Those were the days when teams from Eastern Europe were a powerhouse in World Football. Hungary and Austria gave football a lot to relish. The former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were feared and respected. The Polish side were highly gifted and threatened teams like Brazil, Italy, France, and Argentina.
Then there was a team named Yugoslavia who were regarded as the Brazil of Eastern Europe and in the mid 80s they came up with a bunch of talented individuals, who were expected to fulfill the expectations of a nation in the fourteenth FIFA World Cup in Italy.
Again, those were the days when Yugoslavia, as a country, was traveling through the choppy waters. The issues began in Slovenia, although in reality the Yugoslav War – what became an umbrella term for the wars in the Balkans throughout the 1990s – was almost inevitable when Josip Broz Tito died in 1980.
The breakdown of Yugoslavia
Under Tito, nationalism in Yugoslavia had been ruthlessly repressed following the ascent to power of the communists after World War Two.
Yugoslavia was set up as a federation of six republics, with borders drawn along ethnic and historical lines: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. In addition, two autonomous provinces were established within Serbia: Vojvodina and Kosovo. Each of the republics had its own branch of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia party and a ruling elite, and any tensions were solved on the federal level.
The Yugoslav model of state organization, as well as a “middle way” between planned and liberal economy, had been a relative success, and the country experienced a period of strong economic growth and relative political stability up to the 1980s, under the rule of president-for-life Josip Broz Tito.
After his death in 1980, the weakened system of the federal government was left unable to cope with rising economic and political challenges.
In the 1980s, Albanians of Kosovo started to demand that their autonomous province be granted the status of a constituent republic, starting with the 1981 protests. Ethnic tensions between Albanians and Kosovo Serbs remained high over the whole decade, which resulted in the growth across Yugoslavia of Serb opposition to the high autonomy of provinces and an ineffective system of consensus at the federal level, which was seen as an obstacle for Serb interests.
In 1987, Slobodan Milošević came to power in Serbia, and through a series of populist moves acquired de facto control over Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro, garnering a high level of support among Serbs for his centralist policies. Milošević was met with opposition by party leaders of the western republics of Slovenia and Croatia, who also advocated greater democratization of the country in line with the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe. The League of Communists of Yugoslavia dissolved in January 1990 along federal lines. Republican communist organizations became separate socialist parties.
During 1990, the socialists (former communists) lost power to ethnic separatist parties in the first multi-party elections held across the country, except in Serbia and Montenegro, where Milošević and his allies won.
Nationalist rhetoric on all sides became increasingly heated.
Between June 1991 and April 1992, four republics declared independence (only Serbia and Montenegro remained federated), but the status of ethnic Serbs outside Serbia and Montenegro, and that of ethnic Croats outside Croatia, remained unsolved. After a string of inter-ethnic incidents, the Yugoslav Wars ensued, first in Croatia and then, most severely, in multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina. The wars left long-term economic and political damage in the region, still felt there decades later.
And, their football team had never been like the force they were.
The 80s were tumultuous, but Yugoslav football moved on
In 1987, Yugoslavia won the FIFA World Youth Championship held in Chile.
Originally, the team itself had been sent solely to make up the numbers – a number of key players such as Aleksandar Dordevic, Igor Berecko, Dejan Vukicevic, Igor Pejovic, Seho Sabotic, and Boban Babunski were either injured or suspended, and Siniša Mihajlovic, Vladimir Jugovic, and Alen Boksic were told they would gain more by playing in the Yugoslav First League.
Red Star decided that they wanted Robert Prosinecki for a vital cup tie and attempted to have him return home.
After FIFA’s ruling that Prosinecki was to stay, he became one of the players of the tournament.
However, this was no one-man team. Prosinečki was also aided by players such as Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker, Robert Jarni, and Predrag Mijatovic. Defying all expectations from Yugoslav officials, the young stars easily finished top of a group that featured Chile, Australia and Togo. In the quarterfinals they faced Brazil, but the Selecao were beaten 2-1 and in the semis, East Germany were beaten as well. In the finals, former West Germany were beaten on penalties – Yugoslavia, considered as the underdogs, won the tournament by exhibiting character and style.
These young talents would be included in the senior squad for the World Cup Qualifiers of Italia 90. Yugoslavia performed extremely well in the Qualifiers and topped the groups.
The team centered around the brilliant Dragan Stojcovic. He was a classic number 10, who was known in particular for his vision, technique, creativity, dribbling skills, and passing ability. Above all, he was able to maintain a balance between central midfield and forward position, which enabled him to score goals. He was a rue legend of Yugoslavia and Red Star Belgrade.
He is one of the five players to be awarded the title Star of the Red Star. He is widely considered to have never shown his true potential in Europe as injury prevented him from establishing himself at Marseille over the long term. Despite this, there is consensus among critics that he displayed an extraordinary ability throughout his career in spite of his chronic injuries.
Stojkovic was well aided by players such as Prosinecki, Pancev, Savicevic, Vujivic, Brnovic, Susic, Boban, and other skillful players.
