Studs were banging on the concrete. The players were slowly walking through a long tunnel of white walls and weak lights. At its end, the players’ restless legs were betraying the tension, their frozen faces showing deep concern. Only the occasional glance was given to the other side, out of habit more than anything else.
The walls of the tunnel were quivering under the surge of noise. Around 50,000 spectators were creating a deafening atmosphere, and the players’ first steps onto the pitch made it even more seething. With chewing gum in his mouth - a common occurrence - Predrag Mijatović took his Yugoslavia side onto the pitch at FK Crvena Zvezda, the stadium fondly known as Marakana.
Opposite Mijatović and his team-mates, players of the Croatian national team were walking, led by Zvonimir Boban. It was 18th August 1999, a European championship qualifying match for Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland. More importantly, it was the first international match between the two sides, who were, until recently, sharing happiness and sorrow under the same colours.
The story begins 12 years earlier. As one of the six best teams in Europe, the SFR Yugoslavia U-20 national team qualified for the World Youth Championship in Chile. It was only the second time Yugoslavia’s youth team had qualified for the tournament since they crashed out of the 1979 Championship in Japan in the group stages. That team produced some good players, such as Mehmed Baždarević and Boško Đurovski. Yet, the maturation of that side during the 1980s showed that the poor showing in Japan was prophetic, as Yugoslavia’s senior national team later struggled - resulting in a catastrophic end to the 1984 European Championships, and a failure to qualify for both the 1986 World Cup and Euro 1988.
The trip to Chile in the autumn of 1987 was not of great importance to the Yugoslav public. The team was escorted almost unnoticeably, with only one reporter following. The media were so unaware of the events, it took the president of the Yugoslav FA (FSJ), and former Real Madrid coach, Miljan Miljanić to generate enough interest for a photograph of the team to be taken before they left.
On the flight to Chile, three talented players were missing. Siniša Mihajlović, Vladimir Jugović, and Alen Bokšić stayed home, as the national FA suggested that the players would be of greater use to their clubs for domestic league matches. Aleksandar Đorđević, the captain prior to the World Cup, didn’t travel to South America either, due to a four-match ban earned in the last official match before the tournament. None of this instilled confidence in the side; three matches before an early exit was as far as the team could see.
But what a team it was. Famous coach Mirko Jozić – who, two years later, would take over Chilean side Colo-Colo and win the Copa Libertadores, as the only coach to do so with a team from Chile – still had plenty of talent in his team. In goal was Dragoje Leković, with Branko Brnović, Robert Jarni, and Gordan Petrić in defence. The midfield was bursting with creativity and flair, boasting the likes of Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban, and Igor Štimac, while the attack was spearheaded by Predrag Mijatović and Davor Šuker.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere among the players - who often stayed late in the night clubs according to Toma Mihajlović, the only Yugoslav journalist that travelled to Chile – the tournament started very well for Jozić’s men. The hosts were trailing after just quarter of an hour of their opening match on a drenched pitch in Santiago, thanks to a Boban goal. Even though Chile equalised soon afterwards, Yugoslavia never gambled in this match. Štimac scored to make it 2-1, and Šuker did what he did best – scoring a brilliant brace in the space of two minutes during the second half. Chile’s Camilo Pino scored late on to make it 4-2 in front of 67,000 fans in Chile’s capital.
One win in the next two matches would be enough to take Yugoslavia to the quarter-finals, and after the thrashing of Australia that was to follow, it appeared that there was no chance of an early flight home. Brnović, Boban, and Šuker (twice) scored in a 4-0 victory. In the final group match, Togo were brushed aside, as Mijatović, Zirojević, and Šuker scored in a 4-1 win. Topping Group A resulted in a quarter-final match against the mighty Brazil.
“It was a turning point for all of us”, said Mijatović in 2000 in Vuk Janić’s documentary ‘The Last Yugoslav Football Team’. “Brazil were playing superbly and took a 1-0 lead.” As the match approached the half-time break, Alcindo took advantage of the Plavi’s clumsiness and hit the ball past goalkeeper Leković. The lead didn’t last long, though. On 52 minutes, Yugoslavia had a free kick from the right-hand side, and Boban crossed into the box with Mijatović waiting in the ideal position.
“It was my first goal scored by a header, first in my life”, Mijatović remembered. “I jumped and when I was looking at the video replays on television, I did not believe that was me.” It was a great cross from Boban, but an even better header from the Budućnost Titograd forward. Mijatović leapt off the ground and headed the ball with power from the near penalty spot. Yugoslavia were back in it.
