In the second instalment of our Balkan Trilogy, we look at the last team from Eastern Europe to win the European Cup, Red Star Belgrade.
Before Glasnost and the Yugoslav war, teams from the east were difficult opponents. The “crack” eastern European teams used to present a real hurdle in European competition, especially in the away leg, when sorties into the Eastern Bloc were invariably described as a “trip into the unknown”. Clubs like Ferencvaros and Ujpest Dosza (Hungary), CSKA and Levski Sofia (Bulgaria), Rapid Bucharest (Romania), Dukla and Sparta Prague (Czechoslavakia) and of course, East Germany’s Carl Zeiss Jena and Dynamo Dresden were not easy draws. But at the top of the pile was Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia, now Serbia.
There’s an argument that Red Star, winners of the 1991 European Cup, was a team that should have gone down in history as one of the true greats. The Yugoslav war put paid to Red Star’s bid to dominate Europe, but that only serves to enhance the legend of a very talented team.
Red Star, or to use their Serbian name, Crvena Zvezda, were the pre-eminent team in old Yugoslavia when they won the European Cup. They were on the way to their 18th league title in 1991 and had secured the championship six times in 10 years. In 1973-74, they provided a short, sharp shock to a Liverpool team that would go on to enjoy unprecedented success in Europe between 1977-1984. Red Star’s rapid attacking style, a close cousin of Total Football, silenced the Liverpool Kop.
Red Star were something of a flagship for Yugoslavia, so their team was not a representation of historic roots. They had players from Montenegro, Croatia, Serbia and Romanians. In 1991, Red Star beat Grasshoppers Zurich 5-2 on aggregate, Rangers (4-0) and Dynamo Dresden (5-1), before meeting Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. Red Star won 2-1 in the Olympic Stadium, taking a narrow lead back to Belgrade. A 90th minute own goal by Bayern’s Augenthaler gave Red Star a 2-2 draw in the second leg to set up a final with Olympique Marseille. It was a disappointing final, settled on penalties after a goalless draw.
The Red Star team included the supremely gifted midfielder Robert Prosinecki, who would later play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, Dejan Savicevic who made his reputation in Italy, and Darko Pencev, a prolific goalscorer. Quite a few members of the team that won the European Cup exported their talent – Yugoslavians actually travelled very well.
Red Star’s domination of Yugoslav football was played out against a backdrop of unease. Domestic football was in turmoil as crowd violence – motivated by the racial tension prevalent at the time – and match-fixing allegations blighted the game. But in December 1991, Red Star did win the World Club Championship, beating Colo-Colo of Chile 3-0 in Tokyo.
Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, Red Star have never managed to recreate their golden period and they are just as well known for the crowd trouble that often accompanies their games. With Partizan Belgrade now the dominant force, Red Star seem unable to maintain any sense of stability. They’ve had three managers this season, including Prosinecki, a Croat, who spoke of his desire to bring back Red Star’s “offensive and beautiful” style. Both he and his replacement, Aleksander Jankovic have left the club, so Red Star have turned to Ricardo Sa Pinto, former Portuguese international. Sa Pinto is unlikely to wrestle the Serbian title away from neigbours Partizan, who are 11 points clear of Red Star.
With debts approaching £ 43million, and players’ wages in arrears, Red Star continue to limp on in the shadow of their reputation. It’s enough to make any Marakana Stadium (yes, it’s named after the famous Brazilian home of football), regular weep – but the region has had its fair share of tears. Perhaps one day, they will be tears of joy as Red Star rise again…..