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Monday, 10 October 2011

What If? #1 Yugoslavia: Euro '92

Zvonmir Boban kicks himself into football folklore (he could play a bit too...)

In something of a coup for these fair pages, we've snapped up someone who actually knows what they are talking about and/or doesn't have to rant to get his point across. Ladies and gentlemen, to kick off a new series, here's Richard Hall on the Yugoslavia side that could/would have won Euro '92...

If you can, cast your mind back 20 years. To a time when English football had been dominated by Merseyside, not Manchester; when we got our news from teletext, not twitter; and when governments were contemplating crisis not among the banks, but in the Balkans.
In the autumn of 1991, Yugoslavia clinched their place in the European Championships, to be held the following summer in Sweden. Qualification was assured as a storm gathered in Europe. Over the next four years, it would unleash war and genocide in Yugoslavia, and break up a football team which could have dominated the international game during the last years of the 20th century.

In an era when just eight teams contested the European Championship Finals, qualification was no mean achievement. Especially for a team which, in England at least, was not rated highly. Four years earlier, Bobby Robson’s men blew the Yugoslavs away with four goals in the first 25 minutes of a decisive European Championship qualifier in Belgrade.

Nevertheless, by 1991 Yugoslavia were not a surprise package. They had reached the quarter-finals of Italia ‘90, with playmaker Dragan Stojkovic firing the team to victory over Spain in the last 16, before succumbing on penalties to Argentina. In that quarter-final the team was deprived of midfielder Srecko Katanec, who was omitted after receiving a threat of dark consequences if he took to the field. It was a forewarning of the political turmoil to come.

Yugoslavia were among the top seeds in the qualifying group for Sweden. But the team’s roots went deeper than that. Just 17 days before the national team’s capitulation to England in 1987, Yugoslavia’s youngsters lifted the World Youth Cup in Chile. They took a scratch squad, after suspension, injuries and club priorities had shorn the team of promising players, including Alen Boksic. Yet after defeating the hosts in the opening match, they marched through the group with two more wins, before 18-year-old Robert Prosinecki, the tournament’s outstanding player, inspired his team to victories against Brazil and East Germany in the knock-out stages. Prosinecki was suspended for the final against West Germany, but fellow midfielder Zvonimir Boban took up the slack, scoring Yugoslavia’s goal in a 1-1 draw, before slotting home the decisive spot kick in the ensuing penalty shoot-out.

After Chile, the youngsters had to bide their time as senior team coach Ivica Osim set about the task of qualifying for Italia 90 with a squad of established players. But Prosinecki, along with fellow members of the Class of ’87 Davor Suker and Robert Jarni, were slowly integrated into the senior team, and the trio went to the World Cup in 1990 – as did Boksic. But Zvonmir Boban did not. For a very good reason.

Yugoslavia comprised the republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia, each with distinct political, cultural and ethnic mixes. The country had been welded together in the aftermath of the two world wars of the 20th century, and a third conflict – the Cold War – kept a lid on the simmering tensions, as the Soviets held Yugoslavia and the rest of eastern Europe together. But when the Soviet empire began to fall apart at the end of 1989, these tensions came to the boil again.

Bosnian Muslim nationalists called for an independent Bosnia; Croats were intent on establishing an independent Croatian state; and Serb nationalists were determined to dominate a Serb-controlled Yugoslavia. All were prepared to fight for what they wanted.

With communism swept away in Yugoslavia, nationalism was once again the dominant force. In April 1990, in their first multi-party elections since the 1940s, Croats voted overwhelmingly for pro-independence candidates – incensing Serbs in Belgrade.

Weeks later, Croats Dinamo Zagreb hosted Red Star Belgrade in a Yugoslav league fixture. Nationalist gangs on both sides clashed. Marshalled by warlord Arkan, the Red Star gang attacked, with the police doing nothing to protect the Croats. After violence spread to the pitch, Boban, Dinamo’s captain, took a flying kick at a policeman who was beating a Dinamo fan. TV cameras captured the incident, and Boban became an instant Croatian national hero. Unsurprisingly, the Yugoslav football authorities took a different view, and he was banned for six months, a period which included the World Cup in Italy.

War in the Balkans had not yet broken out but, with the loss of Boban and then Katanec, the effect of the coming conflict was already being felt by the Yugoslav national team.

The qualification series for Euro ‘92 began three months after the quarter-final exit in Italy. In the first tie against Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia took to the field with four Serbs, two Croats, a Serbo-Croat, a Bosnian-Croat, a Bosnian, a Macedonian and a Montenegrin. Despite the descent into war, Osim was keeping the team together. Even Boban and Katanec later returned to the squad. Half-way through qualification, they stood top of the group with maximum points. This included a backs-to-the-wall win in Copenhagen against group rivals Denmark, in which the team’s ability to soak up pressure and counter quickly with deadly force on the break was amply demonstrated. The team’s only blemish in qualification was losing the return fixture against the Danes.

But events were again overtaking Osim’s men. In June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. As a consequence, the team completed qualification without Slovenian Katanec, and Croats Prosinecki, Boban, Jarni and Suker. They would never play for Yugoslavia again.

