Predrag Mijatović: the LaLiga diaries

Predrag Mijatović: the LaLiga diaries

Not many men made it further than the borders of modern-day Montenegro in the latter part of the 20th century. The mountainous state of Yugoslavia was ravaged by brutal war in the 1990s, cutting lives short and putting huge numbers under the poverty line. However, the burden of hardship can often be lifted to reveal a better future.

The Yugoslav Wars separated so many but formed a group of footballers who would go on to achieve great successes. That group includes modern names like Modrić, Džeko, Rakitić, Vidić and Mandžukić. Predrag Mijatović was one man who, in his prime, showed these youngsters that it was possible to play at the world’s top clubs, no matter where you came from or what you’d been through.

Despite the political tensions and violence that occurred in Yugoslavia, the nation produced one of the most exciting football teams in the international game. The foundations for this upheaval of talent were laid at the 1987 World Youth Championship in Chile. Mijatović, one of five Montenegrin players in the squad, popped up with key goals, including a quarter-final strike against Brazil. Their final win over West Germany in Santiago was surprising, but when you think of the team that was assembled, one including Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Šuker, it makes complete sense.

Mijatović returned to Budućnost Titograd, who he’d only recently made his senior debut for, and managed to force his way into the first team at the age of 18, at a time when of his Yugoslavia teammates were getting their big moves to Red Star, Partizan Belgrade or further afield. The forward was yearning for a big club to come in and secure his services having impressed with Budućnost in the top tier of Yugoslav football. Partizan took advantage of political instability in Croatia in 1989 by hijacking Hadjuk Split’s deal.

After netting on his debut against Budućnost, Mijatović struggled to establish any sort of scoring rhythm at the Serbian powerhouse and took two years to really find his feet. A scintillating 1991/92 campaign saw the 22-year-old emerge as Partizan’s best performer, his goals firing them to their second Yugoslav Cup.

Partizan took a 1-0 lead into the second leg of the final, which saw them face off with their city rivals Red Star in two vicious encounters. Mijatović netted Partizan’s opener in the return leg at the Partizan Stadium before Red Star scored twice and looked to have sent the tie to extra-time. However, Slaviša Jokanović, who is still adored by Partizan fans to this day, scored the goal that gave Partizan their first major trophy for two years.

Read  |  Yugoslavia in the 1990s: the wonder-team that never was

Dynamic displays saw Mijatović crowned Yugoslav Player of the Year in 1992 before Partizan finished above Red Star to win the title in 1993. Like many of his compatriots, signing for an Italian or Spanish club seemed like the fashionable decision. Indeed, there were rumours that Atlético Madrid and Juventus were interested.

But it was Valencia who prised him away from Partizan’s clutches, just as Yugoslavia was descending into war. Guus Hiddink was trying to bring a trophy to the Mestalla for the first time since the UEFA Super Cup 13 years earlier, and Mijatović would add attacking quality and efficiency to Los Che’s front line. A total of 28 goals in his first two seasons in LaLiga would put his name firmly on the map, and when that happens, there are only two clubs that can come in for you.

Under Luis Aragonés, Valencia proved unlikely challengers to even more unlikely title winners Atlético Madrid. It wasn’t solely down to Mijatovic’s prolific form, which stood strong for the entirety of the season, but it wasn’t far off.

Before a ball was kicked in the summer of 1995, several of Yugoslavia’s mainstays joined Mijatović at some of the country’s top club. Prosinečki left Real Oviedo for Barcelona, Milinko Pantić wound up at Atlético, Jokanović was at Tenerife while Dejan Petković fled Red Star for Real Madrid.

Valencia made their first reverberating statement with a thrilling 4-3 win over Real Madrid at the Mestalla, Mijatović netting the hosts’ third before half-time. That exciting triumph bred confidence that fizzed through Aragonés’ team, culminating with Brazilian Viola and Mijatović in attack. It was the Yugoslav striker who smashed the second in against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in March before sprinting away from the Barcelona back line to slot home the third in an eventual 4-1 victory.

Anticipation started to bubble up among Los Che aficionados with a first top-flight title since 1971 on the horizon. They went to the Vicente Calderón to face Radomir Antić’s Atlético in April knowing that a win would push them right in contention for the championship.

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Los Rojiblancos had lost just twice at home all season and had held top spot in LaLiga since Christmas. Their side contained Diego Simeone, Lyuboslav Penev and Mijatović’s Yugoslavia teammate, Milinko Pantić. They didn’t have a host of household names like the Barcelonas and Real Madrids of that world, but, like now, they had a special team spirit that saw them rise to the top.

In the opening minutes of the game, Mijatović’s optimistic cross flicked off Delfí Geli’s head and looped into the far corner to give the visitors the lead. Pantić equalised before the break with a sublime free-kick but Mijatović struck again, this time from 12 yards out having been brought down in the area. Unfortunate for the first goal, Geli put that behind him by bringing Atleti level just two minutes later. 

The right-back, who was tormented by Mijatović for the majority of the 90 minutes, was outsprinted and outdone by the Yugoslav in the run-up to Valencia’s winner. Mijatović took the ball down the left, cut inside and swung a cross in for Antonio Poyatos to head in and send the small section of travelling fans wild.

