Radomir Antić: the Luton defender who later managed Real Madrid, Atlético and Barcelona to distinction

Radomir Antić: the Luton defender who later managed Real Madrid, Atlético and Barcelona to distinction

Spanish rivalries transcend sport and are built on political and logistical foundations, and have been a matter of life and death in the past. As a result, many reputations are based on history and geography. It means that few men have dared cross the divide into enemy territory once, let alone twice.

Despite representing different clubs, cities and beliefs, Radomir Antić is respected by the vast majority of football fans in Spain. His career in the sport has taken him from Serbia to South Africa via Luton, Istanbul, Barcelona and Madrid. It’s a unique footballing odyssey that has taken twists and turns like no other.

Partizan Belgrade reaped the benefits for much of his playing days. An eight-year stint at the Yugoslavian side culminated in a league triumph in 1976 before Antić headed abroad to pursue pastures new. He swapped the Eternal Derby in Belgrade for the one in Istanbul, pulling on the yellow and navy stripes of Fenerbahçe. He was triumphant in Turkey, too, winning the Süper Lig in 1978 but featured less than he’d have liked thanks to Fener’s inseparable centre-back pairing at the time.

Antićs first footballing experience in Spain came at Real Zaragoza, who had just clinched promotion back to LaLiga. He left Zaragoza as a 32-year-old, ageing but still defensively solid. England was the next stop on his now-nomadic playing career. The compact Kenilworth Road greeted Antic when he signed for Second Division Luton Town under David Pleat. With Antić marshalling the back line, the Hatters returned to the top flight of English football for the first time in seven seasons, finishing top of the second tier.

In the meantime, Antić was exploring the avenues that coaching could offer and undertook a course back in Belgrade whilst playing in England. By the end of Luton’s first season back in the First Division, relegation looked almost certain heading into the final game with Manchester City. The circumstances were in City’s favour: avoid defeat and they themselves would stay up. With time running out and nothing to separate the two sides, Antić struck to gift his club salvation and banish City to the second tier. 

Twelve months down the line and with another season of top-tier football sealed, Antić hung up his boots and made an immediate transition into the dugout. He assisted greats Nenad Bjeković and Fahrudin Jusufi as Partizan won successive league titles before flying the nest and heading to Spain alone.

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Eight years after leaving Zaragoza for Luton, Antić returned as head coach, with the Spanish side still occupying a place in the top flight. The first few months were difficult; results didn’t come easily to Antić and the relegation zone continued to claw at their feet. The end of his first season in management approached with Zaragoza sitting in the bottom half, settling for mediocrity. Then, as if someone had flicked their switch, the Aragonese club climbed the table, winning game after game after game. 

An eventual fifth-place finish was unthinkable just a few weeks before but Zaragoza were lined up for European football the following season. After just 12 months in charge, Antić led an inexperienced side that included future Spain internationals in Francisco Villarroya and Juan Vizcaíno into the UEFA Cup. Then a knockout competition played over two legs, Zaragoza’s Cypriot opposition, Apollon Limassol, were brushed aside in the first round. They were unfortunate to be drawn against Hamburg in the second, who had won the European Cup just a few years prior. The German giants took extra time to beat the plucky Spaniards.

The Yugoslav left his position at the end of his second season in charge, in 1990, after guiding Los Maños to a top-half finish. Across the country, the coveted seat at Real Madrid was changing. After five successive LaLiga titles, Los Blancos were in turmoil. John Toshack was replaced by Alfredo Di Stéfano in November. After defeat in the European Cup at the hands of Spartak Moscow, Di Stéfano was gone too. Real president Ramón Mendoza turned to Antić, considering him as esteemed enough in Spanish football to take up such a prestigious post. He lost just twice in the 12 league games he took charge of and carried Madrid up into a respectable third place. 

Robert Prosinečki, winner of the Best Young Player at the 1990 World Cup, was brought in by Antić in 1991 along with current Spain boss Luis Enrique. The former Red Star man struggled with injury for much of his time in Spain but did net a sumptuous free-kick in his Clásico debut as Real Madrid played out a 1-1 draw with Barcelona.

Like so many others before and after, Antić fell victim of the club’s incredibly high standards. Despite being seven points clear at the top of LaLiga, he was sacked after just his second loss of the season against Guus Hiddink’s Valencia. Spanish newspaper El Pais described the dismissal as “surprising” – thoughts that were echoed by much of Real’s fan base. 