Three clean sheets and 11 goals in their last three matches saw Osim’s depleted team top the group. The Danes could book their summer holiday on the beach. Or so they thought.

Following the declaration of independence, Croats and Serbs engaged in a brutal civil war. By the end of 1991, more than 10,000 people had died. Despite a UN-brokered ceasefire and peacekeeping plan, fighting continued – and Croatia was pulled into the war between Serbs, Muslims and Croats in neighbouring Bosnia.
On May 30 1992, just 11 days before the European Championships began, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution imposing sanctions on the combatants in the Balkan wars, and limiting participation in sporting events. FIFA suspended the Yugoslav football team from competition, and they were thrown out of the Euros. Denmark took their place. And , of course, the Danes went on to win the tournament.

Would Yugoslavia have triumphed had they been allowed to participate and call on players from all the republics? Perhaps. With the World Youth Cup winners coming into the side to complement an already talented and tested set of players, there is every chance that Osim would have struck a winning blend of talent and resolve, youth and experience.

The 1991 European Cup winners Red Star Belgrade, comprising 10 Yugoslavs, showed the potential that the players possessed. Although in the final against Marseille they killed the game and seemed intent from the start on playing for the penalties by which they would win the cup.

But it would be a shame if the image of that final were to obscure the talents of the Yugoslav players of that era. Brian Glanville’s ‘Story of the World Cup’ records Prosinecki, “splendidly creative in midfield”, the “heir-apparent” to Stojkovic. Darko Pancev outscored the rest of Europe with 10 goals in qualification for the 1992 European Championships. Boban and Savicevic were instrumental when Milan dismantled Johann Cruyff’s feted Barcelona Dream Team in the 1994 European Cup Final.

Yugoslavia were drawn in the World Cup 1994 preliminaries, but were suspended from the competition before qualifying started. The team would surely have progressed from a group which was won by a Greece outfit which went on to lose all three of its matches in the USA.

But by now there was no team. The UN resolution did not end the fighting, and war in the Balkans raged until 1995. As Yugoslavia splintered, Slovenia and Croatia competed in qualifiers for Euro ‘96. The Croats reached England, and were eventually eliminated in the quarter-finals by Germany.

Croatia and the rump Yugoslavia qualified for France ‘98. A Yugoslavia side boasting Mihajlovic, Stankovic, Jugovic, Mijatovic, Savicevic and Stojkovic reached the second round – where the familiar defensive reflex took over and they were eliminated by the excellent Dutch. Croatia, meanwhile, advanced to the semi-finals, avenging Germany on their way. Jarni, Suker, Stanic, Boban, Asanovic and Prosinecki all had their chance to parade on the world stage.

Having missed out in 1987, Boksic was absent again in 1998, suffering from injury. A Suker-Boksic strikeforce could have been lethal in France – but what if Dejan Savicevic or Predrag Mijatovic had been in the same squad? Of course it wasn’t to be. After the nationalist genie was let out of the bottle at the end of the 1980s, and following Boban’s public stand, a Yugoslav team drawn from inside communist-era borders had no future.

Osim offered valuable perspective: "Lots of people have been killed. The country was destroyed. Sometimes there are things that are more important than football.” But while no-one laments a lost Soviet team of the same era, the break-up of Yugoslavia robbed international football of one of its potentially great sides.
It is likely that the 1994 World Cup would have been the team’s peak. While 1990 was too early for the Youth Cup winners, by 1998 Prosinecki and Stojkovic were struggling for fitness, and the time had passed.
A team in 1994 could have lined up: Ladic (then age 31) – Mirkovic (22), Djukic (28), Spasic (28), Jarni (25) – Boban (25), Katanec (30), Stojkovic (29), Prosinecki (25) – Savicevic (27), Suker (26).
The likes of goalkeeper Omerovic (32); defenders NajdoskI (30), Bilic (25) and Stimac (26); midfielders Jugovic (24), Jokanovic (25), Mihajlovic (25), Zahovic (23), Asanovic (28) and Stanic (22); and forwards Boksic (24), Mijatovic (25) and Pancev (28) would have provided plenty of options to cover lapses in form and fitness.

Strong defenders, the discipline to carry out tactical plans, abundant midfield creativity, lethal finishers, strength in depth. This group had everything. It would certainly have given the Brazilian champions of Bebeto, Romario and Dunga a run for their money.

The 1954 Hungarians, the Dutch team of 1974 and the 1982 Brazilians are held up as the best, most attractive, teams never to have won the World Cup. At least the teams of Puskas, Cruyff and Zico had a chance. Hungary and Holland were both stopped by Germany. Brazil were beaten by Rossi. Yugoslavia were denied by history.


  1. Tremendous piece of writing, really enjoyed it.

  2. Really excellent read. What a generation of talent was produced.

  3. Excellent read mate. Great generation of talent.

  4. Thanks for Rt'ing this. Fantastic read.

  5. Søren BettingExpert.dk3 September 2012 at 23:37

    Fantastic. Alway loved those players. specially Boban, had a Milan-jersey with him on the back. Cheers!

  6. Excellent read. Its one of football's disappointments that this group of footballers never had the chance to show they world what they could do.