Football: Red Star's European Cup triumph 25 years ago - Yugoslav glory and requiem

Dragan Dzajic, Red Star Belgrade legend and officially Serbia's best football player of all time, on April 26, 2016, in Belgrade.
Dragan Dzajic, Red Star Belgrade legend and officially Serbia's best football player of all time, on April 26, 2016, in Belgrade.PHOTO: AFP
Former Red Star Belgrade coach Ljupko Petrovic poses during an interview on April 27, 2016, in Belgrade.
Former Red Star Belgrade coach Ljupko Petrovic poses during an interview on April 27, 2016, in Belgrade.PHOTO: AFP

BELGRADE (AFP) - Dragan Dzajic hid his eyes before the last shot in Red Star Belgrade's European Cup final 25 years ago and opened them to joyous celebrations, but the triumph would soon turn sour.

Darko Pancev scored a fifth penalty to secure the Yugoslav side a 5-3 shoot-out win over Marseille of France.

Dzajic, who was Red Star's technical director at the time, had planned for that win on May 29, 1991 to launch a new era of domination of European football.

But history dictated otherwise. Red Star were built around a team of stars from different republics in the communist federation that was on the road to collapse.

Goalkeeper-captain Stevan Stojanovic, who saved Manuel Amoros's penalty, was a Kosovo-Serb, like coach Ljubomir 'Ljupko' Petrovic. Refik Sabanovic was a Bosnian, Pancev from Macedonia, Robert Prosinecki from Croatia, Dejan Savicevic from Montenegro.

Dzajic said the tension of the moment at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari left him exhausted. After Pancev's decisive penalty, he opened his eyes to fall into the arms of coach Petrovic.

The European title had eluded Dzajic as a player and he was one of the best to ever come out of Yugoslavia. But he had been building this generation of new players for five years to win the European Cup, now the Champions League.

He was expecting a long reign. "That was the plan," he told AFP. "Red Star has been working for a long time to reach the top and when it was reached, the country vanished," he added.

On the eve of the Bari match, at another stadium at Kranjceviceva street in the Croatian capital Zagreb, the Croatian National Guard staged its first parade. On June 25, 1991, Croatia and Slovenia proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia, in moves opposed by Belgrade which controlled the Yugoslav army.

The multi-ethnic federation founded by Josip Broz Tito after World War II imploded in wars that up to 1999 claimed more than 130,000 lives, mostly civilians.

"The players had no idea that the country would disappear," Dzajic said.

"We were only thinking about sport," said Stojanovic. Others had an inkling of what was happening in the country however.

He remembered a club official whom he had spoken with about an offer from Belgian side Antwerp. "He replied: 'Kids, there is nothing here any more. "Very nasty things will happen. Go to find work elsewhere.'

"A team that we have been building for five years disappeared overnight."

Petrovic recalled: "We had plans, we wanted to sign Davor Suker from Dinamo Zagreb."

Suker wanted to move as well.

Ljupko was aiming to "rule two, three years in European football".

"We had no problems to attract players from across the country, Muslims and Croats. We selected the best," Dzajic said.

The club, where he remains the top scorer, is now only a shadow of what it once was. The same as its Marakana stadium, with its huge 100,000 capacity.

The graffiti on the walls of the stadium, with paint peeling off, are in contrast with the legendary games of Dzajic or Dragan Stojkovic, or the history of the club founded in 1945 by anti-fascist youth.

"Justice for Uros" reads one, referring to a hooligan jailed after beating and seriously injuring a policeman. Another portrays a hooded hooligan wielding a stick. Above the stadium is a colonnaded house in neo-kitsch style.

It is the home of Serbian warlord Zeljko 'Arkan' Raznatovic, killed in 2000. Before becoming a paramilitary leader Arkan led 'Delije', fans of the northern stand.

Among them he recruited some of his "Tigers", notorious paramilitaries who led ethnic cleansing campaigns during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

Red Star have just won their 27th Yugoslav or Serbian national title. However, not many are interested. It was won in empty stadiums against insignificant rivals.

Serbia's football and Red Star, its most prominent representative, have never returned to the glorious days of the 1990s.

"I cannot believe that I am watching matches that I do after having played and watched the matches that I had played in and watched," sighed Dzajic.

"We only have this title. If Yugoslavia had survived, there would have been others," he insisted.

The 69-year-old concluded that "no company lost as much as Red Star" with the disappearance of Yugoslavia.