Red Star, one of the great surprises of the European Cup

If we make a brief review of the recent history of the UEFA Champions League, we can notice that since the final of the 2003-04 edition where Jose Mourinho's FC Porto participated and won the competition, there has not been a club of a league that is not one of the top five in Europe (Spain, England, Italy, Germany and France) and if we consider the entire period from 1992-93 (season where the name of the competition is changed), we would only have two more cases similar to the Portuguese club: Louis van Gaal's Ajax in 1995 and 1996, just before the application of the Bosman ruling.

Red Star Belgrade match against Partizan
That is why thinking of a Balkan club participating in a UEFA Champions League final today is very difficult, but there is a precedent that takes us to 1991 where Red Star Belgrade (Crvena Zvezda) achieved that feat. Yugoslav football (this occurs before the Croatian war that would separate the country) was seeing the birth of a generation of footballers who were called to make history for their country who, for example, had been world champions in the Under-20s category in 1987, with some of those players being part of the Red Star team.

History of the Red Star

The club was born in 1945 in the context of the World War II, when a group of young people from an amateur football league decided to create a sports institution in Belgrade that would be the only survivor in the area of all those created before and during the war. The club grew rapidly and in 1951 managed to win its first Yugoslavian League, after finishing second in the two previous editions. That was the first step for a club that would be one of the usual contenders for the title and that would win different titles at the local level.

In the mid-1980s, the club began a search for the best talents in the Yugoslav territory with the intention of getting ahead of its rivals and in this way some names such as Prosinecki, Savicevic, Jugovic or Mihajlovic arrived, with some of them being part of the Yugoslav champion team in the Under-20s category. In 1990, the club would hire Ljupko Petrovic, a manager on the rise after winning a second division championship with Spartak Subotica in 1988 and the Yugoslav league with Vojvodina the following year.

The 1991 European Cup

At that time, the European Cup was only played by the champions of each league and as champions of Yugoslavia, Red Star was one of the participants in the competition and the format was a two-leg direct elimination except for the final which was played in a single game. In that scenario, the Belgrade team began the tournament facing Switzerland's Grasshoppers, whom they would beat by an aggregate score of 5-2, having significantly outperformed the Swiss in the second match.

In the next round, Glasgow Rangers awaited, who, at that time, were absolute dominant in the Scottish league and had just won its second consecutive league of the nine that it would end up achieving in a row. In this case, Red Star would get the job done in the first match where they would beat the Scots by a 3-0 score. In the quarterfinals, Dynamo Dresden would not put up much resistance as they would lose both games 3-0, the first due to sporting reasons and the second due to incidents caused by the German team's fans.

Red Star Belgrade supporters
Finally, the powerful Bayern Munich would be the last hurdle before reaching the long-awaited final for the Yugoslav club since their city rival, Partizan, had reached one in 1966 where they were defeated by Real Madrid. In the first game, Red Star would surprise the world by beating Bayern 2-1 at their stadium, a result that was being repeated in Belgrade but in favor of the Germans, although an own goal by Augenthaler in the 90th minute sealed the pass for the Yugoslavs to the final at the end.

The last match awaited the Olympique de Marseille of Bernard Tapie, who had devastated all their opponents throughout the tournament.

The final

In Yugoslavia, the joy at the achievement of Red Star was overshadowed by the growing tension between the different states that made up the country that were seeking to separate in search of independence. In this context, a final was played that would be played at the San Nicola de Bari stadium and that faced the surprise of the championship with a French team that had had a significant financial investment, being considered one of the first clubs (perhaps the first) in receiving this type of investment from a millionaire, a practice that has become very common in football.

Marseille had names like Chris Waddle, Jean-Pierre Papin, Abedi Pele or Jean Tigana as well as Dragan Stojkovic, a great Yugoslav midfielder who had come to the French club from Red Star where he had great performances. Marseille had been characterized by taking advantage of counterattacks very well due to the great talent they had in attack and for this reason, coach Petrovic, who analyzed a lot of the Frenchmen's games, asked his players to give up possession of the ball and going as far as asking them to return the ball to the OM players each time they retrieved it.

The Yugoslav coach planned the game to be 0-0 and win on penalties with a save by veteran goalkeeper Stevan Stojanovic and almost as if it was a vision of the future, the game was very boring and Red Star only concentrated on defending. The tie was maintained in a dull 0-0 draw and they reached penalties where Stojanovic would stop the first shot that was Manuel Amoros', this being the only difference between both teams and being what would end up giving him the first and until now, the only European Cup for a Balkan club.

Despite this great achievement and the fact that the team was a great representation of Yugoslavia as a nation as it had a mixture of Serbs, Montenegrins, Croats, Bosnians and Macedonians, who together reached the top of European football, this did not prevent the start of the war and this would lead to that great Red Star team vanishing. The talented players of the Yugoslav team left the institution, for the most part, heading for Italy and Spain, the main leagues in Europe at the time.