Yugoslavian football – we used to rule the world

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Updated: May 26, 2016

Wondering what could have been is one of life’s many irritants. In the end, it can drive people to distraction. In footballing terms, fans, players and journalists alike love to ponder about missed opportunities: That skewed penalty, a wayward pass, putting the ball past the post…all what could have been. 

For more than most, the Yugoslavia national football team of the late 1980 and early 1990s is a true testimony to what could have been European and then world domination? Possibly.

But when you have players of the calibre of Robert Prosinečki, Igor Štimac, Predrag Mijatović and Zvonimir Boban in the same squad, there was a very real chance. There had never been a Yugoslavian team so full of talent such as the one which won the FIFA World Youth Championships (now the FIFA Under-20 World Cup ) in 1987. The bulk of the squad went on to to reach the quarter-finals at the 1990 World Cup, where they lost to eventual finalists Argentina. Had that team stayed together for Euro 92, they would have been some force. But the Balkans conflict put an end to it.

Despite qualifying for the tournament in Sweden, UEFA asked them to withdraw due to the war, which had started in late 1990. They were replaced by Denmark – who, against all the odds, went on to win the tournament. Irony at its finest.

But let’s rewind.

The Yugoslav First League of the mid-1980s was one of the most competitive in Europe. Croatia’s Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb, Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade and Bosnia’s Željezničar Sarajevo and Velez Mostar were all in the same division Not to mention the top sides from Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro. The national team – and its youth squads – therefore, had a plethora of talent to choose from.

Yugoslavia had reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 1954 and 1958 and the semi-finals four years later. They reached the final of the European Championships in 1960 and 1968 and finished fourth in 1976. Yugoslavia may have been part of the so-called Communist Bloc, but it was more liberal in comparison to the harsher regimes of countries like Poland and the republics of the Soviet Union.  Under Marshal Tito, Yugoslavs of various backgrounds could express themselves in art, film and literature – to a point. And its national football team was emblematic of a proud country.

In 1987, led by the Croat Mirko Jozić, the Yugoslavs were in buoyant mood ahead of their journey to Chile. Placed in a group with Australia, Chile and Togo, they kicked off the tournament with an impressive 4-2 win over the hosts. Interestingly, while all four scorers – Štimac, Boban and Davor Šuker (2) – were Croats, Chile’s opening goalscorer Lukas Tudor was of Croatian parentage.  Yugoslavia also hit four in their next two games, against Australia and Togo. But the controversy, which is never far away from Balkans football, struck. Red Star demanded that the exquisite playmaker Prosinečki return home immediately to play in the club’s UEFA Cup matches with Club Brugge.

Such was the unity in the Yugoslav camp that his team-mates protested to FIFA and João Havalange, then the organisation’s chairman, intervened to keep him in Chile. He responded by bending in a last-minute free-kick against Brazil in the quarter-final to win the game 2-1.

The semi-final, which was just two days later, saw Yugoslavia take on a strong East Germany team which contained such names as Matthias Sammer and Dariusz Wosz, both of whom would go on to represent a reunified Germany. Štimac gave the Yugoslavs the lead before Sammer equalised minutes into the second-half. Šuker scored the winner in the 70th minute to take them to the final, where they faced West Germany. Prosinečki was controversially left out of the final, which saw Boban score what many thought was the winner with just five minute until full time. But Marcel Witeczek levelled matters two minutes later and the game, after a lacklustre extra-time, went to penalties.

It says much that the scorers of spot-kicks were three Croats – Dubravko Pavličić, Šuker and Boban – while the other two, Branko Brnović and Ranko Zirojević, were Montenegrins.

Different ethnicities, but all playing for the same cause. Prosinečki was awarded the Golden Ball for best player at the competition. Celebrated back home, such was Yugoslavia’s euphoria that they stayed on to party in Chile for an extra two days.

The country’s football went from strength to strength on the back of their momentous cup win. Its league regularly boasted teams in the last 16 of the European, UEFA and Cup Winners’ cups and the zenith came in 1991 when an exceptional Red Star team beat Olympique Marseille in the European Cup final – the last one before UEFA revamped the competition to become the Champions League. Had war not broken out and the country – and league – disintegrated, the shadow of what could have been looms large.

What could have been if Prosinečki, Štimac, Boban and Šuker had stayed together as a team with the Serbs Mijatović, Vladimir Jugović and Siniša Mihajlović, the Montenegrin Dejan Savićevic, Slovene Srečko Katanec and the Macedonian Darko Pančev? It’s a mouthwatering prospect and a mouthwatering team who could have, quite easily, have conquered the world.

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