he deserves mentions in the same breath as his more widely complimented peers.
In terms of sheer ability, Savićević was undoubtedly a legend, someone who could ignite a game with did-you-see-that sort of touches and dribbles that could make even the most machismo-driven males tear-up in appreciation. He had the touch of a maestro, a genius, someone who often inspired superlatives until the list ran to an end.
The tap-tap-tap of his boots against the leather ball, unnoticeable to television spectators against the stadium din, surely haunted more than a few defenders in his prime. His way of evading tackles, like a fly zipping around a swatting hand, was surely his greatest asset.
The minute margins involved in swooshing a ball ahead of his man before setting after it to prepare a swift attack, of clipping a pass between a defender’s already closing legs or the manner in which he rolled the ball millimetres away from an outstretched attempted tackle, following the forward momentum before adroitly squeezing past the close attentions of another marker, were all Savicevic’s way of staying ahead of the curve. They were the methods he employed in attempting to maximise his opportunities on the field of play.
The other admirable aspect of his playing style was the way he concocted his own brand of dribbling style. At first glimpse, his technique might not have seemed a million degrees apart from that of the Laudrup brothers or their sort, but Savićević had a powerful, forceful element to his drives as well.
Surging forward, a look of pained concentration on his face, arms flailing at his side, he could rip through the most rigorously austere of defences with a perfectly coordinated zig-zagging dribble. His feet moved faster than their brains, and in the blink of an eye, Savićević would ghost past them like a leaf blowing in the wind – uncatchable, evasive and annoyingly nimble.
But for neutrals and fans alike, he was another great whose bamboozling ability was a by-product of hard work and natural proficiency. He knew he was good, but he worked hard to prove it.
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It might seem odd that a player who finished joint runner-up in the 1991 Ballon d’Or award would have much of a case to prove to anybody, but the immediate aftermath of his transfer from Red Star to AC Milan certainly tells us otherwise.
You see, at the time of his move to the San Siro from Belgrade in 1992 – where he had won a European Cup, three Yugoslav national league titles as well as an Intercontinental Cup – Italian football was subject to a rule which meant that only three foreign players were allowed in any one club’s matchday squad. The Rossoneri’s squad was already packed full of quality at the time, including Jean-Pierre Papin, Zvonimir Boban, Ruud Gullit, the still playable van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, so Savićević’s playing time was severely limited.
In all of his six seasons with the Italians, Savicevic only amassed 97 league appearances out of a possible 204 which tells a story of frustration, fringe action and sparse minutes at the top table. Some put that down to a lack of work ethic, inconsistency, being unsuitable to Fabio Capello’s tactics and of his sometimes-recalcitrant nature, while others consider him unlucky not to have won more pitch-time.
The truth of the matter is perhaps made up of a little from column A and a little from column Z – it’s difficult to say precisely why he was often left out, but what is clear is that he was capable of doing more in one match than some so-called top players ever produced in a handful. Simply put, Savićević was an explosive player who liked to do things on his own terms.
His initial struggles to break into the Milan first-team, where he earned just 10 Serie A outings in his debut campaign, eased considerably as he became a regular for a couple of seasons thereafter as Rijkaard left and van Basten’s injury-plagued time became unfortunately permanent, forcing the Dutch legend to leave the club and hang up his boots forever.
But what was van Basten’s misfortune, essentially became Savicevic’s opportunity. For a time, the Montenegrin channelled much of the impatience and anger that had built up inside him and used it to fuel a series of legendary performances that, despite the overall in-and-out nature of his relationship with the first team, ultimately proved exceptional enough to earn him a safe place in the hearts’ of Diavolo fans everywhere, eventually seeing him ushered into the club’s Hall of Fame where his legacy sits proudly alongside the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Gianni Rivera and Carlo Ancelotti.
The location is Athens and the date is May 18, 1994. If there is one moment – or to be more precise, five seconds – that define the sort of player Savićević truly was, it comes in the time it takes him to dispossess Barcelona’s Miguel Ángel Nadal on the right flank of the Olympic Stadium, two minutes into the second half of the 1994 Champions League final.
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With neither side fully into their rhythm, Savićević is the only player fully switched on to proceedings. He’s tapped into another level of knowing; it’s the sort of intuition the very best footballers know comes with allowing yourself to melt into the natural ebb and flow of a game.
Padding his way slowly after a ball that has been lofted into the dark sky, he closes in on Nadal, deep in Barcelona territory, who takes too long to control the bouncing ball. Sticking his leg out to nonchalantly dispossess him with a perfectly-timed tackle, he zips around the other side before casually lobbing Andoni Zubizarreta from the edge of the 18-yard box.
As the ball arcs its journey of around 25 yards, over the Spanish custodian, and drops into the goal, Savićević is already popping himself over the advertisements, arms raised, celebrating such a difficult act to the soundtrack of rhythmic horns and a chorus of cheers from the 70,000-strong crowd. Arguably, it is the greatest goal ever scored in a UEFA Champions League final.