Los Che would eventually fall just short of a historic title, but their star striker didn’t end the year empty-handed. Mijatović was named best foreign player in LaLiga and came close to picking up the Pichichi, only outdone in the scoring department by Juan Antonio Pizzi of Tenerife. An 18-year-old kid by the name of Raúl was making waves at Real Madrid but Los Blancos, who were the defending champions, finished a lowly sixth and failed to quality for Europe for the first time in 19 years.

A summer overhaul at the Santiago Bernabéu saw four-time Scudetto winner Fabio Capello appointed as manager, Clarence Seedorf, Roberto Carlos brought in, and the capture of former teammates Mijatović and Šuker to supply Raul up front. On the other side of the Clásico rivalry, Barcelona splashed out on Ronaldo in their bid to challenge Los Blancos and defending champions Atlético for the title.

Read  |  Dejan Petković: the unlikely hero of both the Marakana and the Maracanã

Capello’s attacking trident of Mijatović, Šuker and Raúl ensured Real had the firepower to match their lofty ambitions, and with a defence marshalled by Fernando Hierro, they had a team built for winning. However, while Šuker started well, Mijatović fell below his high standards and was often wasteful in front of goal. Usually a man of composure, he allowed his temper to get the better of him, spitting at Racing Santander’s Iñaki a few months into his time at the Bernabéu. 

By the time El Clásico rolled around in December, Barcelona had a slender lead at the top of the table with Capello’s men in hot pursuit. Ronaldo was the star of the season so far, with Real’s transfer policy heavily questioned. The war of words in the build-up to the game came from the capital and the mouths of Mijatović and Šuker. “[Barcelona’s defence] is vulnerable and I know what we have to do in order to get past it,” was Mijatović’s message. “I know which movement I need in order to score, but I am not going to say because I have to keep some things secret.”

“I only have to say two words: play and die,” Šuker said. “I am not scared, but rather calm. We won’t have problems, our players will go out and fight until the death.”

The hosts were imperious in front of the Bernabéu support with Šuker and Mijatović scoring the goals in a convincing 2-0 victory. Like the season before with Valencia, Mijatović’s team gained huge belief from a single performance but unlike at the Mestalla, Real Madrid were expected to win. With the risky investments they’d made, they had to win.

Despite defeat at the Camp Nou in May, Real were strong favourites to take the title, leading second-place Barcelona by five points. They secured the trophy at the Vicente Calderón of all places, wiping the floor with the holders on their own patch. Having hit the post in the first half, Mijatović notched the visitors’ third in a 4-1 rout.

Fast forward 12 months and, under Jupp Heynckes, Real were on the verge of their seventh European triumph. Over 30 years since their last European Cup win, Los Merengues would face Juventus in the Champions League final in Amsterdam. The previous January, Mijatović was voted runner up to Ronaldo in the Ballon d’Or but would spend the next few months battling new signing Fernando Morientes, Raúl and Šuker for a starting place.

Read  |  The decorated, destructive and damned career of Robert Prosinečki

In the other dressing room at the Amsterdam ArenA sat a team clogged full of the game’s biggest names. Goalkeeper and captain Angelo Peruzzi was playing his third Champions League final in a row, while Didier Deschamps would go on to lift the World Cup the month after alongside teammate Zinedine Zidane. Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Del Piero were two of Europe’s most fearsome strikers while a 28-year-old Antonio Conte was already one of the most experienced stalwarts in Serie A. They’d lost the final the previous year to Borussia Dortmund but had beaten Ajax on penalties the season before that.

As games against Marcello Lippi’s side tended to be, it was tight and tense. Not many opportunities were carved out of the Italian defence, but it was an Italian right-back who started the decisive move. Marauding down the right, Christian Panucci hit an optimistic cross into the Juve area that was headed away by Alessio Tacchinardi. Coming down the opposite flank, Roberto Carlos fired the ball back into the box and it eventually fell in front of Mijatović.

With Peruzzi already committed to diving at the Yugoslav’s feet, the striker changed the game and his life with three touches. One to round the ‘keeper, another to set himself, and the third to calmly lift the ball into an empty net with his left foot. Then he ran, purple collar flapping away. Pointing at no one in particular but with an air of conviction, the man from Montenegro, in a period tainted marked by turmoil in his homeland, was making the biggest stage in club football his own.

With the clock ticking down, Edgar Davids squirmed through the Real Madrid defence but squandered his strike, shooting straight at Bodo Illgner from less than 12 yards out. When the final whistle went, Mijatović, who had been replaced in the closing minutes by Šuker, sprinted on to the pitch to join the celebrations. He was the hero of the hour.

A few weeks later, he was the villain. Missing a penalty to put Yugoslavia ahead in their last 16 tie with the Netherlands in Toulouse, with a place in the World Cup quarter-finals on the line, Davids didn’t miss this time and sent the Dutch through. Mijatović, by now the captain, was part of the Yugoslavia team humbled in Rotterdam by the co-hosts Netherlands at Euro 2000.

Predrag Mijatović’s name is still a highly esteemed one among Madridistas and, having returned as the club’s director of football in 2006, he has left quite the legacy. In the cut-throat world on Real Madrid, continental success is the ultimate priority and when you’re the one who brings the big-eared trophy back to the city, you’re never forgotten.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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