The last action by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in international football competition officially took place on November 13, 1991. That night, in a rain swept Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna, a breathtaking display of magisterial heights by one Dejan Savićević propelled the side to a would-be berth in the following summer’s European Championships in Sweden.
Winning their last qualification game against Austria ensured that Yugoslavia (as it was known) topped Group 4, but by that stage the fog of war had already descended over the Balkans.
In early May 1990 the Croatian Democratic Union won an election that ousted the Belgrade-based communist regime of Slobodan Milosevic and installed Franjo Tudjman as effectively a quasi-president. Barely a week later on May 13 the Milosevic henchman – paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic (Arkan) – led a brigade of up to 3,000 Belgrade hooligans to Zagreb for the now infamous derby between Dinamo and Red Star.
What was to follow was the terrace battle that led onto the pitch where Zvonimir Boban sealed his place in Croat folklore, after he kicked out at a supposed Milosevic sympathising police officer who was attacking a Dinamo fan.Claimed widely by both sets of ultra supporters – Red Star’s Delije firm and Dinamo’s Bad Blue Boys – as the incident that kick-started the war, the notion might conflict against the wider spectrum of social unrest but, crucially, the action that day was that of supporters who would in the majority go on to fight in front-line conflict armed with Kalashnikovs instead of bricks and plastic seats.
With the house of cards standing on a foundation of sand, the Yugoslav national team went on to play in that year’s World Cup in Italy, with Croat ‘keeper Tomislav Ivković making all five of their starting line-ups in the finals and, infamously, saved Diego Maradona’s penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out against Argentina.
The Federal Republic was doomed, however, and the real escalation into all-out conflict began the following March after the deaths of a Croat policeman and a Serb paramilitary officer in what has become known as the Plitvice Lakes incident.
Although the last time Croatian club players lined out for Yugoslavia was in a comprehensive win over the Faroe Islands in May ’91, the official break-up of the SFRY football team (made up of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Slovenia) didn’t take place until that night in November at the Ernst Happel. A performance of incredible, one-off virtuosity by the Montenegrin Savićević was, fittingly, a send-off to a footballing nation known up to that point in South America as the Brazil of the Balkans. Savićević complimented a goal by setting up Vladan Lukic for the other in a 2-0 win. UN sanctions followed shortly afterwards and the SFRY was banned from all football competition.