Manuel Veth –
Few would have believed it possible at the start of the 1990-91 campaign, after a humble pre-season tour of England against lower-league teams, but Red Star Belgrade were about to embark upon a journey that would cement their place in European football history and, at the same time, turn the components of their talented young squad into household names.
Having progressed through the group stages of the 2017-18 UEFA Europa League, Red Star Belgrade are considered to be rank outsiders to win the competition, as their 150/1 football betting odds with Paddy Power would suggest. On 19th September 1990, they were held to a disappointing 1-1 first leg home draw in the opening round of the European Cup against Swiss side Grasshopper Zurich; in the last season, the tournament was solely knock-out based. Then, as now, Red Star were not expected to enjoy lengthy participation in continental competition.
However, a phenomenal display in the return leg in Switzerland proved to be the catalyst, as Red Star ran riot at the Hardturm stadium in Zurich, crushing their hosts 1-4 thanks to a Darko Pančev opener, plus a brace of goals by Robert Prosinečki coming either side of a Duško Radinović finish. After crushing Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers 4-1 on aggregate in the second round, people started to take Red Star seriously.
A massive crowd of around 100,000 at the Marakana in Belgrade demonstrated the belief of Red Star fans as their side swept aside Dynamo Dresden, then of East Germany, with an attacking display the rival side simply couldn’t handle. Prosinečki, Binić, and Savićević scored the goals that provided their team with a comfortable quarter-final first leg lead. In the return leg, Dresden grabbed an early goal but Savićević and Pančev struck back, sparking unrest amongst the home fans, leading to the match being abandoned in the 78th minute and UEFA awarding a 0-3 win to Red Star.
With reigning champions AC Milan eliminated in the previous round, Bayern Munich were now the clear favourites and the rivals Red Star were paired with for the semi-finals. There were no problems with the West German crowd but, nevertheless, the home fans were far from happy when their team were surprisingly defeated 1-2 thanks to second-half goals by Pančev and Savićević.
Siniša Mihajlović got Red Star off to a great start in the second leg, though Bayern Munich weren’t about to give in. Klaus Augenthaler and Manfred Bender created a spectacular second-half comeback for the visitors, levelling the tie at 2-2 on aggregate. However, with the game seemingly destined for extra-time and with a place in the final at stake, Augenthaler was the protagonist again and for the wrong reasons this time, scoring an own-goal that secured a miraculous and dramatic victory for Red Star in the 90th minute.
Despite their excellent run to the final, Red Star were still considered the European Cup underdogs. They were about to take on a fearsome Marseille side, featuring footballing legends such as Jean Tigana, Jean-Pierre Papin, Carlos Mozer, Chris Waddle, and even an iconic Yugoslav star amongst their ranks, Dragan Stojković, who had moved to the French club the previous summer.
Preparation was clearly going to be key for this encounter, so Red Star arrived in Italy six days early, setting up base in the town of Monopoli, 40km south of the final venue in Bari. Given the growing interest in their players from richer clubs throughout Europe, the club practically quarantined their squad in the hotel, apart from their wives and girlfriends, away from the media spotlight, and with phone calls from their rooms banned.
Although there were great expectations for an open, exciting, attacking final, both managers opted to go on the defensive. “If we attack them, we’ll leave ourselves open for counter-attacks,” manager Ljupko Petrović told his Red Star players, in the later recollections of Siniša Mihajlović, who admitted that “it was the most boring final match in European Cup history,” looking back on the game some twenty years later in a 2011 interview. The inevitable result after ninety minutes and extra-time, of course, was a 0-0 draw.
The tension couldn’t have been any higher as the final went to a penalty shoot-out. Marseille were immediately on the back foot when the spot-kick by Manuel Amoros was saved by Stevan Stojanović. Red Star didn’t miss any of theirs, despite the best efforts of French keeper, Pascal Olmeta. The penalty precision of Prosinečki, Binić, Belodedici, Mihajlović, and Pančev wouldn’t be denied. The Yugoslav side had achieved their finest footballing hour, and the manner in which they eventually lifted the European Cup didn’t really matter to the players or their army of fans.
Sadly, for Red Star Belgrade, this glorious triumph and the crumbling political situation would also herald the beginning of the end for this supremely talented young squad of players. As war began to rage in the Balkans and Yugoslavia tore itself apart, within just twelve months of featuring in the European Cup victory, the stellar squad of players scattered to clubs throughout the continent, with the most prominent stars heading to Italy and Spain.
Looking back at the 1990-91 Red Star team, one can only wonder what they might have continued to achieve together, had circumstance not stood in their path. Almost thirty years later, the European Cup win still stands out as an unlikely but richly deserved success for the club, and one on which a lasting legacy continues to be built, as the current crop of talented youngsters aspire towards putting their club firmly back on the continental football map.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at Bundesliga.com. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.