When it looked like extra time was inevitable, Prosinečki took the matter into his hands. Brazil conceded a free-kick around 20 yards out. Robert Prosinečki - with his distinct blonde hair - shot almost without a single step of a run-up, hitting the ball perfectly. It went in the opposite direction than expected, into the far top corner of Ronaldo’s goal. The Brazilian goalkeeper never stood a chance.
The boys in blue were running all over the pitch, celebrating the piece of art that Prosinečki had just produced. In the stands, fans were waving blue, white, and red flags with a five-pointed star at the centre of each flag. It was the fourth match Yugoslavia had played at the magnificent Estadio Nacional in Santiago, and it produced their fourth win. Chile had started to feel like home.
At the very same stadium, Yugoslavia played their semi-final match against East Germany. Igor Štimac gave the Plavi the lead, before Matthias Sammer – then a Dynamo Dresden academy product – levelled at the beginning of the second-half. However, Šuker scored 20 minutes before the final whistle, and, with his sixth goal of the tournament, led his team-mates to the grand finale.
In the final, Yugoslavia had to beat the other Germany, West Germany, who had thrashed the hosts 4-0 in their semi-final. The final was not a match of great quality. Both defences were rock solid, especially during the first half; Yugoslavia tried to threaten Uwe Brunn’s goal, mostly from set-pieces through Štimac and Milan Pavlović, but could not break the deadlock.
In the 85th minute, Yugoslavia’s pressure finally bore fruit. Brnović instigated an attack on the right-hand side, using the space in front of him. 20 yards from West Germany’s goal, he played a swift one-two with Zoran Mijučić, before trying a first-time shot. Luckily for Yugoslavia, he mistimed the shot and the ball bounced to his left, where Zvonimir Boban was waiting. His shot could not have been better. He hit the ball with the central part of his foot, just inches before it fell to the ground. Before anyone even blinked, the ball was already nestled in the lower left corner of the goal.
The fans erupted and an ecstatic Boban was running with his arms open, without a predetermined direction. He was partly in disbelief, shocked that Yugoslavia were five minutes away from becoming the world champions. When his team-mates got hold of him, Boban was already on the running track, sending kisses to the sky.
But the Germans showed the resilience that often typifies them. Two minutes later, Mӧller earned a penalty after Gordan Petrić’s foul, and Marcel Witeczek scored from the spot to make it 1-1. It appeared that the narrative had shifted; after getting up from the brink of the abyss, the tenacious Germans looked ready to finish off the groggy opponent, almost with smiles on their faces.
And yet, this Yugoslav team had not read the script, and held on to extra-time and then penalties.
West Germany were to shoot first. Witeczek - who had scored from the spot earlier - stepped up. After a long run-up, the German shot unconvincingly down the middle, and Leković was there to catch it. First up for Jozić’s team was Pavličić. His brave shot, straight into the top right corner of Brunn’s goal, was perfect - advantage Yugoslavia.
Of the next seven penalties, none were missed. The spotlight fell on Zvonimir Boban.
The midfielder from Imotski was slowly preparing for his penalty kick. Witeczek couldn’t watch. “But we will“, said the commentator on Radio-Television Belgrade while Boban was putting the ball on the spot. His run-up started on the line of the 18-yard box, his run to the ball seemed resolute. He shot into the goalkeeper’s bottom right corner. Brunn threw himself to the correct side, but the shot was so precise he could not save it.
Boban got the chance once again to run wherever his legs would carry him, his arms open in the same manner after the volley he previously scored, jumping purely from the adrenaline rush. “Yugoslavia is the champion of the world! Yugoslavia is the champion of the world!“, the commentator declared. The trophy was theirs.
Robert Prosinečki was named the player of the tournament, with Boban the runner-up, and Šuker won the ‘silver boot’ with six goals scored. Yugoslavia were on top of the world.
Approaching the final decade of the 20th century, it became clear that the country would not survive. The birth of nationalist political parties in a then one-party system contributed to increasing feelings of bigotry among the Yugoslav nations. It all culminated on the 13th of May 1990, when the famous riot occurred at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. Hooligans interrupted the last-round match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, stirring a battle between the teams’ fans. Amongst the madness, Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban kicked a policeman who he alleged was mistreating a fan. Whilst the Dinamo ultras came to his defence, it was seen as a Croatian nationalist act in Serbia and as such Boban was banned by the Yugoslav Football Association for six months and filed criminal charges. “Here I was, a public face prepared to risk his life, career, and everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal, one cause; the Croatian cause” he later said.
