Red Star Belgrade 1973-74 – the team that changed English football

IN 1978, Chelsea chairman Brian Mears, desperate to change the fortunes of his ailing club, started to court Miljan Miljanić the Yugoslav coach rated among the best in Europe.

Miljanić sat in the Stamford Bridge stands, dark glasses shielding him from the autumn sun and watched a calamitous first-half display by Chelsea against Bolton Wanderers. For a man used to rubbing shoulders with Europe’s footballing elite – he had coached Real Madrid between 1974 and 1977 – the prospect of fighting relegation at a club that was clearly in decline was not enticing. Chelsea came back to win 4-3 and Miljanić told Mears, “With spirit like that, you can get out of trouble.” Miljanić  had his escape route and within weeks, he was appointed manager of Yugoslavia’s national team. He was wrong about Chelsea, though, for they endured five years in the old Football League second division.

The fact that Miljanić was Chelsea’s target was not just a publicity stunt – it was the second time in three years that a London club had been seduced by his methods. Arsenal, when they were looking to replace Bertie Mee, had toyed with the idea of installing him as coaching supremo at Highbury. English football was not quite ready for such a bold and forward-thinking hiring, but if he had joined either Arsenal or Chelsea, he might have had the sort of lasting impact that Arsene Wenger had two decades later.

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He made his name with Red Star Belgrade, a club that enjoyed a reputation in the cold war years of being one of the trickiest eastern European teams to play against, especially on their own turf. Red Star won the European Cup in 1991 amid the troubled region the Balkans became, but in the 1970s, under the charismatic  Miljanić, they were more influential than many people realise.

In some ways, Red Star were distant and cautious relatives of the Dutch/German Total Football axis. Given the politics of the time, they were never going to be as revered as the pseudo-hippy Dutch or the ruthlessly efficient Germans, but Yugoslavia was considered to be “user friendly” Communist – people “even” went on holiday there, stepping into the unknown with their Ambre Solaire, telling themselves it was a cut-price Italy.

In 1970-71, football pundits, including the much revered Geoffrey Green from The Times, predicted a Red Star win in the European Cup, a victory that would have made them the first eastern bloc team to lift the trophy. The team had shown some quality in beating Hungarian champions Ujpest Dozsa 4-2 on aggregate, coming back from a 2-0 defeat in Budapest, UT Arad of Romania 6-1 and Carl Zeiss Jena of East Germany 6-4 on aggregate. In the semi-final, they were paired with Greek champions Panathinaikos, who were managed by none other than Ferenc Puskas. The media expected Red Star to reach the final, especially after a Stevan Ostojic hat-trick helped them to a 4-1 first-leg win. But in the second leg, Red Star capitulated and were beaten 3-0, allowing Panathinaikos to win on away goals. Most people agreed that Red Star versus Ajax would have been a far more interesting final than the emerging Dutchmen against the Greeks.

Generally, Red Star didn’t travel well away from home, but in Yugoslavia, they won the league title four times in six years between 1967-68 and 1972-73. They also lifted the Cup three times in that period.

It was a two-legged tie with English champions Liverpool in 1973-74 that really woke people up to the technical brilliance of Yugoslavian players. The national team had always been seen as a team of “nearly men” that could challenge the more fancied nations like Germany, Italy and England. In 1968, they had reached the final of the European Championship, with England beaten 1-0 in the semi-final. The players who knocked England out, Dragan Džajić, was a Red Star hero and finished third in the 1968 European Footballer of the Year voting. Even the likes of Pele enthused about Džajić: “He is a Balkan miracle, a real wizard. I’m just sorry he’s not Brazilian, because I have never witnessed such a natural footballer.” In 2013, he was named the greatest Yugoslav player of all time.

Yugoslavia missed out on both the 1966 and 1970 World Cups, but they were in Germany in 1974 and hosted the 1976 Euros. Consistency was always their problem, but as far as raw skill and ability was concerned, Yugoslav players were among the best. Not for nothing were they nicknamed “the Brazilians of Europe”.

Džajić didn’t play in the two games with Liverpool in the autumn of 1973, but Red Star were built around the pace and trickery that he brought to the team. Miljanić’s team relied on swift counter-attacking and precision passing. It was largely Serbian, but also included Montenegrins like Nikola Jovanovic, later of Manchester United,  and Macedonians.

Miljanić was a big fan of Rinus Michels’ Ajax and the West German team of 1972. He bought into the “total” aspect of their ethos: “It is necessary that the player in possession of the ball finds himself as often as possible with a very rich choice of several solutions. This can be done only when a team’s players all take part in the attacking play and in defence.” He was also a scholar of English football, in particular the Tottenham “double” winning team of 1961. Following the 1966 World Cup, he spent quite a bit of time with Bill Nicholson, manager of Tottenham, to study the Spurs way.

Miljanić’s approach was perhaps a little more defence-minded than the Dutch and Germans, but Red Star could produce devastating football when they stepped up a gear. Liverpool were beaten twice by 2-1 and Bill Shankly and his backroom staff were devastated. Red Star had been too “smart” for Liverpool. The 4-2 aggregate defeat prompted Liverpool to reassess the way they played in Europe. What followed was a more patient, passing style that might not have always entertained, but demonstrated a more continental, “game management” style that would shape Liverpool’s football for 15 years and raise the bar for English football.

