The Last Time The East Reigned Europe | @GJ_Thomas

The Champions League remains Europe's premier club competition, some fans even arguing that winning the trophy is a greater achievement that winning a World Cup. When the European Cup was first founded in the 1955/56 season, little could those founders have expected the cup to become as 'great' as it now is. In 1992/93, the European Cup became the Champions League, and the list of winning clubs/countries is remarkably Western. To find a name from the East of Europe, we need to take a trip to 1991...

The 1991 European Cup winners - Red Star Belgrade

Spaniards Real Madrid dominated the opening years of the European Cup, winning the first five editions against French, Italian and West German opponents. Benfica followed with two back-to-back wins of their own, with AC Milan and Inter Milan (x2), then making it three Italian victories in a row. It would be 1966, a whole decade into the tournaments history, before an Eastern European side would make the final, FK Partizan Belgrade of Yugoslavia losing to Real Madrid in Heysel Stadium, Belgium. 

The lack of Eastern European success was perhaps unusual, notably because the of the forerunners of the European Cup. The Challenge Cup, played between countries in the Austro-Hungarian empire had been founded in 1897, and mainly featured teams from Vienna (Austria), Budapest (Hungary) and Prague (Czechoslovakia). The knockout tournament was competed for until 1911, with Wiener Athletiksport Club of Austria notching the most wins with three. The Challenge Cup led to other competitions such as the Austrian Cup (1919) and the Mitropa-Cup (1927), also seeing Eastern European joy. 

However, the potentially answer lies deeper in the political split the separated Europe after the conclusion of the Second World War. In 1945, following the defeat in the UK General Election, Winston Churchill visited Missouri, USA and declared famously in a speech that: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent" [1], Churchill was pre-empting the divide that would emerge during the 'Cold War'. Capitalist Western Europe versus Communist Eastern Europe, democracy and freedom versus dictatorship and totalitarianism. Tension, contrasting ideologies and the threat of war in an increasingly nuclear world marked out this period of time as one students will continue to study in schools and universities for many years to come. 

Sport played its role in Soviet propaganda, despite a lack of success in club football

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), did promote sport for its citizens. A 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine from a journalist based in Soviet countries found that in the USSR, "Sports are free, collective and almost obligatory", noting how "the boom in spectator sports is no less impressive", with Moscow's Lenin Stadium regularly "filled easily by enthusiastic fans of the nation's most popular game, soccer" [2]. 

Internationally, Eastern European teams could more than compete with their Western counterparts. In the 1950s, Hungary's Mighty Magyars finished as runners-up to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final. This phenomenal team recorded 42 wins, seven draws and just the single WC Final defeat between 1950 and 1956. Czechoslovakia would then finish runners-up themselves in the 1962 World Cup Final against Brazil in Chile. 

In the European Championships, success was more forthcoming. The 1960 European Championships, regarded by many as the first formal European international competition, saw four teams make the finals, three Eastern European - Czechoslovakia, second-placed Yugoslavia and winners the Soviet Union. Whilst not winning the tournament again, the Soviets would finish second three more times (1964, 1972 & 1988), with Yugoslavia again runners-up in 1968. 

The USSR lifted the European Championships in 1960

Perhaps the most straightforward comparison to make is as often done, between East and West Germany. In 1945 following the conclusion of WWII, Germany would be split into four zones, with the UK, America, France and Russia taking responsibility for each area. The Western zones were quickly joined to make West Germany, with a new currency and a western cultural identity, whilst the Soviets saw East Germany assimilate with eastern culture and rule. The differences were stark and in 1974 West Germany, already with one World Cup and one European Championship to their name, were given the honour of hosting the World Cup.

East Germany would be drawn in the same group as their great political rivals with many expecting a simple West victory. However, Jürgen Sparwasser's single goal secured a 1-0 upset for the East. Despite this, East Germany would crash out later in the tournament, whilst the West would recover to lift the 1974 World Cup. This one competitive meeting would be it on the international stage, meaning by German reunification in 1990, the East still maintained the 'derby' bragging rights. The East have been labelled ‘Freundschaftsspielweltmeister’ or ‘world champions of friendlies’, because of the communist nation’s tendency to just play non-competitive matches against fellow socialist states [3]. When the two reunified, the West would boast a far greater international record, but the East would cling onto that important day in 1974.

West Germany hosted East Germany in the 1974 World Cup, a major political & footballing moment

Back to the domestic football and it is far harder to find the East of Europe appearing in European Cup or UEFA Cup Finals. As mentioned, FK Partizan did in the 1950s, and it would be 1979 before the East did again, with Partizan's city rivals, Red Star Belgrade, losing to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the UEFA Cup Final. Hungarians Videoton lost out to Real Madrid in the 1985 edition of the cup, until a breakthrough was finally achieved by FC Steaua București. The Romanians shocked many to raise the European Cup against Barcelona on penalties, maybe helped out by England's European ban following their seven victories in eight seasons. Steaua were the first champions from the East, but that is probably a story for another time, we are interested in the last time the East reigned European football.

So to 1990, where "Yugoslavia was a nation being held together by a thread. With Communism crumbling, nationalist tensions between the states were rising and independence was on the agenda" [4]. This had been shown on 13 May 1990, when Red Star visited Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia) to play Dinamo Zagreb and violence erupted. 3000 Red Star supporters began damaging the Maksimir Stadium, causing the home fans to riot in response as a mass brawl erupted. To make matters worse, Zagreb midfielder Zvonimir Boban kicked a police officer in the face. The kick for many was a "symbol" of Croatia rising up against Serbian oppression [5]. It was into this powder keg of passion, emotion and uncertainty that Red Star (natively: FK Crvena Zvezda) began their European Cup campaign. 