Somewhat fittingly, Barcelona caught Los Blancos and pipped them to the title before winning the Champions League at Wembley. Back home, Antić’s Yugoslavia was tearing itself apart. Serbian groups in Croatia and Bosnia attempted to oust the remaining natives during a bloody war that ended with the breakdown of Yugoslavia into newly-formed nations. Indeed, Serbia and Montenegro were the only republics left as part of Yugoslavia until Montenegro’s split in 2006. By then, Antić had become the first man to manage Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona. After his unfortunate ending at Real, Antić took charge at city rivals Atlético in 1995.

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He brought another one of his countrymen, Milinko Pantić, to the Vicente Calderón. Unlike Prosinečki, Pantić was a complete unknown in Spain. His arrival from Greek side Panionios was greeted with scepticism, while others thought it laughable. Nine months later, Pantić scored the winner in the Copa del Rey final in a stadium familiar to his manager. Real Zaragoza’s La Romereda hosted the match in which Pantić’s extra-time header was enough to beat Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. Atleti were LaLiga champions a matter of weeks later, winning their first title for almost two decades. Diego Simeone was part of an imperious midfield that also included Vizcaíno, who Antić had coached at Zaragoza. 

Spanish newspaper Marca likened Antić to famous Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan while the team “played like angels each week”. That league and cup double of 1996 – in a season in which Real Madrid stumbled to a sixth-place finish, 17 points behind their rivals – was Antić’s greatest success as a manager, with that side is often preferred by older Atleti fans to the one that lifted the title under Simeone.

The following campaign saw a slump in Atleti’s league form but they did manage to get as far as the quarter-finals in the Champions League. Ajax halted their progress as Atlético president Jesús Gil made controversial comments about the number of black players in the Dutch team. After fifth and seventh-place finishes in the campaigns after, Antić was let go. However, after his successor Arrigo Sacchi was sacked the following year, the fans favourite returned.

In fact, Atleti couldn’t get rid of him. His interim position for the remaining games of the 1998/99 season saw the club finish as runners-up in the Copa del Rey. He was replaced by Claudio Ranieri in the summer but returned to the Calderón dugout once more when the Italian was sacked the following season. Sadly, his third stint ended in very different circumstances to his first couple of years at the club.

Under Antić’s leadership, Atlético Madrid were relegated from LaLiga before the final day of the season, with the Serb duly sacked. His reputation was damaged by his first genuine failure in management but his ability to get the most out of limited resources and his way of simplifying the game made him an attractive appointment to any Spanish club.

Having managed the two Madrid giants, a significant bridge already crossed, Antić found himself in charge at Barcelona. He became the first man to sit in the home dugout at the Bernabéu, the Vicente Calderón and the Camp Nou when he replaced Louis van Gaal in 2003. Barça’s board and players had become impatient with the Dutchman’s strict routines and stifling style of play. Antić immediately changed all that.

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He moulded youngsters including Victor Valdés, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta and gave them the freedom to play their natural game, the Barcelona way. Van Gaal had left the club in the precarious position of 15th when he was dismissed in January 2003 but Antić turned things around, leading them to a sixth-place finish as well as a run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Despite the impressive turnaround, new Barcelona president Joan Laporta opted not to keep Antić on longer than his initial six-month contract, much to the chagrin of many fans at the time.

After a difficult time in charge of Celta Vigo, Antić took a break from coaching. That was until the Serbian FA came calling. Just a matter of weeks after Serbia had become an independent nation after splitting with Montenegro, they embarked on their first qualification campaign. Antić was chosen as the man to lead them.

Just over a year later, Serbia found themselves one win away from World Cup qualification. Three points against Romania in Belgrade would see them finish top of their group, ahead of 2006 World Cup runners-up France. A Nikola Zigić strike was the only thing separating the two sides at half-time after a nervy opening period. But then, glory. Four more Serbia goals clinched qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in emphatic style. France would have to go through the playoffs. 

Serbia were drawn with Germany, Ghana and Australia in Group D in December that year. Asamoah Gyan dealt the first blow of a tricky campaign in the 85th minute of Serbia’s opener, but what followed left a magical imprint on the minds of many fans. Milan Jovanović’s only goal of the game in the 38th minute secured a historic victory over Germany.

After a disappointing start, Antić’s team were back on track. Sadly it wouldn’t amount to much. Two goals in the space of four second-half minutes saw Australia take a commanding lead in the deciding fixture. Marko Pantelić’s seventh goal for his country wasn’t enough as Serbia were eliminated. That was where Antić’s coaching career ended at the very highest level.

From modest beginnings at Partizan and Zaragoza, through to a spell at Luton which English football fans still remember well, Radomir Antić focused on his own journey to perseverance, freedom and hard work to forge a successful 20-year managerial career. It lead to unique records, memorable glories and the respect of fans at home and in Spain.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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