Red Star, after beating Shankly’s men, went out of the competition in the next round. But the games with Liverpool did bring Red Star’s players to the attention of other European clubs. Yugoslavia introduced a new market economy in the late 1960s and although the concept of buying and selling footballers was alien to a Communist bloc nation,  players were permitted to travel abroad when they were 28, so as the Red Star team reached their more advanced years, they were snapped up by French clubs – Ognjen Petrovic (Bastia), Kiril Dojcinovski (Troyes), Slobodan Jankovic (Lens), Stanislav Karasi (Lille) or, like Vladislav Bogicevic (New York Cosmos), Petar Baralic (Tampa Bay Rowdies) and Vojin Lazarevic (Toronto), they went further afield to North America.

Miljan Miljanić left Red Star in 1974 to take up a lucrative offer from Real Madrid. A few years earlier, he had received an offer of USD 50,000 from Brazil to prepare the great team of 1970 for the Mexico World Cup, but he elected to continue the work he had started at Red Star, where an academy had been established that yielded almost 150 players. At Real, he won La Liga in his first two seasons but after 1976-77 ended without silverware, he resigned.

History will look at Red Star’s 1991 team as the pinnacle of the club’s history, but the line-up from the early to mid-1970s taught a wily and opinionated old Scot how to reshape his team for an assault on Europe’s top prize. They still talk about that night in Liverpool in November 1973 as a catalyst for a new era for English football. From 1977 to 1984, English teams won the European Cup seven times. Prior to 1977, it had happened once. Red Star Belgrade and Miljanić clearly taught us something.

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Let’s hear it for the French

SOMETIMES football’s administrators seem to adopt the sort of approach that eccentric writer William Burroughs used to concoct sentences when he was penning his novels. He would cut up various words and come up with very creative passages of prose, often out of nowhere. When it comes to future tournament structures, such as the bloated 48-team World Cup and now an idea to introduce an additional European club competition concept, you have to wonder if the backroom staff sit around a table and try to make the football calendar even more crowded in a very similar, random fashion.

But the people governing football really cannot win – they preside over a pastime that millions and millions believe is their personal property. It’s a ludicrous idea that a sport that is now a fully-fledged business sector is some sort of sporting socialism, because it is as much a child of capitalism as the most aggressive form of commerce. The governing bodies are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The French are getting some criticism at the moment, largely due to their handling of the UEFA Champions League, but it is fair to give credit to a nation that really created the framework that modern football adheres to. The World Cup, European Championship and European Cup (Champions League) are all ideas that were germinated in France. Men like Jules Rimet (pictured in 1951), Henry Delaunay and Gabriel Hanot helped to shape modern football. And all this despite the fact that French football, on the international stage, has been an inconsistent player – only recently enhanced by the winning of the European Championship in 1984 and 2000 and the World Cups in 1998 and 2018.

Let’s not deny France has had some great players down the years: Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Raymond Kopa, Just Fontaine and Thierry Henry to name but a few. France was among the forerunners of intelligent writers on the game. L’Equipe and France Football were among the first “serious” publications to examine football and both were instrumental in the development of the European game. France Football was the sponsor of the Ballon D’Or, while L’Equipe, a sports paper, was a big advocate of the European Cup.

Rimet was a liberal character full of ideals. He founded the Paris club, Red Star, in 1897 and was one of the people behind the formation of FIFA. At an early stage, he nurtured the idea of a global professional football competition, but had to make do with an amateur competition at the 1908 Olympic Games. It wasn’t until 1928 that the idea of the World Cup started to take shape. The choice of venue, Uruguay, was controversial, but it was largely due to the fact that the Uruguayans had agreed to pay all related costs. Rimet, along with the competing teams, all travelled to South America on the Italian ship, SS Conte Verde and for the entire voyage, Rimet carried his trophy in a bag alongside him.

Delaunay was Rimet’s friend and colleague. He was also involved in the foundation of the World Cup, but in 1927, proposed the inauguration of a European competition. It wasn’t until 1960 that the first European Nations Cup took place. The trophy bears his name. Gabriel Hanot has never had his name on a trophy as far as I know, but he was the instigator of discussions around European integration. Hanot, a journalist and former footballer, was inspired by the pre-war Mitropa Cup and Copa Latina (Latin Cup). But it was also the claim made by Wolverhampton Wanderers that they were “champions of the World”, after beating Hungary’s Honved at a floodlit Molineux, that spurred him on. One senses that the French did not like this self-appointed title and wanted to prove the Brits wrong. Interestingly, England spurned the idea of the competition, much as they had the World Cup. Elsewhere, it was warmly received.

So why were the French so influential in the development of the pan-European game?  I suggest it echoed the desire to create an integrated continent in the aftermath of World War Two. The French were at the heart of the Common Market and likewise, England’s own reluctance in 1955 to allow Chelsea to enter the European Cup was as “isolationist” as Britain’s initial nervousness about an economic union. Actually, Manchester United’s Matt Busby saw the way things were heading and his club entered in 1956-57, having seen how successful the first European Cup had been.

Let’s remember, too, the French didn’t do all this to feather their own nests. Only one French club, Marseille, has won the competition and down the years, they have never been one of the dominant countries. Paris St. Germain may have something to say about that going forward.

Organised football had its roots in England and the FA Cup is arguably the world’s oldest competition of its kind. But the global expansion of the game is as much a product of French creativity and the vision of a handful of football administrators who today would be derided as “suits”.