Despite interference from NATO among others, Yugoslavia made it to Euro 2000. Dragomir Pop-Mitic looks back at an extraordinary campaign
“All games for the coming weekend are postponed.”
That decision by the Yugoslav Football Association, just hours after the beginning of Nato air campaign in March, was the only possible one under the circumstances. But at that moment they did not know that the football season was actually over. Like almost everybody else in Yugoslavia, the FA’s officials expected that the war would be over in the next few days. As soon as it extended into a second week, most clubs decided to get back on the pitch and a series of friendly matches began in front of decent crowds.
Although football stadiums were generally very safe places during the air campaign, everybody was surprised when AEK Athens decided to come and play a friendly against Partizan. Despite the large number of national flags and banners among the crowd, the decision to play the national anthem did not get the response the politicians might have wanted, as fans instead sang the most famous anti-communist song from the Second World War, about the royalist leader Draza Mihajlovic. The television producers were totally confused and did not even try to silence the outburst from all parts of the ground.
After the war, the YFA decided that the pre-war standings would count as the final league table and that there would be no relegation at any level. This solution was endorsed by the YFA president, Milan Miljanic, a man known as “the undertaker of Yugoslav football” thanks to his liking for “radical” innovations (such as introducing penalties to settle drawn league games and a league system in which teams played each other three times). He has total control of the YFA and many believe it would be easier to remove Slobodan Milosevic from politics than Miljanic from football.
As a result, the First Division was extended to 22 clubs, although that included Pristina FC, from the capital of Kosovo, a club with no team, board or stadium. Since the club does not exist in any concrete form their results this season are already known – they will officially lose all their matches 3-0.
The current standard of the league is very low and getting worse. With the exception of Partizan, Red Star, Obilic and the biggest provincal side, Vojvodina, all the clubs have very shaky finances, out of date stadiums and managers who have lost the respect of the fans. Even Ivan Golac, formerly of Torquay and Dundee United, managed to find a job. The only possibility of making any money is through a decent run in Europe, but even this was scuppered by the decisions to expel Obilic because of their connections with the indicted war criminal Arkan and to force the other three qualifiers to play the home leg of their ties outside the country.
That news led to all kinds of speculation in the papers. When some journalists found out that Leeds were allegedly ready to come to Belgrade with some 300 fans for their tie with Partizan, the headlines read: Tony Blair Is Sending 300 Hooligans. The real losers, as ever, were the fans who were deprived of the chance to see some decent games. None of teams got past the first round of the UEFA Cup.
That disappointment gave even more significance to the Euro 2000 confrontations with Croatia. By the time they were staged, Yugoslavia had lost their coach, Milan Zivadinovic, the only person (in football) less popular than his predecessor Slobodan Santrac. Zivadinovic arrived after France 98 with a reputation as a demagogue and a membership card for Milosevic’s wife’s political party in his pocket.
Zivadinovic’s pathetic speeches about patriotism went down particularly badly thanks to the repeated attempts by the Milosevic regime to promote its own interests through sporting success. The appointment of Vujadin Boskov to replace Zivadinovic was entirely predictable, though his willingness to work without getting paid was not.
Despite the fear among fans that the war in Kosovo would again lead to Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the tournament, the first match went ahead in Belgrade in August. Suspicions that the regime would try to turn the match into a political spectacle grew after it was revealed that the sports minister had been allocated 20,000 tickets. Suddenly, tickets for the game started to lose their value on the black market and contrary to all expectations they were widely available just a day before the match.
The game was broadcast live on TV, but with the addition of music from the studio during the playing of the national anthem, to mask the predictable chorus of anti-Milosevic chants from the terraces. Thanks partly to the ticketing fiasco and the power failure at the start of the second half (NATO had helpfully destroyed a large number of generating stations during the war), the atmosphere at the ground was relatively subdued, appropriately enough since the match ended 0-0.
The return match in Zagreb was preceded by blood-curdling reports in the newspapers claiming that Croats were viewing the match as some kind of war between two different civilisations. For Yugoslavia, the importance of the game lay more in its financial implications than in settling old scores. “If we play in Euro 2000 we will get enough money for the next five years,” the YFA claimed.
The biggest surprise arrived on the morning of the game with the news that the game would be shown live on all three channels of Serbian television, even supplanting the notorious evening news programme, the main outlet for the regime’s propaganda, for the first time in living memory.
The opposition parties were also keen to use the game for publicity and they arranged for it to be shown on a big screen in the centre of Belgrade. As soon as the game was over, with a 2-2 draw taking Yugoslavia direct to the finals thanks to Macedonia’s late equaliser against Ireland, the television news was broadcasting telegrams of congratulation sent by the ruling parties.
For a few hours the whole country went wild as everyone wanted to forget the pain and humiliation of the past few years. That night no one cared about high inflation, about average monthly salaries of less than £30, about empty pharmacies, about the coming winter without heating, electricity and fuel. The radio stations did not forget the role of our “Orthodox brothers” by playing Macedonian folk music as well as With a Little Help from my Friends.
Thanks to the political events of the Nineties, some of the most talented players in the history of Yugoslav football did not participate in Euro 92 and 96 or the 1994 World Cup. For them, the triumph in Zagreb meant they will at least have one last appearance on a major stage.
From WSC 154 December 1999. What was happening this month