This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Siniša Mihajlović had endured the game from hell. Long considered one of Yugoslavia’s most gifted players, the Lazio defender, renowned for his vision, leadership, and wondrous left foot as much as his combustible temper, seemed to have left all the former qualities somewhere in Rome as disciplinary lapses placed his country in a perilous position.
The nadir of Mihajlović’s afternoon would arrive on the hour mark. After a torturous 60 minutes blighted by needless bookings, referee confrontations and catastrophic defensive errors, the frustrated former European Cup-winning sweeper was dismissed following a petulant shove on Sašo Udovič. With Slovenia already 3-0 up and their former countrymen down to ten men, commentator Mark Lawrenson seemed to echo everyone’s sentiments that the game was as good as over when he sarcastically quipped to colleague John Motson: “I think they’re [Slovenia] favourites, John.”
The reality couldn’t have been more different. The final half-hour of this Balkan barnstormer would turn the game on its head, in the process providing the type of entertainment befitting of the 15,000 impassioned fans who succeeded in creating a fervent atmosphere in a half-full Stade du Pays de Charleroi.
If the draw itself had cultivated a sense of theatre by pitting Slovenia, in their first-ever game at a major competition, against the country they declared independence from less than a decade earlier, then the spectacle on the pitch would increase the drama tenfold.
Inspired by creative linchpin Zlatko Zahovič, Slovenia would run their heavily favoured opponents ragged for much of the first half, their direct play down both wings causing the Yugoslavian full-backs endless problems while Zahovič pulled the strings up top. Their first sign of intent came from a free-kick three minutes in when a Zahovič layoff was struck inches wide by defender Željko Milinovič.
Despite boasting the might of Predrag Mijatović, Mihajlović and Vladimir Jugović in their starting eleven, Yugoslavia looked sluggish compared to their unfancied opponents, who were constantly threatening with dangerous through balls and well-worked set pieces.
The Slovenians would get their just desserts in the 23rd minute when Amir Karić’s whipped cross was met by Zahovič; the Olympiakos attacker’s exquisitely guided header flew past goalkeeper Ivica Kralj and into the bottom corner.
The rest of the half continued in the same pattern with Zahovič missing the chance to double his side’s lead when his one on one effort was saved by Kralj. Concerned by his side’s faltering display, Yugoslavia coach Vujadin Boškov rolled the dice early introducing esteemed veteran Dragan Stojkovič in place of Lazio midfielder Dejan Stankovič.
While the half-time whistle granted an out of sorts Yugoslavia some welcome respite, it would again be the Slovenians who grabbed the impetus at the start of the second period. If anything, the tournament’s 150-1 rank outsiders were only increasing their dominance as the game progressed, and it wouldn’t be long before they found themselves two ahead.
Following the blueprint of the first goal, Zahovič would this time turn provider; his excellent set-piece delivery finding Miran Pavlin whose deft header made a spectator out of Kralj as it sailed into the bottom right corner. Just seconds prior, Boškov had made another change in attacking personnel, replacing the ineffectual Darko Kovačevič with former Aston Villa striker Savo Miloševič in a move that now looked too little too late.
Minutes later, the already ecstatic Slovenian fans were sent into dreamland when Zahovič was put clean through on goal thanks to a woefully misplaced pass from Mihajlović. With the goal at his mercy, the mercurial playmaker coolly slotted the ball past Krajl before sprinting toward his buoyant countrymen in the stands.
Tensions would boil over on the hour mark when Mihajlović received his second yellow card in the space of five minutes, capping off what looked to be a humiliating evening for his country.
With even the most cautious of Slovenian fans poised to celebrate an iconic victory, the wounded Yugoslavians would alter the narrative of the match with a famous comeback. The first signs of life in The Plavi were evident in the 67th minute when Milosević tapped home an open goal after the Slovenians failed to deal with a corner.
The goal seemed to rob the leaders of their composure, with the once effective possession play replaced by aimless clearances that allowed Yugoslavia to attack with abandon. Three minutes later, the ten men would strike again; Ljubinko Drulović finishing clinically from 12 yards out after a Mjatović ball from out wide to amp up the pressure on the crumbling Slovenians.
By the 73rd minute, the most improbable of comebacks was complete. A jinking run down the right flank from Drulović was followed with a perfect pass across the goal to Milosević who converted his second open goal of the game. The equaliser completely reversed the mood in the ground; now it was the Yugoslavian fans, their faces masks of defiant aggression, who climbed the fence at the front of the stand and celebrated while shell-shocked Slovenians were left to ponder how they’d let the most favourable of situations slip from their grasp in the space of six minutes.
Despite Slovenia being firmly on the ropes, it would be they who had the best chance snatch victory late on when Milinović’s stoppage-time header was cleared off the line by Ivan Dudić with the full-time whistle following shortly after.
Although the game was undoubtedly an emotional roller-coaster for both sets of fans, Yugoslavia and Slovenia delighted the neutrals in a scintillating clash that will live long in the memory. Any fears that the unfortunate and often tragic political history between the two nations may overshadow events on the field were dispelled by the two sides who produced a back and forth battle that will be rightly remembered as one of the classic European Championship matches.
By James Sweeney @james_sweeney92