Chaos before flying to Italy
In 1990, Yugoslavia was in a total mess. The crisis began to worsen. Still, the team prepared for Italia 90.
Yugoslavia went to the finals in Italy with experienced players as well as some of the young players who had been crowned under-21 champions three years earlier.
However, an important name was missing. Zvonimir Boban, who was widely seen as the most talented footballer in the country, was not included because of an incident that had occurred before a Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star game two months earlier.
The tensions between Serbs and Croats in the country had spread to the Maksimir Stadium, and what happened on the field was a mirror image of what was going on in the country at large. Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic, who would later be tried as a war criminal, was the leader of the Red Star fans.
Dinamo were the favourite team of Franjo Tuđman, who would go on to govern Croatia from 1991 onwards. The tension was inevitable.
Despite the match being played in Zagreb, security forces consisted of Serbian police officers. Instead of preventing the Serb-Croat aggression in the stands, they supported the Serbian side and caused an escalation of the events. Boban kicked a policeman who was trying to attack Dinamo supporters on the field, later becoming a symbol for Croatia.
However, his actions would have a major impact on his international career. The Yugoslavian Football Federation suspended the player for six months; as a result, he wasn’t selected for the 1990 World Cup.
The Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star game was for many the beginning of the Yugoslavian Civil War. What Boban had to say about the incident seems to support this opinion. “I risked everything that day; my life, my career, and all that fame would bring. It was all for one thing. For Croatia.”
Yugoslavia landed on Italy with fragile morale despite having players, who were talented enough. But the absence of Boban loomed large in the minds of everyone.
The Italian adventure
Yugoslavia’s first match was against the team, which they defeated in the finals of Youth Cup in 1987 – West Germany. That German side of 1990 was a brute force. They came with their stars and determination to win the title and from the word go, their power football left Yugoslavia is tatters. Lothar Matthaus opened the floodgates and Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudu Voller joined the party. Yugoslavia digested 4 goals.
That battering at the hands of Germany hinted Yugoslavia were still reeling from what is happening in their country.
But the brilliant coach Ivica Osim decided to regroup his men. He motivated the unit by emphasizing on giving one last shot for their people in the country, who deserved some sort of joy amid the crisis.
Yugoslavia started to show their spark against Colombia and UAE.
The Colombian challenge was overcome by a solitary goal, but the performance was much better than the previous, while UAE were simply steamrolled.
They qualified for the next round, where a brilliant Spanish side at Verona were waiting to welcome them.
Stojkovic conquers Verona
The game against Spain was a very tough one.
With 12 minutes remaining and the game goalless, a cross dropped invitingly towards Stojkovic’s right boot on the angle of the six-yard area.
Rather than accept the invitation to shoot and being aware of a sliding red jersey, Stojkovic cushioned the ball with his instep, took one more touch to draw the goalkeeper, and swept across the closing custodian for the lead.
Spain leveled soon after and so to a period of extra-time which was just three minutes old when Yugoslavia won a free-kick 25 yards from goal. Stojkovic took responsibility and bent right-footed around the wall and into the bottom corner to set up the last-eight tie with Argentina.
According to Osim, “You see the result and you see a positive result, so automatically you think it’s the best game of the tournament”.
“But also I think that game was special because Spain was always a football force. It was important in showing that we had the same number of good individuals as Spain. And it was the sort of game in which players could make sure they stood out from the crowd. Stojkovic did that, but even without that game he would have been a great player”.
Stojkovic produced a performance to rank alongside those of Paul Gascoigne and Lothar Matthaus and forever etch his place in World Cup folklore.
End of the journey
Osim said, “Srecko Katanec, who was a really, really important player for us, said ‘Please, don’t pick me’ a few hours before the game because he had received a threat in his city. He was afraid to walk around in Ljubljana because of threats. I can understand that’s not a nice position. How can he play? If he goes to play in Italy and his family stays in Ljubljana then they are under threat. I can’t persuade anybody not to think about that”.
Yugoslavia’s hurdle was Diego Maradona and his treacheries because Argentina advanced to the quarterfinals courtesy of a late Claudio Caniggia goal and Holy Water Scandal against the favorites Brazil.
That Argentina played negative and unimpressive football throughout the tournament – the idea was to catch the opposition in the counter or take the game to the penalties, where their goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea would do the rest.
The match would be decided via spot-kicks after a dull and boring 120 minutes.
Stojkovic, Brnovic, and Faruk Hadzibegic missed as Yugoslavia slipped out of the tournament. Stojkovic hit the crossbar, while Brnovic and Hadzibegic were denied by Goycochea.
End of a journey and a squad that also included Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, Darko Pancev, Dejan Savicevic, and Alen Boksic would never come together on the big stage again. They were expelled from Euro 92 as the war began, and by 1994 the federation had ceased to exist.
The young team of 1990 remains frozen forever in time, an unsullied force of amazing but unrealized potential.