Out of the shadow of the Iron Curtain, Red Star Belgrade are back
Serbian club return to Europe’s top table after the violence of war and communism
Red Star Belgrade’s coach Vladan Milojevic celebrates with his team after they beat Red Bull Salzburg to qualify for the Champions League group stages. Photo: Getty Images
Red Star Belgrade. A name that echoes with nostalgic resonance. After a 26-year absence, the Serbian champions are finally back in the Champions League group stages, where they have been pitted against Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli. Their most recent participation in the round-robin stage of European football’s elite competition came in 1992, the first year of the tournament’s new and revised – but not current – format.
Sanctions imposed on the back of a violent and bloody Balkan conflict, then in its infancy, meant they were forced to play their home matches outside what was then their home nation of Yugoslavia. Defeat against Anderlecht in a five-goal thriller meant the team of Sinisa Mihajlovic, Darko Pancev and Mitko Stojkovski finished behind Sampdoria, who advanced to the final where they lost to Barcelona.
Escalating violence in their homeland meant that less than a year after becoming the second side from behind the Iron Curtain to win the title – after Steaua Bucharest in 1986 – Red Star found themselves cast into the wilderness. A little over quarter of a century later they finally find themselves back at the continent’s top table, rubbing shoulders in very exalted company.
A team that goes by the name of Crvena Zvezda in their home country, Red Star will not care that the European Cup final they won was, by common consensus, the worst of all time. Paralysed by the fear of losing, they played out a dreary scoreless draw with similarly cautious Marseille in the Stadio San Nicola in Bari before winning on penalties. Robert Prosinecki, a Croat who Portsmouth fans will remember fondly, scored first from the spot for Red Star, who went on to convert all five penalties. Marseille right-back Manuel Amoros’s miss ensured the trophy went back to Red Star’s Marakana Stadium.
“That final is still very vivid in my memory,” recalled Mihajlovic in an interview with France Football two decades later. “It was the most boring final match in European Cup history. Had we approached the match with an attacking mentality, we probably would’ve lost. Not because Olympique were necessarily better than us, but because their players were used to playing big matches like this one. We had a squad full of kids.”
A squad full of kids who had shown no such caution as they stylishly despatched Grasshopper Zurich, Rangers, Dynamo Dresden and Bayern Munich en route to the final.
Red Star made this season’s group stages the hard way. After seeing off the Latvian side FK Spartaks in the first preliminary round, they swatted aside Lithuania’s FK Suduva before making extremely heavy weather of beating the Slovak champions, FC Spartak Trnava, to set up a winner-takes-all play-off with Red Bull Salzburg. Comparative church mice taking on the financial muscle of a team built by an energy drinks company with more money than a horse has hairs, Red Star found themselves two goals down early in the second half and on the brink of being consigned to the Europa League. Rat-a-tat strikes from Ben Nabouhane in the 65th and 66th minutes were enough to keep them in the Champions League on away goals. For all the money that has been pumped into their club, it was the Austrian side’s seventh consecutive failure to negotiate the Champions League qualifying stages. The karmic poetry of this bloated behemoth being beaten by a side set up in 1945 by communists to help the poor and disaffected will have been lost on nobody.
Which is not to say Red Star’s fans remain as saintly to this day. Serbian hooligans remain among the most feared in Europe and some of the club’s ultras, the Delije, proudly claim to be the worst of the worst. In an Observer interview from 2004, conducted from their designated war-room and office at Red Star’s stadium, one young man revealed he was in charge of smashing up the cars of players who had displeased supporters and had recently destroyed that of a young Nemanja Vidic. The central defender had outraged the Delije by posing for a photoshoot with the captain of Red Star’s hated rivals, Partizan Belgrade.
Another supporter, an academic named Zoran Timic, explained the Delije’s motivation. “Football was a base for people to rebel against communism in Yugoslavia,” he said. “Most Red Star supporters were already very nationalist. What we did at the end of the 1970s was to take the choreography from Italian football and the hooliganism from England and mix it together to create our own style of football anti-communism. Hooliganism became a way of showing that we were free; of resisting the communist regime.”
In March 1992, during a match against Partizan at Red Star’s stadium, the notorious warlord Arkan and his murderous Tigers paramilitaries put on their infamous show of defiance: an impromptu exhibition of road signs from Croatian towns that had fallen to the Serbian army.
The communist regime is long gone and Red Star’s support at home also seems to have dwindled. They have won five out of five in the Serbian SuperLiga, but their highest home attendance has been 7,612. One suspects local interest will be piqued for the imminent arrival of Liverpool, Napoli and PSG and the Stadio Rajko Mitic will be stuffed to near capacity, in scenes harking back to their European glory years.
The team that won the European Cup would ultimately disband and scatter as a direct consequence of its fans’ nationalism. Speaking to Jonathan Wilson for his book Behind The Curtain, Stevan Stojanovic, Red Star’s goalkeeper and captain that night, expressed regret. “We will never know how good we could have been,” he said.
Now a new generation of largely unknown Red Star players will test themselves against the European elite. – Guardian service