Slavs to the rhythm

Although Yugoslavia's players are in other European leagues, the state of the game back home is in crisis. Simon Evans reports

Having spent decades just missing out on glory, the Yugoslavs looked set to finally make a decisive impact in a major tournament. Red Star Belgrade had been crowned champions of Europe and the national team – with stars such as Prosinecki, Savicevic and Stojkovic – was among the favourites for the 1992 European Championships in Sweden.

But first the Croats pulled out of the squad following Franjo Tudjman’s declaration of Croatian independence. A few months later, with the Serbs beginning their ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations, UEFA followed on from the UN’s sanctions by announcing that the rump Yugoslavia was out of the European Championships. The Serbs’ protests were in vain: in the eyes of the world they were the aggressors in mainland Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the end of World War Two. Their clubs were banned from European competition and the economic sanctions imposed on the country deprived the clubs of their primary source of income – transfer fees.

But the Serbs’ comeback has been as swift and almost as dramatic as their departure in 1992. In the two years since they were re admitted to international football, the Serbs, still under the name of Yugoslavia, have shown themselves capable of competing with the best Europe has to offer. The Czech Republic were defeated 2-1 in Prague and Spain were held to a draw in Belgrade. Slobodan Santrac’s side – a mixture of the class of ’92 and new young talent – has a strong chance of making it to France ’98.

I travelled to Belgrade in March 1995 to see the Yugoslavs play their first international since the lifting of the so-called sport embargo. There were 50,000 in the Marakana to see the national team defeat Uruguay 1-0 thanks to a goal by one of their new youngsters, Savo Milosevic, then still with Partizan Belgrade. The crowd seemed to have forgotten how to support their national team. Partizan Belgrade fans gathered at one end, Red Star’s at the other and before the kick-off they exchanged insults. When the national anthem was played it was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos – many nationalist Serbs oppose the anthem which dates from the Tito period, preferring some Chetnik folk song.

After the game I wandered over to the press conference, where I bumped in to one of those strange characters that always seem to pop up in Eastern Europe. He was a young man from a small village in Switzerland, who told me that while he had no Balkan blood in him, he was a life-long fan of the Yugoslav national team. As we entered the conference, a particularly hard-faced secretary from Red Star Belgrade was handing out promotional material, for one of Red Star’s many ‘enterprises’. “Well what did you think?” she asked the Swiss lad. “Not bad,” he replied with the caution one reserves for hard-faced Serbians, “But not a patch on the real Yugoslavia. If you had Boban and Prosinecki out there as well…” I winced. “That was our youth team you just saw defeat Uruguay,” gloated the secretary. “You see if they killed all those eleven, we would just find eleven more just as good.”

Only in the Balkans would anyone even think of the possibility that “they” would kill their football team. But the iron woman of Belgrade had a point. Every year, the club sides of Yugoslavia are effectively wiped out by the legions of agents who steal away with their best players. And every year they do indeed find another eleven to replace them – and there are an awful lot to replace.

According to the Yugoslav FA, there are over 1,000 Yugoslav players registered with foreign clubs, only Brazil has more. For every Dejan Savicevic of Milan there are scores of players in the lower leagues of Switzerland, for every Dragan Stojkovic coining it in at Grampus Eight in the J-League there are dozens of former second division players strolling around in Singapore and Malaysia.

But not everyone in Yugoslav football is as optimistic as the Red Star secretary. The big two Belgrade clubs and the FA are seriously concerned about the declining interest in the domestic competitions. Of course the annual Belgrade derbies attract crowds of over 50,000, but the superb Marakana, Red Star’s home stadium, pulls barely a thousand for other games. In the place of the sizzling games with Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, the fans are asked to pay to watch teams that spent much of their life in the second division. Radnicki (Workers) and Rad (Work) have great communist-era pennant collections but little in the way of footballers or facilities. Zeman, a small fishing village in the new town of Novi Beograd, is a great trip out, but the fact that they got very excited about being in the Intertoto Cup says a lot about their pedigree. OFK Beograd were once the third force in the city, but their crumbling ground, which brings tears to the eyes of the bearded intellectuals who traditionally follow them, aptly illustrates their status.

And worst of all there is Cukuricki Stankolm, a team backed by nouveau riche property developers, who five years ago were steady mid-tablers in the Belgrade City League. Cukuricki play at a venue strikingly familiar to anyone who has ever been to a North West Counties Division Two ground.

Most of the major clubs have links to underworld figures these days. Arkan, the self styled generalissimo of the Serbian militias in Bosnia, was once leader of the Red Star ultras, and is said to have recruited troops for his commando units from hardcore football hooligans. Red Star play down the connection and say that he is just a fan, which doesn’t explain why his wedding video is on sale in the club shop.

To the serious Yugo fan, the domestic competition is a sad and painful reminder of the death of one of Europe’s top leagues. But all the nostalgia, the secret desire to re-create the early eighties, when socialist Yugoslavia had modern stadia, packed with noisy, colourful fans and ultras to match those in Italy and Spain, will be put away if Santrac’s side can make it to France. His squad contains few players who have to play at Cukuricki. At the back is Dejan Stefanovic of Sheffield Wednesday and Miroslav Dukic of Deportivo La Coruña. In midfield the highly rated Albert Nadj of Real Betis does the graft, while Vladimir Jugovic (ex Sampdoria and Juventus, now with Lazio) holds it all together alongside the veteran Stojkovic. If it isn’t working there is the sparkling but inconsistent Dejan Govedarica of Volendam in Holland. Up front there’s Savicevic and Milosevic who, despite his critics in England, showed with his late winner in Prague that he is capable of turning a match.

The Yugoslav footballing public is praying that they make it to France, when for the first time since the war they will get a taste of how things used to be. If they do make it, though, the rest of the world will be praying that there is one country they don’t get drawn against. Anyone up for Serbs versus Croats in Marseille?

From WSC 126 August 1997. What was happening this month