Forgotten Trinkets – The Prisoners of War

In the third episode of this series, Subhodip Basu follows the fortunes of the war-ravaged Yugoslav national team through the late 80s and 90s

The Prisoners of War: Yugoslavia 1990-98

Yugoslavia, a consistent underperformer in major tournaments, gave glimpses of turning over a new leaf in the late 80s. First, its youth team won the FIFA World Youth Championship (now known as U-20 World Cup) in 1987. Then it had a moderately successful Italia ’90 followed by a virtual romp through the qualifying stage of Euro 1992. In the interim, Red Star Belgrade took the 1991 European Champions Cup. Then, sadly, came a very bloody civil war, leading to a ban by UEFA. The team disintegrated, but the players continued to glitter for their clubs across Europe. In this edition we look at the travails of the team that “never wanted to be”. Ironically, the protagonists in this story, perhaps would be least bothered by their lack of success as a team, as by the end of the millennium, war had driven the fissures too deep.

Youthful Surprise

Youth FIFA World Cup Champion 1987, Chile

The nucleus of this potentially great team germinated during the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile. This, despite missing as many as five first teamers including captain Aleksander Đorđević due to suspension and injuries, and keeping Siniša Mihajlović, Vladimir Jugović and Alen Bokšić at home. They did have a blond playmaker called Robert Prosinečki, who was to become the player of the tournament, and he was ably supported by Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker and Predrag Mijatović. They started with a 4-2 win over hosts Chile, before brushing aside Australia and Togo 4-0 and 4-1, respectively. Trouble followed as Red Star Belgrade suddenly woke up to ask for Prosinečki for a UEFA Cup tie. The players protested vehemently and FIFA President João Havelange intervened. Prosinečki duly obliged by curling a free-kick to eliminate Brazil in the quarters. They went on to beat both East and West Germany in the semi-final and final, respectively. In the latter match, they missed both Prosinečki and Mijatović through suspension but an inspired Boban gave them a lead and they finally won in penalties, no mean task, against West Germany. They gave all indications of a team-in-waiting as they demolished all known shortcomings of their predecessors by eliminating bigger teams, sticking together (as in the Prosinečki case), making light of missing players and, most importantly, keeping their nerve.

Balkan, Balkan, Burning Bright

To be fair, good parts often do not make a good football team. The players rarely played together and even when they did, due to all the war and violence, they (especially the Croats and Bosnians) could be scarcely expected to be motivated for giving their best. However, each was a star in their respective clubs. Like all great teams there was quality in almost all positions (save in goal, where Tomislav Ivković, Ivica Kralj and Dražen Ladić could at best be termed ‘goodish’).

Yugoslavia Team in World Cup 1990

However, any glimpse of mediocrity ended right there. In the early 90s, they had a pair of Serbian full-backs in the free-scoring Mirsad Baljić on left and the less adventurous Dragoljub Brnović on right. Later in the decade, they were superceded by an even more talented Croat pair of Robert Jarni and Igor Štimac. Jarni was world class. The original kingpin at sweeper was the Bosnian Faruk Hadžibegić, and anyone who watched their 1990 quarter-final with Argentina would stand testimony to how elegantly he rendered both Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia ineffective. Moreover, skilful additions just kept emerging in Slaven Bilić, Miroslav Đukić, Zvonimir Soldo, Robert Kovač and (occasionally) Siniša Mihajlović. The last, being the most consistent dead-ball shooter in his time.

The original kingpin at sweeper was the Bosnian Faruk Hadžibegić, and anyone who watched their 1990 quarter-final with Argentina would stand testimony to how elegantly he rendered both Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia ineffective.

Things kept getting better in midfield, where they could comfortably field up to two world class combinations at any time. As holding midfielders, they had Serbian Vladimir Jugović and Slovenian Srečko Katanec, stars for scudetto winning Juventus and Sampdoria, respectively. They were followed by younger Croats, Mario Stanić of Parma and Aljoša Asanović.  Attacking flair came from superstars Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki and above all Dragan “Piksi” Stojković. Piksi was unlucky to leave Red Star just before their golden run as well as miss the Marseille’s 1993 triumph due to injury (he also missed his international peak due to the UEFA ban). By 1998, Dejan Stanković was taking baby steps into stardom, and he is still setting and scoring stunning goals for Inter.

Most importantly, the Slavs were strong upfront where they have been often weak. Traditionally, their best attackers were either converted wingers like Dragan Džajić or inside forwards like Rajko Mitić. The 90s were an exception, which reinforces the belief that this team was a definite world beater. Their cornucopia of talent included brilliant “holes”, such as Montenegrin Dejan Savićević and Slovenian Zlatko Zahović, as well as penalty box monsters like Macedonian Darko Pančev and Serbian Predrag Mijatović. Last but not the least was the Croat pair of Davor Šuker and Alen Bokšić. All except Zahović, won at least one Champions League. Add the ageing but still clever Safet Sušić and a fast improving Bosnian, Hasan Salihamidžić on the wings and you have an attack that could succeed against all kinds of defence under all conditions.

Killing Fields

Clubs in former Yugoslavia, irrespective of their geography, had always been a symbol of anti-communist resistance. The Gravediggers of Partizan Belgrade, the Red Star ultras called Delije and Dynamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys were all treated by Marshal Josip Tito as virtual underground movements. Clubs like Hajduk of Split embodied Dalmatia like Barcelona does for Catalonia. As perestroika began to sweep East Europe, these fan groups, emboldened by the events, began to turn more nationalistic. It was inevitable that they shall play a role in the war years.

