Red Star return to the Champions League
At 83 years of age, Vladimir Popovic can’t get up and down the stairs of his Belgrade apartment like he used to, but his memory of the time he met Chairman Mao is as clear as glass.
“There, behind him,” he says scanning a black-and-white photo hanging on the wall of his hallway. It is of the Yugoslav national team standing in front of a huge Chinese flag. He points to a young man, just a few inches behind Mao, over his left shoulder. “I remember, they gave us all jackets to wear just like his!”
The walls of Popovic’s home tell a story of an incredible life but also of an era, and a country, that no longer exists.
There’s the pictures of Popovic lining up with his team-mates for Red Star in
a European Cup quarter-final against Manchester United in 1958. The game ended 3-3. Five of the men he played against would be killed the next day in the Munich air disaster.
There are pictures of Popovic being carried out of Bogata airport by Santa Fe fans after winning the Colombian championship in 1971. “People were carrying me through the streets!” he says. Popovic would spend nine years, on and off, in the early 1970s and late 1990s coaching at Santa Fe, Atletico Nacional and Deportivo Cali.
There’s a picture of a Yugoslav general in full military regalia, on the pitch at the JNA Stadium in Belgrade, handing Popovic the Marshal Tito Cup after Red Star had beaten Dinamo Zagreb in the 1964 Final. There are pictures and cuttings of the Yugoslav national team with whom he won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne and also represented at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where they finished fourth. And, of course, the picture with Mao, when the Yugoslav national team visited China.
But a picture hanging on the opposite wall is Popovic’s crowning glory.
The picture was taken in 1991. The entire Red Star team is lined up on the pitch of what is now the Rajko Mitic Stadium – named after Popovic’s midfield partner who died in 2007 – but still known by everyone as the Marakana. In front is the Intercontinental Cup, now known as the Club World Cup, won in Tokyo after beating Chile’s Colo-Colo 3-0.
Red Star qualified after winning the 1991 European Cup Final against Marseille on penalties. But the coach who masterminded that victory, Ljupko Petrovic, had left the club and Popovic was given the unenviable task of defending the title.
“At that time when I took the club it was a great honour for me, but at the same time a big obligation,” recalls
“At that time when I took the club it was a great honour for me, but at the same time a big obligation” Vladimir Popovic
Popovic. “But I wanted this very much.” He’d kept the team together but it had been tough. Players in the Yugoslav First League were prevented from moving abroad until they were 28 but the world’s biggest club’s had come knocking after the 1991 European Cup Final. “They were very talented players but the situation wasn’t easy,” he adds. “We managed to keep the best known players although a certain number wanted to leave.”
and there they all were, on Popovic’s wall, after they officially became world club champions: Dejan Savicevic, Miodrag Belodedici, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Darko Panchev, to name but a few.
The picture of the Intercontinental Cup didn’t just capture one of the finest European teams ever assembled; it also captures the final few moments of red Star as a feared European super power and, perhaps, the moment that football changed forever.
In august this year, red Star were losing 2-0 to red Bull Salzburg in the second leg of a Champions League play-off. Not since 1991 had red Star reached the group stage of European football’s premier competition. In fact, they started this year’s tournament in the first qualifying round and their first match was in July on the day England lost to Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals.
at one point, in 2014, UEFa banned red Star from playing in the Champions League over unpaid debts and Financial Fairplay violations.
But, in austria, in front of a home crowd that had been invaded by up to 15,000 Serbs, red Star staged an improbable comeback, thanks largely to their recently signed australian international defender Milos Degenek, who was born in Yugoslavia but had been made a refugee twice before settling in australia. He made and scored a goal and, within a few minutes, red Star were suddenly going through to the group stage on away goals.
Much has changed since red Star were last in Europe’s elite. In many ways, that 1991-92 campaign, and Popovic’s single season in charge of the club, was a pivotal moment in European football.
It was the last-ever European Cup; the following season it would be replaced by the Champions League which would march on to become a financial behemoth. It was the first season English teams were allowed back into European competition following the Heysel disaster, paving the way for English clubs to be reintroduced to European football and set them on a path to the Premier League and everything that followed.
It was also the end of a time when the champions of far away places had a fair chance of winning the title, before money became the only arbiter of success.
More destructive, however, was the onset of the Yugoslav War, and red Star had to play all their home games abroad, in Hungary and Bulgaria.
“That period was very hard for us,” says Popovic. “It would have been better to play in front of 80,000 of our people in our atmosphere.”
Still, they very nearly made it to the Final. They took an early lead in their penultimate group game against Sampdoria, in Sofia, and with a victory
they were virtually guaranteed a spot in the Final. But they ended up losing 3-1 and their title defence was over.
“We had Savicevic, Najdoski, Jugovic, Belodedici. We certainly did feel like we could do it,” continues Popovic. “But the situation was hard to play abroad. But we were 20 minutes away. Those factors influenced it. If we could have played at home we’d have done it.”
