How Red Star Belgrade returned from the European football wilderness

Words By Euan McTear Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 11, 2017
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On April 15th, 1992, the reigning European champions visited Anderlecht to compete for a place in the 1992 European Cup final at Wembley, where they hoped they could defend the trophy they’d won in a penalty shootout against Marseille the year before. But Crvena zvezda – or Red Star Belgrade, in English – never made it, losing 3-2 to the Belgian side and ensuring that Sampdoria would win Group A and go on to face Barcelona in European football’s glamour match. The result hurt, obviously, but few at the time expected the Belgrade giant to so quickly fade into the wilderness of European football.

Last Thursday night, on December 7th, 2017, Red star Belgrade defeated Köln 1-0 at their Rajko Mitić Stadium, more commonly known as the Marakana, after the famous Brazilian ground. The result meant that they finished second in their Europa League group behind Arsenal and, most importantly, it meant that they would have post-Christmas football for the first time since that 1991/92 season. For the first time since that loss to Anderlecht. For the first time in 26 years.

The story of Red Star Belgrade’s fall and rise is as fascinating as it is unfortunate. The Yugoslav Wars and the subsequent 1992 break-up of Yugoslavia hit the club hard. When they competed in the 1991/92 European Cup, they weren’t even able to play their home matches at the Marakana. Instead, their ‘home’ fixtures were held in Szeged, Budapest and Sofia. Following the war, the Yugoslav First League was broken up and Red Star Belgrade went on to form a Serbian and Montenegrin league, along with one team – FK Borac Banja Luka – from Bosnia. While some of the other leagues to have been formed as a result of the splintering of Yugoslavia were quickly allowed to return to UEFA competition, international sanctions meant that no teams from the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – made up of Serbia and Montenegro – could return to continental competition until the 1995/96 season.

As champions of their new domestic league, Red Star Belgrade returned to European competition in the UEFA Cup that year, but their squad was nowhere near as talented as it had been on that famous night in 1991 when they lifted the most sought-after prize in European football. Not one member of the starting XI from that night in Bari was still at the club; even if only four years had passed, the Serbian footballing landscape had changed entirely and Red Star duly lost to Swiss side Neuchâtel Xamax in the first qualifying round of that 1995/96 season.

Their standing in European football only fell and fell and fell, with the dividing of the once-strong Yugoslav First League into several weaker and smaller leagues quickly proving detrimental. Now they and Partizan Belgrade were the only two big fish in their domestic competition and the league was unable to draw the same interest and, therefore, the same financial backing of the Yugoslav First League, where there had also been strong competition from the likes of Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split, FK Vojvodina and FK Sarajevo.

With debts rising, both Belgrade clubs were increasingly forced to sell their rising stars at an early age, a major departure from a communist era rule which prohibited most players from leaving the country until they were 28 years of age. All of a sudden, any top-class player remaining in Belgrade that long was the exception. As Red Star’s marketing manager Zoran Avramović told Jonathan Wilson at the beginning of the century, “A time will come when a player is offered [by western European clubs] 10, 20 or 50 times what we can offer and we cannot expect players to stay, however much they love Belgrade.”

There was some resistance, though, and Red Star reportedly turned down a €4m offer for Boško Janković in the aftermath of Serbia and Montenegro’s run to the final of the 2004 Under-21 European Championships. “Red Star want to build a team that can compete in Europe,” his coach at the time, Ratko Dostanić, claimed. “Clubs need the money raised from selling players, but we won’t sell the players we need.” Janković did, though, move to Real Mallorca in 2006 for €3m. At the end of the day, money always talked.

The financial issues persisted, not helped by a six-year drought in the Serbian league, with rivals Partizan block-booking first place in the newly formed Serbian SuperLiga between 2007/08 and 2012/13. The red and white confetti was eventually brought back out in 2013/14, however their financial situation was so chaotic that UEFA’s financial control body stripped them off their place in 2014/15 Champions League qualifying, handing it to Partizan instead.

These players may not yet be legends at the Marakana in the same way as the 1991 team are, but their impressive European achievement will never be forgotten.

Partizan won the title back the following campaign and in the summer of 2015 Red Star appointed former player Miodrag Božović as manager, a coach whose highs had been very high and whose lows had been very low. It was a risky appointment and it didn’t bring initial success. In fact, Red Star lost 4-1 on aggregate to Kazakhstani side Kairat in the very first round of Europa League qualifying, having now been granted a license by UEFA. They did win their opening match of the league season, but drew their next two. At the home draw with Radnicki, the football gods seemed to be playing a cruel joke on the passionate Red Star fans. The mid-table side had a man sent off with half an hour to go, but gripped on to a 1-0 lead all the way until the 87th minute, before, in stoppage time, Red Star won a penalty, only to miss it. The fans were furious, but not with the coach. Rather, they called for president Svetozar Mijailović’s resignation, with a flurry of abuse directed towards his box after the full-time whistle.

He didn’t go, nor did Božović, who actually offered his resignation, but this was for the best. Red Star had actually put together a strong squad for that season, with the likes of Luis Ibáñez, Aleksandar Katai and Hugo Vieira arriving and with the talented Marko Grujic having a breakout season. Red Star followed this slow start to the season by going on a 24-match winning run in the league, storming to the title.

Back in the Champions League qualifiers for the first time in almost a decade, Red Star knocked out Valletta and then gave Ludogorets a run for the money in the next round, although they ultimately lost 6-4 on aggregate, before Sassuolo then denied them a place in the Europa League group stages. Božović departed at the end of the 2016/17 season, having lost the league to Partizan as a result of a bizarre championship format in which points from the first 30 rounds of the season are worth half the total of the final seven fixtures. So Red Star lost the title by three ‘points’ even though they had the same number of wins, draws and losses as Partizan, but a better goal difference.

This second-place finish earned an economy class ticket to the first round of Europa League qualifying, but Red Star have since embarked on a fairytale journey under new coach Vladan Milojević, becoming the first side in the history of the tournament to reach the knockouts after starting in the very first round. Their season began all the way back in June and they had to knock out four different clubs just to make the group stages, but they did it. They then had to escape from a tough group which contained Arsenal, BATE and Köln, but they did that too.

In Vujadin Savic and Srdjan Babic, they have a reliable central defensive pairing, while half-Serbian Canada national team goalkeeper Milan Borjan is behind them as a safety net if needed. They’ve conceded just twice in these Europa League group stages, the second best record after Red Bull Salzburg, demonstrating that a solid back line can take a team very far indeed. Of course, goals are needed too, and in Richmond Boakye they have a striker who has netted 41 times in the calendar year of 2017, while Slavoljub Srnic and Guélor Kanga also provide goals and assists from a little further back.

These players may not yet be legends at the Marakana in the same way as the 1991 team are, but their impressive European achievement will never be forgotten. Red Star Belgrade may never have returned to the Champions League proper since that night at Anderlecht, unluckily coming up against 2001/02 runners-up Bayer Leverkusen and 2006/07 winners AC Milan in the qualifying rounds over the years, but they have finally earned post-Christmas European football. Most excitingly, this story isn’t finished yet.

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