Not only is the execution of the shot, an audacious goal that summed up Savićević’s rapacious urge to always get the better of his opponents, wonderfully accurate but the manner in which he earns possession is equally magnificent. Watching it back – over and over again – there is something unmistakably hypnotic about the way he lazily sticks out his leg to flick the bouncing ball over his man before racing beyond him to collect it and finish instinctually. It is vintage Savićević.
A victim of time, perhaps, there can be little doubting the notion that had that goal been scored today it would have caused the internet to break. When Mario Mandžukić scored his outstanding goal in the 4-1 Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in June 2017, there were exclamations that it was, hands down, the greatest goal ever scored in a final of that stature. Hardly anyone mentioned Savićević’s strike, the way it not only epitomised his ability to conjure greatness in a match they won, but also that he was able to produce unerring class on such a pressurised stage.
It’s true, too, that the goal and overall individual performance that day in Greece was eclipsed by the managerial rivalry, the context of Milan’s Golden Generation and of the fact that the Rossoneri emerged victorious despite going into the match with a severely weakened defence. All reasonable points that underlined the team’s resilience and disinterest in favourites tags, but also declarations which took away from the stylised display of one outstanding Montenegrin.
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Although the image of Marcel Desailly reeling away in ecstatic celebration following his 58th-minute goal that all but sealed the 4-0 win, wearing the white kit of AC Milan’s away jersey against the backdrop of packed stands, nostalgic type-faced advertising hoardings and dejected Barcelona players’ faces is normally the one that gets plonked in front of our mind’s eye whenever the 1993/94 final is discussed, there can be no question that Savićević deserves to be the true all-encompassing image of that night. He ran the show that evening.
While Johan Cruyff was busy creating images of his own, famously posing with the trophy in the lead-up to the match, Savićević was silently plotting and would emerge the other side of that tense night with his hands firmly wrapped around the silver trophy for real and not as part of a misguided stunt. Because that was the sort of character Savićević was – he believed in his own ability.
Another prime example of his brilliance came during a 5-3 league victory over Bari in January 1995 at Stadio San Nicola, which had also been the scene of his famous 1991 European Cup triumph over Marseille, a match which has long been considered one of the most boring in football history – something Savićević could not influence due to unfavourable tactics on the part of manager Ljupko Petrović who famously told his players, “When you get the ball, give it back to them.”
Four years after that clash, Savićević found himself once more in the ground where he had first dined with European silverware, but this time, as well as winning again, he would be able to unleash the full extent of his attacking prowess, as he went on to score a phenomenal four goals that afternoon (including a perfect hat-trick of right foot, left and header) bewildering opposition goalkeeper Alberto Fontana to help his side secure maximum points. The standout strike of his that day, however, arrived at the death as he smashed a thumping effort from 16 yards inside the box that angled in at the far post to complete a wonderful counter-attacking move.
Considering he scored just 20 league goals for the club (34 in all competitions in 144 appearances), it was rare for him to grab so many in one game, but it proved that he could be deadly as a marksman when he wanted.
Due to his propensity for switching flanks, he was able to pop up anywhere on the pitch, and on his day he was capable of producing some sniper-like finishes, as well as the more elegantly-converted ones.
Internationally-speaking, Savićević was hard-done by. Denmark’s triumph at the 1992 European Championships is widely considered one of the biggest shocks in major tournament history – sitting alongside Greece’s similarly remarkable win 12 years later as something no-one could have seen coming. However, things could have turned out a lot less cataclysmically for the Danes had Yugoslavia’s exclusion due to civil war not been greenlit.
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The Beli Orlovi could have dominated European football for many years had the terrors of war not hung like a shadow over them and seen a ban imposed until Euro 1996 when Croatia took their place. That’s because they had one of most impressive collections of talented players the continent has ever seen.
In Santiago, Chile, for the 1987 Under-20 World Championships, Yugoslavia won it outright against all the odds, beating West Germany on penalties in the final. Coming into the competition, nobody really gave them much hope, but their performances showed that there was something special happening for them there and then – a troop of youngsters with a big future was battling as they would want to do in the heat of the real thing. It might have been an underage competition, but there were no signs of youthful abandon.
Indeed, the manner of their victories, against Brazil and East Germany, en route to the grand final, has retroactively been used as evidence that they could have become senior world-beaters. The core of that squad could have gone on to consistently compliment the pre-existing talents of Savićević, Dragan Stojković, Darko Pančev, Faruk Hadžibegić and others in major tournaments, but instead were only afforded the opportunity once at the 1990 World Cup finals where they reach the last-eight stage.
At Italia 90, much of the squad was still quite young. Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki and Robert Jarni – all in their early 20s – were all several years off their prime and yet had still been included in a side that made a deep surge on a big stage.
Many of the key characters from the ’88 team would play an instrumental role 10 years later as Croatia finished third-place at the World Cup in France.
Considering Savićević’s ability to conquer the highest pinnacles of world club football, and taking into account that external factors meant competitive international football was cheated of seeing him at his best (between the end of 1991 and April 1996, in fact), he could easily have won an international honour with such a talented and fearless group of competitors alongside him with years to plan, gel together and form a winning mentality.
It wasn’t to be, but his national record of 19 goals and 56 caps is enough to prove that he would have delivered so much more had he been given the chance.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90