Red Star re­turn to the Cham­pi­ons League

World Soccer - - Contents - James Mon­tague re­ports

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

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