Monday, 2 November 2015

The Death of the Yugoslavian National Football Team

Yugoslavia were edged out of the 1990 World Cup at the quarter final stage on penalties by an Argentinean side inspired by their goalkeeper Sergio Goychochea. Despite this loss the tournament as a whole was a source of great optimism for Yugoslavian football.

Just three years before Italia 90, the Yugoslav's with a team bereft of it's best players swept to glory in the U20 World Championships in Chile.  The Yugoslav Football Federation took the tournament lightly, and in fact informed future stars, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Vladimir Jugovic and Alen Boksic to stay at home as they would gain more experience playing in the National league.

As Yugoslavia cruised through the group stages, Red Star Belgrade decided that they could do with Robert Prosinecki for a UEFA Cup tie against Bruges.  The players protested to FIFA, and Joao Havelange, then the organisation's chairman intervened to keep Prosinecki in Chile.  He responded by curling in a last minute free kick winner against Brazil in the quarter final.  It was later voted the goal of the tournament.

Yugoslavia went on to beat East Germany in the semi final, and then West Germany in the final.  A side containing Robert Jarni, Igor Stimac, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker and Predrag Mijatovic had gained valuable tournament experience.  These young players were now thrust into qualification for the 1992 European Championships, and joined a squad of experienced established players such as Dragan Stojkovic, Dejan Savicevic, Srecko Katanec and Darko Pancev.

In the qualifying rounds Yugoslavia were impressive, winning seven of eight games, scoring 24 goals and finishing above eventual tournament winners Denmark in the process.
Darko Pancev scored 10 goals in qualifying, to cap a great year for him as he won the European Golden Boot and his club side Red Star won the 1991 European Cup. Yugoslavia looked well set to challenge the best nations in Europe for the 1992 European Championships.

The issue was despite the success on the pitch, Yugoslavia was a nation divided. Tensions had been rising ever since the death of Tito in 1980. Without the strength and ironwill of a dictator whom had successfully challenged Stalin in the past, there began an animosity between the varying ethnic groups within Yugoslavia.  Protests broke out in the Croatian region, and there were growing tensions between Serbs and Albanians which eventually led to a miners strike in Kosovo in 1989.
The consequences of these tensions did not go unfelt on the football pitch.  In what was meant to be a pre-tournament friendly ahead of Italia 90, a 2-0 home defeat to the Dutch was overshadowed by the disruptive acts of a largely Croat crowd, who booed throughout the singing of the Yugoslavian national anthem, taunted those Yugoslav players not of Croatian descent, and cheered on the Netherlands; many waved the Dutch flag due to it's similarity to the Croatian tricolour.

This was far from the only football related incident instigated by growing tensions within Yugoslavia, and indeed, then current international Zvonimir Boban missed the friendly with the Netherlands due a suspension earned for kicking a policeman during a Dinamo Zagreb - Red Star Belgrade match which had descended into a full blown riot.  Ultras from both sides antagonised each other to such an extent that security became unable to keep them apart and fighting boiled over onto the pitch.

By 1991 Yugoslavia was fragmenting.  Macedonia was able to peacefully declare independence from Yugoslavia, as too was Slovenia, however in Croatia what erupted was a bloody war that lasted until 1995.  Yugoslavia was falling apart both on and off the football pitch, as the nations of Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia left the Yugoslav Football Federation, and so did the players. The riot at the Maksimir stadium had rang the death knolls for the Yugoslavian football league also, which was eventually dissolved in 1991-1992 season with the withdrawal of all Slovenian and Croatian teams; the Dinamo-Red Star match had made it obvious that already fierce competitive rivalries, aggravated by racial tensions, made for an untenable situation in the league.

A month before the 1992 Euro's in Sweden were set to commence, war erupted in Bosnia, between Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croatian community in Bosnia and the Republika Srpska which was made up of Bosnian Serbs.  The war was to rage onto 1995.
Just ten days before the European Championships, the Yugoslavian national side was in tatters, the golden generation of players had been dismantled along with the confederation, and following United Nations sanctions, what was left of the side was banned from competing.

What if the war hadn't happened?  What if Yugoslavia could have put out a midfield as talented as Stojkovic, Prosinecki, Katanec and Boban?  Well Srecko Katanec was in no doubt.."we would have crushed the world." Perhaps, but instead they had to watch on as Denmark took their place and won the 1992 tournament.

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