Fallen giants – The Crvena Zvezda story
This is the first in a new series which will look at mighty clubs around Europe that are facing serious problems now that the glory days have faded away, whether on the pitch or in the stands. I feel that enough has already been written about the likes of Leeds United, Rangers and Parma, I want to tell the stories of clubs that are very rarely told in English. Later in the series we’ll go to Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy and more, but we’ll start in my favourite country to visit in the world – Serbia.
Crvena Zvezda, more commonly known outside Serbia as Red Star Belgrade are one of the most historically significant clubs in world football. They are the only club from the former Yugoslavia to have won the European Cup (arch rivals Partizan being the only other to reach the final, losing in heart-breaking fashion to Real Madrid), and regularly contested the later stages of the tournament throughout the 80’s. They were also involved in perhaps the craziest thing to ever happen at a football match, when they travelled to Dinamo Zagreb in 1990. Although war did not break out for another 18 months following this clash, the gigantic riot between Delije (the ultras of Red Star) and the Bad Blue Boys (the ultras of Dinamo) is seen by many as the start of hostilities.
Of course, Red Star Belgrade are also well known in England for being the last side to face Manchester United before the plane crash which killed so many of their highly promising team in 1958. United had lead the match 3 – 0 at half time, before Zvezda scored three goals in 12 minutes to earn a draw. The Serbian club have been deeply successful throughout their history, adding 26 league titles, 24 domestic cups and the now defunct Intercontinental Cup to their greatest ever success, the previously mentioned European Cup in 1991.
Despite all this success, the greatest thing about Zvezda isn’t their trophies or unique history. It’s not their beautiful kit or iconic stadium. It’s not even their matches against Partizan Belgrade, the best football match in Europe and a derby only challenged in ferocity anywhere in the world by River Plate vs. Boca Juniors. No, above all, the most special thing about this club is the supporters. The stadium is not always full and you can see empty seats at plenty of matches, but one thing is constant – Delije will be there. The history of the Balkans means that the people are spread out all over the continent, and passionate supporters of Zvezda travel to every match from all over the place. Whether they walk to the stadium from their house round the corner or spend hours on a train, the supporters back them every step of the way, just as passionately in hard times as they did in the glory years.
It is very fortunate for Zvezda that the supporters show such unwavering loyalty, otherwise there might not be anyone left in the stadium at all. While the 1991 success was the greatest moment in their history, it also proved to be the start of a chain of events which would take the club from being one of the greatest in the world, to relatively unknown outside of their own borders. The story of the ownership of Red Star Belgrade is not one of mismanagement and mistakes, but indeed one of betrayal.
Thanks to a friend of mine who is a passionate Zvezda supporter now living in the UK (@DusanMano on Twitter), I have put together the series of disasters and scandals which culminated in Zvezda being beaten 2 – 0 by Kazak side Kairat Almaty in the stadium where Barcelona, Bayern, Milan and the rest used to fear to tread.
Having reached the peak of European football, it was inevitable that Europe’s elite would come calling for the star men. Zvezda players were snapped up by Milan, Real Madrid, Inter, Roma and Sampdoria (a hugely successful club back then). Good money was paid for these players and it could have helped secure the financial future of the club for life, but the influx of wealth came at the worst possible time. With Serbia now at war, all the money they made from the sales of the likes of Savicevic and Pancev was kept by the government. This meant that not only had Red Star lost the core of the side, they didn’t even have anything to show for it in their bank account.
With the Yugoslavian league of course broken up due the fact that, well, Yugoslavia didn’t exist anymore, Zvezda began to compete in the Serbia and Montenegro league instead. In the first seven years of this competition they would only lift the trophy once, rivals Partizan adding five trophies to their collection and one trophy for FK Obilić, a club who were being funded by Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan. The story of this club during Arkan’s time is worthy of a lengthy article in itself, with reports that supporters would go as far to point guns at opposition players during matches, in addition to the fact that Arkan was such a powerful figure that opposition players were terrified to score against them.
Obilić faded as a threat once Arkan was murdered in early 2000, with Red Star benefiting by lifting back-to-back titles. However, disastrous financial decisions would once again prevent the club from building on this dominance, and it allowed Partizan to begin to dominate Serbian football. Zvezda president Dragan Džajić is one of the most legendary Serbian players of all time, and holds the record for both the most goals and most appearances for the club. However, Džajić is well known to have signed a number of 50/50 deals with agents for top players at the club. This meant when players were sold for good money (including Nikola Žigić), the club would only receive half of the cash. These 50/50 deals resulted in the club once again receiving far less than they should have.
However, the worst was yet to come, with club captain and Zvezda hero Nemanja Vidić departing to Russia in highly controversial circumstances, which would later come to trial in 2011.
This turmoil off the field finally caught up with the club, and Zvezda began the worst spell in the history of the club. Partizan took away their title in 2007/08, and the ribbons on the trophy would be black and white for six seasons in a row. The club which once ruled Europe had been knocked off their throne in the way that Manchester United displaced Liverpool in England, and it was not just in Serbia that Zvezda supporters would suffer. From beating Bayern Munich, Rangers, Marseille and Real Madrid, in the 00’s they suffered defeats to Tromsø, Dinamo Tbilisi, FC Levadia and even Bolton Wanderers! The best performance in Europe from Zvezda since the turn of the century has been two appearances in the group stages of the UEFA Cup/Europa League, a far cry from the glory days, and all so preventable if the club had been run with even the slightest degree of sense.
Unfortunately, sense has been a long way away from the president’s box at Marakana for a long time. After Džajić eventually left the club due to ill health, he was replaced by Dragan Stojković – commonly known as Piksi. This was to be another example that demonstrated being a superbly talented player when wearing the shirt of Red Star does not mean they are the right person to be running the club. Piksi gambled everything on the club reaching the Champions League, but missed out in the most unfortunate fashion. Zvezda were drawn against Italian giants Milan in 2007, the year that Italian football was hit by the biggest scandal ever. Milan were originally thrown out of the competition which would have given Zvezda a pass to the next round, but were reinstated just in time to travel to Serbia. Despite a brave performance over the two legs, Red Star were beaten 3 – 1. Milan would go on to be the champions of Europe that season.
Following this narrow failure, Piksi would infuriate the supporters by selling off the majority of the team who had taken them within touching distance of returning to the most prestigious of competitions. He was already unpopular with Delije for his attempts to limit supporter power at the club, and this would be the final straw. A combination of fan unrest and falling out with the Mafia lead to Piksi departing the club, and the ownership of Zvezda would consistently change hands over the next few years.
The club which was once the jewel in the crown of European football was now being treated as a way to make a quick bit of money for your mates. The Zvezda academy had consistently produced highly talented players who would help the club to succeed for a couple of seasons, before being sold on to a richer team for a good price. This reliance on youth was abandoned and instead of pursuing the best young players available, the president would ensure that players were recruited based on whether or not their parents were able to pay them a bribe. Genuinely talented players were released (many of them ending up at Partizan), while the rich kids would be kept on.
This shady transfer policy was present in all areas of the club, with many Zvezda supporters telling me about players who were clearly only signed to get someone a nice signing on fee bonus. Signed for an inflated price and on high wages, these players would play a handful of games before moving on somewhere else, getting extremely rich from Red Star Belgrade without offering anything in return. In the 90’s the club had players who you felt would die for the club, these legends replaced by players who could barely be bothered to run around a bit.
Zvezda were able to lift the league title again at last in the 2013/14 season, but surrendered it meekly to Partizan again last time around. Despite the disappointment of losing the title without much of a fight, the real disappointment came in Europe and the earlier mentioned visit of Kairat Almaty. Any European match is special for this club, but especially this one. There had not been any European football at Marakana the season before, the debts of the club spiraling so high that UEFA had banned them from taking their place in the Champions League.
So it came to be that the kind of side who Zvezda would have scored double figures against in their glory days came to Marakana and dominated from the first minute, taking advantage of an early red card to win 2 – 0, a result which actually flattered the hosts. Had the goalkeeper not put in a sensational performance, it could have been 5 – 0 or more. Despite this devastatingly poor result serving as the culmination of three decades of their beloved club being abused by the owners, the members of Delije sang long after the final whistle, their chants had not even stopped when the ball had hit the back of their net. These loyal supporters deserve so much more than they have been given, and it does not seem like there is any light at the end of the tunnel for this most historic and proud of clubs.
A week later, Zvezda took the long journey to Kazakhstan for the return leg and were beaten 2 – 1, confirming their exit at the earliest possible stage. From being the kings of Europe, the years of Zvezda being run by people without even 1% of the passion of the supporters has sadly seen them take their place with the paupers.