Scenes from Zagreb, May 13, 1990

The first big incident took place in Zagreb, Croatia, when Red Star met Dynamo on May 13, 1990, the last league game of the Yugoslavian league. Thousands of the Delije and the Bad Blue Boys fought both each other and the local police. The game of course was abandoned after 10 minutes, but not before Zagreb’s best player, Boban, kicked a policeman who was trying to prevent Croatian hooligans from attacking Red Star fans. The policeman, a Bosnian Muslim, ironically said later that he understood Boban’s act. Boban, now a Croat war poster boy, boldly declared later, in a documentary film The Last Yugoslavian Football TeamI would die for Croatia.” Needless to remind the readers, he conveniently avoided doing so during the war, being mostly entrenched instead at the San Siro.

Boban vs riot police, Zagreb

At the same time, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević was attempting to organize the apparently uncontrolled hooliganism to more useful ends and in due course enlisted Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan. During a derby with Partizan in 1992, Arkan’s group dressed in full uniform, took up positions in the north stand and started holding up signals such as ‘20 miles to Vukovar‘ and ‘Welcome to Vukovar‘ (Vukovar being a Croatian town that had apparently fallen to the Serbian army). Both sets of supporters were now united in hatred of a common enemy – the Croats. From this point, the ultras assumed control of football and the criminal underworld in the war-torn state. Arkan, who would eventually be assassinated in 2000, ran everything from ticket sales to foreign travel and intimidation of match officials. His recruited ‘Tigers’ fought the patriotic war, first in Croatia and later, in Kosovo.

Fire Sale

The hope that football will flourish when peace is restored, was to be a false mirage. Now, the attack came from the west. From the mid-90s, almost all the international players from Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia were playing abroad. In the 1996 Euro squad of Croatia, only keeper Ladić, defender Dario Šimić and half-back Asanovićwere from home clubs. Similarly for Yugoslavia in 1998, keeper Kralj and a still 19-year-old Stanković were the only players from domestic clubs in the regular eleven. Things only went steadily downhill from 1998.

Terrace attendance was no longer sufficient to fund clubs and television audience were glued to the more glamorous leagues where the best Balkans played. Hence, clubs in both Serbia and Croatia were short of funds, forcing them to sell off their best players thus rendering their domestic football with less skill and competitiveness. This vicious cycle, continues to affect all East European clubs even now, and the Balkan nations, due to war and violence were its biggest casualties. It’s worth reflecting on how this has affected East European national teams. Since 1990, in 12 major competitions (World Cup and Euro) they have managed zero wins, 1 final and four semi-finals. In a similar 12 events between 1966-88 it was 1 win, three finals and 7 semis.  The Slavs have been worst hit of all.

Serbian parliamentarian Zeljko Tomic, a committed Gravedigger, likes to relate the story of Mateja Kežman’s sale from Partizan to PSV Eindhoven. Partizan was supposed to receive new floodlights from Philips, the PSV owners. The lights, however, went missing en route, in all likelihood, being pocketed by an intermediary at the club’s expense.

Lost Legacy

There are countless talented teams which did not perform to their potential, but hardly anywhere did politics play such a cruel and uncontrollable role. Not just that, subsequent war and globalization of the football economy has virtually ruled out a revival. However, the stimulus to rate this team high is not based on emotions. Neither is it based on sheer talent, which admittedly they had in abundance.

They had a temperament to match, with most players being versatile enough to be successful for multiple clubs and multiple leagues. Majority were impact players for their clubs rather than being just a support player. Katanec, Jugović, Mihajlović, the Rossoneri trio of Savićević, Boban and Pančev were all very successful in Italy.  Bokšićand Stojković were part of Marseille’s superstar team while Real Madrid had Jarni, Mijatović and Šuker at various times. Let’s not forget a very old Stanković in Inter’s golden run almost a decade later. The combined transfer fee of their top 15 players in the 90s was in excess of €100m, a number almost similar to the top 15 of either Brazil, France or Germany who all won tournaments in that decade. Moreover, to hone this talent they could call on anyone amongst Bora Milutinović, Vujadin Boškov and Radomir Antić, three of the best in this decade.

World Cup 1998 : Croatia Team (l) and Yugoslavia Team (r)

Additionally, there was pride and team spirit in abundance, a key element in any successful team. With less than 50% of the original player pool, Croatia did make it to a World Cup semi-final with ageing and downhill players. The rest, playing for Yugoslavia, also had a decent run in 1998 World Cup and even in Euro 2000 with players who were even older! Yugoslavia once came back from three goals down in Euro 2000 while Croatia blanked old nemesis Germany by three goals in 1998. Years of responsibility in foreign clubs had made them hard-nosed professionals. They could be clever, even cynical when they needed to be (remember the Bilić dive to oust Laurent Blanc?). These players were made of sterner stuff!

Many political thinkers feel that both Brazil and Argentina were on the verge of civil war in the 60s and late 70s/ early 80s, respectively and football success worked as a great national glue as well as a legitimate diversion. If only Piksi had not missed the spot kick against Argentina, and the Slavs went on to make the finals in 1990 World Cup, perhaps a combined Balkan team would have lined up in 1992 Euro. Perhaps a football crazy population would have understood the power of unity and the futility of conflict. For now, we can only muse as we watch Luca Modrić wave delicate patterns at the Bernabéu.

Luca Modrić joins Real Madrid