The years of isolation were ruinous for Yugoslav football. Croatian and Slovenian teams had already left the Yugoslav First League after declaring independence, and the Bosnian War meant that all but one team from Bosnia dropped out by the start of 1992.
International sanctions meant that Yugoslavia were banned from the 1992 European Championships, replaced by eventual winners Denmark.
By the time the conflicts finally ended, in 2001, Red Star emerged into a very different world.
A hero of that recent night in Austria, Degenek is still a stranger in the city he once lived in. The Australia international is sitting on the steps of the Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade, a city where he was once, as a child, a refugee.
“I’m back to where life took its turns. I’m home, but it’s away from home,” he says. “Even now, everything is still quite new to me.”
Degenek was born in what is today Croatia. In 1995, when he was 18 months old, his family fled his home city of Knin due to Operation Storm, the final battle of Croatia’s war of independence.
Operation Storm is still hugely controversial. In Croatia it is celebrated as a national holiday for ending their war. But for Serbs it is seen as a largely unpunished war crime and proof of the asymmetrical justice that has followed. Hundreds of civilians were killed and the operation produced 200,000 civilian refugees, including the Degenek family who ended up outside Belgrade. When NATO bombers arrived in the skies again
in 1999, in order to end Slobodan Milosovic’s bloody campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the Degenek family was on the move once more. This time they settled in Australia.
“That was a turning point in our lives,” says Degenek. “We were in camps somewhere. None of us spoke English. The first three or four weeks I cried every night. It was really difficult.
“I’m grateful to Australia for allowing us to start our life again and for giving us a chance to move on peacefully.”
Although it was tough, Degenek took Red Star, his childhood club, with him and visited the club’s website every day to watch training videos and glean any information he could about the club. That, and SBS’ Serie A show every Sunday, was his window on the outside world. “There’s always one club that you’ll love and support,” he says. “You can play for another club and you can like them and be part of them. But there’s only one club that you can truly love and support – which is the club you grow up with. Everyone has that. Even Lionel Messi.”
After going to the World Cup in Russia with Australia, Degenek signed for Red Star in the summer. Like most footballers who were once refugees he had a choice to make: represent the country of his roots or the country that had given him and his family shelter.
It was an easy choice to make he says, explaining: “I’m from here, but technically I’m not from here either. I’m from Croatia.
I’m from Yugoslavia, and that doesn’t exist anymore. I spent most of my life in Australia. Australia gave my parents, my brother and me most of all what we have. That’s why I’m proud to say I am Australian and play for Australia.”
Still, signing for Red Star was a homecoming of sorts and Degenek’s heroics against Salzburg have made him an instant hero. “All we needed was 77 seconds and I guess Salzburg will have to wait another year!” he beams. “I’ll never forget. The club will never forget. It will forever be remembered. After the game, the scenes! It was ballistic.”
Twenty six years after Red Star began their defence of the European Cup with Popovic in charge, the club were back in the European elite, in a group with Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli.
They began the group phase against Napoli in the Marakana, which was full an hour before kickoff, with 55,000 fans making a ferocious noise.
The Italian side, under Carlo Ancelotti, looked dangerous in spells but Degenek excelled at centre-back, while keeper Milan Borjan was man of the match after making a string of stunning saves. Like Degenek, Borjan is another Knin refugee who made his way back to Belgrade, this time from Canada.
Unfortunately, Popovic wasn’t at the stadium to watch Red Star’s European return as his legs can give him trouble if he sits for too long in one place – a result, he says, of a botched operation from his playing days. But he watched it at home on TV and says: “Nobody will forget that period but we want to achieve that again and have the team like we had in 1991, even though we know that is very difficult.
“Now we can achieve the results the supporters expect. It is possible.”
The law of financial returns in football should mean it’s impossible – Red Star won’t get out of their group, won’t make the knockout stage and won’t emulate that great generation from 1991 and 1992. But a goalless draw with Napoli showed that heart and an impeccably organised defence can still go a long way.
“I’ve represented my country and I’ve played in the Champions League,” said Degenek afterwards. “I’ll tell my children, and my children’s children. I’ll keep bragging about that until I die.
“It’ll keep me happy for ever.”
“There’s always one club that you’ll love and support. You can play for another club and you can like them and be part of them, but there’s only one club that you can truly love and support – which is the club you grow up with” Milos Degenek
Expectant...the Rajko Mitic Stadium before Red Star’s opening Champions League game against Napoli
Red Star...Popovic (back row, far left) and the team that played Manchester United in 1958
Support...Red Star fans celebrate in Salzburg
Champions...the team that won the European Cup in 1991, beating Marseille on penalties in the Final
Memories... Vladimir Popovic
Home...Milos Degenek (right)
Group game...Red Star’s El Fardou Ben Nabouhane (centre) battles with Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli