Yugoslavia’s ‘What If’ Moment Lives On

By | May 25, 2016

In 1992, the Yugoslav national team finished first in their qualifying group for EURO92 and was one of the favorites to win the tournament.  Many were left in shock when a tearful Ivica Osim (Yugoslavia’s manager) resigned from his post during a press conference in Belgrade.  As the country descended into war and chaos, the national team was banned from international competitions and Denmark took Yugoslavia’s place at EURO92.  Denmark went on to be crowned champions of Europe.

Fast forward 24 years, EURO2016 qualification only saw one ex-Yugoslav country qualify, the seemingly perennial Croatia. Despite this fact, a modern united Yugoslav side might have once again been one of the favorites for the upcoming tournament.

World Cup 2014 saw a debutant at soccer’s grandest stage, the small nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Together with Croatia, these two European nations were the sole representatives of former Yugoslavia, the remnants of a united past. In Brazil, neither advanced past the group stage despite having some of the biggest names in world soccer. Players such as Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Roma’s Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic. Elsewhere, a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his Sweden side did not even make the tournament. Serbia’s celebrated defense, complete with players such as Vidic, Ivanovic, Kolarov and Subotic was also missing from the party. What if – for a moment, we imagined all of them together, playing side by side, on one team. For many, it’s a nightmare, for others forever a dream.

Bosnia’s story of qualification was one of the most celebrated that year, with sentiments of solidarity and unity between the different ethnic groups in the country being proclaimed. It was what the people needed after such a long time of distrust and animosity, and the open warfare of the 1990s.  For many, Bosnia reminded them of another time, and the once whole Yugoslavia.

The country of Yugoslavia consisted of six independent republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. In the early 1990s, ethnic hatred started to boil over as the socialist leadership in the country weakened and gave way to hardliners such as Slobodan Milosevic and other nationalists. This culminated in open warfare across the former Yugoslavia, where it was especially brutal in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the most heterogeneous of the six republics. With the end of the war, came independence and quiet hatred, which unfortunately, still persists to this day.

In many ways, Bosnia and Herzegovina was, and still remains a microcosm of Yugoslavia. The team had players from all three major ethnic groups in the country, and achieved something that was seen as impossible for a long time, qualifying for the World Cup. For a brief moment, it didn’t matter who you were, or what your name was, everyone was united behind the support of the Dragons. For Yugoslav nostalgics, Bosnia’s national team represented something that they knew and loved, strength through brotherhood and unity.

After all, Yugoslavia’s football tradition was certainly something to be proud of. The country had qualified for eight World Cup tournaments, and reached the semi-finals on two occasions, in 1930 and 1962. They had been to four European Championships, finishing as the runners-up twice, in 1960 and 1968. Yugoslavia’s domestic league was one of the strongest in Europe, with the clubs routinely advancing far in the European Cup (Champions League). Red Star Belgrade (Crvena Zvezda) actually won the competition in 1991, towards the end of the former Yugoslavia. The World Youth Championship winning under-20 team was one of the greatest generations the country had produced. At the 1990 World Cup, they reached the quarterfinals, only to lose to Argentina on penalty kicks. Two years later, the country was viewed as one of the heavy favorites for the 1992 European Championship.

At the 1994 World Cup, Yugoslavia could have fielded yet another dream team with names such as Dragan Stojkovic, Davor Suker, Igor Stimac, Alen Boksic, Zvonimir Boban and others. But it wasn’t to be. Yugoslavia’s six children went on to achieve fantastic success as independent nations instead. Croatia’s 1998 World Cup team won the bronze medal, the best result of any former Yugoslav republic. Since independence, the countries have jointly qualified for five World Cups and five European Championships. Endless club and individual honors for the players, who have played and continue to play for Europe’s top sides. Serbia’s U-20 side recently won the World Cup, beating Brazil in the final. Croatia’s Alen Halilovic (who interestingly has Bosnian roots as well), is viewed as one of the biggest talents in the world.  The former republics continuously produce top notch talent, despite meager funds invested into football academies and youth programs.

It can easily be argued that a modern united Yugoslav national team could challenge for World Cup and European gold. A defense consisting of players such as Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Neven Subotic (Borussia Dortmund), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), and Aleksandar Kolarov (Manchester City). A midfield of maestros, complete with Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Miralem Pjanic (Roma), Nemanja Matic (Chelsea), Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United). Goalkeepers such as Asmir Begovic (Chelsea), Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid) and Samir Handanovic (Inter Milan), and a potent attack with Edin Dzeko (Roma), Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Stevan Jovetic (Inter Milan) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris Saint-German). Such a team would strike fear into any of the world’s top national teams, judging by the club names alone.

Nobody can say with certainty how far a team such as this could have gone at the World Cup or the European Championship. Many would point to hatred between the different ethnic groups among the players.  They would say that chemistry would be nonexistent and cliques would form, leading to a lack of cohesion. Certainly, Kosovo’s recent UEFA recognition has once again lit the fires of animosity in the region.  Historically, however, this was almost never a problem in Yugoslav football.  One thing remains certain however, Yugoslavia’s modern team remains a dream for many, and a nightmare for others.  Yugoslavia as a united country is dead, but the “what if,” moment lives on for many.

@albinkohasic

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