This scandal was later used for political gain by both Croatian and Serbian politicians as propaganda against each other. Even though many people still think these events from Maksimir started the dissolution of the socialist Yugoslavia, the fact is that the dissolution was already anticipated.
A few weeks afterwards, as part of the preparations for 1990 World Cup in Italy, before the friendly match between Yugoslavia and Holland kicked off, home fans at the Maksimir booed the anthem “Hej Sloveni” and the Yugoslav players. The situation was best described - albeit accidentally - by Faruk Hadžibegić, as cameras filmed him saying to his team-mates “come on, it’s 11 of us against 20.000”. Not everyone felt a part of Yugoslavia anymore.
In Italy, Yugoslavia was, as countless times in its history, so close but so far. After a sensational display from Dragan Stojković - nicknamed Piksi - in the second round 2-1 victory against Spain, the Plavi set their sights on beating the world champions, Argentina.
Despite Refik Šabanadžović’s dismissal after just 30 minutes of that quarter-final match, Ivica Osim’s players still shone. Diego Maradona was neutralised, while Robert Prosinečki, Safet Sušić, and Dejan Savićević were putting goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea to the test. Still, the Argentines withstood all the pressure and made it to penalties.
The world champions went on to win. Yugoslavia was on its knees. The country was just a couple of months from the secession of the Federal Republic of Slovenia, and the national team had let this unforgettable chance slip away, at their last ever tournament as a united country.
In the following years, even fiercer blows hit Plavi. In 1991, Red Star won the European Champions Cup, led by Prosinečki, Savićević, Jugović, and Darko Pančev. Yet the country was already wrapped up in the state of war. Now-antagonistic nations were fighting with rifles; one side trying to keep the old borders, and the other trying to create new ones in the south-east of Europe. Because of that civil war, the Yugoslav national team was disqualified from the 1992 European Championships. Famously, Denmark took their spot, having not qualified, and made history by winning the tournament.
Croatia and Slovenia gained their respective independences in 1991, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and FYR Macedonia doing the same a year later. Yugoslavia were forbidden from all FIFA competitions as the wars raged on. The newly-formed countries were only allowed to play in the qualifiers for Euro 1996, while Yugoslavia (then made up of Serbia and Montenegro) only won the right to play in qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup in France two years later.
In those murky years, the boys that shone in Chile endured their own personal suffering. Having formed a wonderful team together, they all found themselves playing for foreign clubs and far from their homeland, placed into different international teams; a united squad punished because of politics outside of their control. Jonathan Wilson, in his article for the Guardian in 2007, ponders if Yugoslavia from the 1990s was the greatest team the world never had.
Prosinečki was the champion of the world in Chile, a European champion with Red Star, and the best young player at the 1990 World Cup. Šuker was continuously scoring goals for Sevilla, and went on to do the same in Real Madrid, together with Predrag Mijatović, his team-mate from 1987. Boban wore the red-and-black jersey of Milan for over a decade, with team-mate Savićević, the two-time Champions League winner. Stojković, Mihajlović, Bokšić, and Jugović all had impressive careers, too. They realised their potential, even if not together on the international stage.
Back in Belgrade in 1999, the stadium was brimming with pressure. At one point, the play was stopped for 45 minutes because of power failure; the game was played just two months after the end of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, which had made power failures common in the capital.
“Remember the power outage at the Marakana, when Yugoslavia and Croatia played and every Yugoslav player hugged each of my players, to protect them”, Miroslav ‘Ćiro’ Blažević, then Croatia’s national coach, said years afterwards about the game in Belgrade. Despite their confusion, the Yugoslav players hurried to ensure everyone’s safety.
“That is life. And that is football”, said Blažević, summarising everything that happened in the region of former Yugoslavia for over a decade in seven simple words. It appears these days that no one even remembers the result of that match - a 0-0 draw. The human moment which occurred on the unlit pitch of Red Star’s stadium is what has endured in minds instead.
Thoughts about the footballing potential will always exist; what if socialist Yugoslavia had never fallen apart, or what might have happened if the war between the Yugoslav nations never occurred? Yugoslavia touched the sky on that October day in Chile, but their peak was reached too soon.
Owing to various political factors, the golden generation from Chile never actually got the chance to at least try and win the greatest trophy of them all. They were denied the chance to fulfil their potential as an international unit due to the complex political situation Yugoslavia found itself in. As a result, we will never know just how good that side could’ve been.
By Nebojša Marković, who is a feature writer for IBWM. Photo credit goes fully to santiagonostalgico.