The Sixth Star: Red Star Belgrade’s Last Stand for Yugoslavia
The 1991 Red Star Belgrade team represents a lot of things to many people. A conquest of Europe that will never be seen again by a squad of talented Yugoslavians. True blitzing attacking was the vision for Red Star, and they carried it right through to their narrow victory over Marseille in the European Cup in Bari in the early 90s. At the time, people did not realise that Red Star were the last true unification of a nation about to crumble. Red Star were a side that poetically brought a country together before they tore themselves apart.
Red Star always prided themselves on being what Eastern Europe can bring. The brutal assault on backlines started catching the West’s eye and they became a mystery to teams that dared set foot in the Red Star Stadium. The steep bowl-like fortress was one of the most intimidating venues in Europe and the fans were ruthless die-hards who would die for their club. Red Star held a place in Belgradian’s hearts and the early 90s were promising times for the club. Having won 4 Serbian premier league titles out of 5, Red Star became a titan in Yugoslavia and their next goal was collecting a legendary status across the continent. The squad was definitely good enough to do so. Players like Robert Prosinečki, Vladimir Jugović and the most famous of all: Darko Pančev struck fear into the hearts of Europe’s top clubs.
Darko Pančev was, to put it short, different gravy. Arguably one of the most underrated strikers of the 90s, Pančev would shock Europe with his incredible goal record. In all competitions, Darko Pančev would score 84 goals in 92 games. The man was a machine. In fact, just to show how glorious this man was in front of goal, he spent his first season serving in the Yugoslav People’s Army. ‘Kobra’ was such a baller, he picked up the golden ball after the success of ’91. While he did face a tumultuous spell at Inter Milan, Darko Pančev will arguably go down as one of the best strikers of his generation. If he stayed on at Red Star instead of moving to the San Siro, he potentially could have been in contention as one of the greatest players of the 20th century. While Pančev was a big what-if story himself, the fate of his nation was almost certain by that night in Italy.
A collapsing government did not matter to the Red Star fans that night. A country formed in times of peace was beginning to fall apart in front of their eyes and yet the magic being displayed on the pitch was something to behold. Memories of Siniŝa Mehavilović whipping a beauty of a free kick against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals makes the country’s issues fade to black. The flairs, the limbs, and the spectacle of European domination made the problems back home disappear even if it was for a fleeting moment. Not long after the fans returned to Belgrade, Yugoslavia was plunged into war following several Baltic nations declared independence sparking the bloodiest European War post WW2. When all hope of peace was lost, Red Star gave the people a little something to smile about.
Red Star’s victory was the end of many chapters. It was one of the last times we saw a true underdog win the biggest prize in Europe. Not only that, but it is one of the last glimpses of Yugoslavian might on the big stage. It was also the last Eastern European team to win a Champions League title. A twinge of sadness hits me when I look at the scenes of Bari on the 29th of May 1991. A jubilant group of young men destined to continue their success in Europe torn apart by war criminals and violence. With Red Star still being a prevalent name in football to this day, it makes you think about what they could have been without war interrupting a golden era. An era that is long gone now but will forever be seen as a time when the sixth star from Belgrade brought hope to a hopeless nation.