Saturday, August 05, 2006


The Fog of War

The third qualifying round of this year’s European Champions’ League is upon us. For the uninitiated, this is the competition that generally features just as many non-champions as champions in the league stages, and is not really a league for the most part, but a cup. That’s UEFA for you.

This is the stage of the competition immediately before the league phase (the big payoff), so the two-leg ties are always fiercely competitive. The first two qualifying rounds tend to consist of one-sided ties in which the champions of Malta, Luxembourg and other countries without corrupt leagues tend to be knocked over. The third round always throws up some interesting clashes.

This year, there’s Arsenal v. Dinamo Zagreb – not an easy start for the London side at their swanky new stadium – and Dinamo Kiev v. Fenerbahce, among others. But the pick of the bunch is surely Milan v. Red Star Belgrade. These two sides, both of whom have a distinguished record in the old European Cup, played one of the most extraordinary ties in the history of the competition, in late 1988.

Thanks mainly to Bosman and the wage spiral, the Eastern European clubs are no longer the force they were in international events. Back in 1988, the Belgrade club – Crvena Zvezda to its supporters – still possessed such great players as Dragan Stojkovic and Dejan Savicevic, plus a young Robert Prosinecki. Stojkovic is now Red Star’s chairman, while Savicevic, a few years after the 1988 encounter between the two clubs, moved to Milan himself.

Milan were heavy favourites for the tie, though; they could field the three magnificent Dutchmen, Gullit, Rijkaard and van Basten, who had gloriously won the European Championship with Holland only a few months earlier.

The first leg was played at the San Siro. Milan pressured for most of the evening but could not make much progress against the resilient Red Star defence (which would, a couple of years later, keep the star-studded Marseille attack scoreless in the 1991 final). Red Star shocked the home team with a goal on the break soon after half-time. An equalizer came quickly, but Milan failed to find a winner: it ended 1-1, and the Yugoslavs went back home to their intimidating Marakana stadium with the upper hand.

The return leg was played two weeks later. Savicevic opened the scoring after brilliant lead-up work by Stojkovic, and Milan’s veteran striker Pietro Paolo Virdis, who had scored Milan’s goal in the opening leg, was sent off for throwing a punch at Goran Juric. On the hour mark, it looked like Red Star were about to pull off an impressive upset; they were 2-1 ahead on aggregate, with an extra man. Then the weather intervened.

A heavy fog had blanketed the Marakana, and on 65 minutes, German referee Pauly decided that play was no longer possible. The match, much to Milan’s relief, was called off. “The fog saved them,” Stojkovic recently commented.

The very next day, the teams took to the field for the replay. Milan were without Virdis, and Ruud Gullit, not entirely fit, started on the bench. Nevertheless, the rossoneri scored first through van Basten, late in the first half; Stojkovic replied with a penalty a few minutes later.

It was a bruising encounter, and Roberto Donadoni, now manager of Italy following Marcello Lippi’s post-World Cup exit, was injured in a heavy collision which resulted in him swallowing his tongue; the alertness and skill of Red Star’s physio, who was forced to break Donadoni’s jaw to open the airway, may well have saved his life.

The match went to penalties. The home side would have to be favourites in such a situation, you would think; yet Giovanni Galli, Milan’s keeper, kept out the efforts of Savicevic and the substitute Mrkela…and his club advanced.

In the end, Milan would romp home to a 4-0 victory in the final, and would become a dominant force in European football for the next few years. Few now remember how very close they came to being knocked out of the 1989 European Cup before the quarter-finals.

How things have changed. In the current competition, most observers would give Red Star, now without the outstanding youngster Nemanja Vidic, only the merest chance of knocking off the formidable, cosmopolitan Milan team which features two of Italy’s key World Cup men, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo. But Stojkovic, distinguished veteran of 1988, has promised that the crowd will witness “a true spectacle” when Milan comes to Belgrade again.

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