1990/91 was the penultimate European Cup before rebranding to the Champions League, it was also the last ever straight knockout version without a group stage. Red Star Belgrade were drawn against Grasshopper of Switzerland, beating them 5-2 on aggregate to earn a tie against Scottish side Rangers. Winning the home leg 3-0, Rangers could only muster a 1-1 draw at Ibrox and they were out. East Germans Dynamo Dresden, in their last season before reunification, were beaten 5-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals and West Germans, former three-time competition winners Bayern Munich, stood between Red Star and a European Cup Final.

Playing away in the first leg, Red Star earned a magnificent 2-1 win, meaning their 2-2 home draw was enough to take them to the final at the Stadio San Nicola, in Bari, Italy. French club Marseille were the opponents - both aiming for their first European title. Albanians Dinamo Tirana, Poles Lech Poznań, Italy's AC Milan and Soviet side Spartak Moscow all failed to stop Marseille's progression to Bari. The two sides would meet on 29 May 1991.

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Wednesday 29 May 1991

The British press's attention was on the only British interest in the final, Chris Waddle. The England international had moved from Tottenham Hotspur in 1989, and even the Aberdeen Press and Journal wondered if he could join "the immortals of British soccer" by helping a French club win a first ever European Cup; after their teams had fallen at the final hurdle three previous times [6]. Marseille boasted a host of other stars too, including Abedi Pele, Jean-Pierre Papin, Basile Boli and even former Red Star man, Dragan Stojković.

Red Star were well-prepared before the final, arriving six days before kick-off to settle into their Italian surroundings. The players were separated from media distractions as well as friends and family, as their squad, featuring key men such as Siniša Mihajlović (future Serie A veteran), Robert Prosinečki (future Real Madrid, Barcelona & Portsmouth man) and Dejan Savićević (future Milan attacking midfielder) were set for the biggest night in Red Star's history, an sizeable challenge.

Robert Prosinečki played for some of Europe's biggest clubs

The final itself was saw Marseille miss a whole host of chances to win the game, including two gilt-edged opportunities for Chris Waddle. In the 29th minute, a Laurent Fournier pull-back found him on the bounce but Red Star defender Ilija Najdoski put him off and his attempt swung so far wide that it remained in play near the corner flag. In the second half, captain Papin then found Waddle with a delightful cross but his flying header went wide and after 90 minutes the scores remained at 0-0, with Red Star just managing three shots to Marseille's ten,

The British media, that had hyped Waddle pre-match, were brutal in their criticism of the wideman, writing that "Waddle showed why Graham Taylor has discarded him from the England's international scene", and instead of showing why he should be Marseille's Footballer of the Year, he "retreated into the irritating football that has alarmed so many" [7]. 

The truth of the matter was that Red Star had enjoyed a fine season with “a squad full of 21, 22 and 23-year-old kids” as Mihajlović himself acknowledged [8]. The challenge facing the Yugoslavs in the final saw manager Ljupko Petrović decide they needed to defend resolutely and play for a stalemate. This was particularly appealing because of the Yugoslav league's rule of using shootouts in every game that draws, meaning Red Star were well-versed in a spot-kick. After 120 goalless minutes, Red Star had their chance from 12 yards.

Prosinečki stepped up first and struck home, whilst French defender Manuel Amoros missed his attempt. The next four Red Star takers netted their penalties, but even with Marseille not missing any more, Amoros's miss was enough and Red Star had won it - 5-3 on penalties! Chris Waddle, fresh from his Italia '90 World Cup miss for England failed to take a kick, although who knows if he was due to take the fifth?

England's Chris Waddle failed to take a European Cup Final penalty for Marseille

The East had a second European champion, Yugoslavia's Red Star Belgrade had done it! A tight, counter-attacking display described as, "A characteristic performance that brought an uncharacteristic result". However, Jonathan Wilson writes that, "by then, Yugoslavia barely existed. In this case, the brightest hour came before the night" [9]. 

By 27 April 1992, politics intervened again as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia ceased to exist, becoming: Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia (now North Macedonia), Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992–2003), that then became Serbia and Montenegro (2003–2006), before separating into Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Sadly, this process was not a peaceful one, and formed part of the wider Yugoslav wars that ravaged the region from 31 March 1991 – 12 November 2001. Due to the violence, the Yugoslavian national side would be barred from entering Euro '92 and a promising squad saw their spot given to Denmark, the same Denmark who would famously win the competition despite not initially qualifying. 

And so it remains, Red Star Belgrade/FK Crvena Zvezda are the last team from Eastern Europe to raise 'ol big ears. The Champions League has continued to see dominance from some of the continent's biggest Western clubs, but Eastern European football has not had much to cheer since that day in May 1991, when, amidst political violence and wider ideological tensions, football played its part - as it always does!

Red Star celebrate their historic victory

This piece was written by Gareth Thomas, follow on Twitter: @GJ_Thomas  & @TFHBs.

[1] Winston Churchill, speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1945.
[2] Sports Illustrated magazine, originally published in 1957 and republished on their website.
[3] Markus Hesselmann and Robert Ide, in Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young (eds.), German Football: History, Culture, Society (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006).
[4]Scott Murray and Rowan Walker, Day of the Match (London: Boxtree, 2008).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Aberdeen Press and Journal - Wednesday 29 May 1991, via the British Newspaper Archive.
[7] Daily Mirror - Thursday 30 May 1991, via the British Newspaper Archive.
[8] Red Star's Siniša Mihajlović, in These Football Times.
[9] Jonathan Wilson, Behind The Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football (London: Orion, 2006).

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