Yugoslavia and the breakup of its soccer team

After a series of wars that brought death and devastation in the former Yugoslavia, seven countries exist where one once did, and seven soccer teams have replaced one.
Members of the Serbia and Montenegro team pose ahead of a game at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. ((Getty Images))

There's an image from the 2006 World Cup that remains prominent in the minds of many, even four years later.

It's not Fabio Cannavaro lifting the trophy after Italy's penalty shootout victory in the final, and it's not England's David Beckham leaving the pitch in tears.

On June 11, Serbia and Montenegro made its first World Cup appearance as a country. Only, it didn't.

Eight days before the national team was scheduled to play its first match of the tournament against the Netherlands, the Montenegrin parliament ratified the results of a May referendum that created an independent Montenegro. Serbia and Montenegro no longer existed, although its national soccer team lined up on the grass in Leipzig as the old national anthem, Hej Sloveni, was played.

No one sang. And Serbia and Montenegro, who had qualified so easily for the World Cup finals, played out an unemotional 1-0 loss. They would score just twice in three matches, conceding 10 times before returning to homes in two different countries instead of one. It was heartbreaking.

But heartbreak, like soccer, is a thick strand in the fabric of Slavic history.

After a series of wars that brought death and devastation on every side, seven countries exist where one once did, and seven soccer teams have replaced one.

Two of them (Slovenia and Serbia) will compete in this summer's World Cup in South Africa. Two that didn't make it (Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) came awfully close. The other three (Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro) are still improving.

But there's still a long way to go. With the odd exception, such as Croatia's unlikely run to the semifinals in France in 1998, the two decades between 1990 and 2010 will go down as the dark ages of soccer in the former Yugoslavia. While there are plenty of reasons to believe the cloud has finally lifted, history serves as a sober caution.

And what a history, a history soccer was right in the middle of.

War hero

Zvonimir Boban is a Croatian war hero but never picked up a rifle, never threw a stone. In fact, he's a philanthropist with a bachelor's degree in history.

Twenty years ago, however, he was an up-and-coming striker for Dinamo Zagreb. Given the political tension at the time, that alone made him a national icon. But his status, and that of his team's, ballooned even further whenever Serbian club Red Star Belgrade came to town. And on May 13, 1990, Boban found himself in a battle against a Serbian army.


A week earlier, the Croatian Democratic Union won an election, effectively ousting the Belgrade-based communists of Slobodan Milosevic and installing Franjo Tudjman as president.

Already a virulent derby, the upcoming Red Star-Dinamo match took on an entirely different flavour after the vote, and a Milosevic hardman — paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan — led a brigade of more than 3,000 soccer hooligans, representing the Delije firm, to Zagreb. It was easy to predict what would happen.

After taunting the Dinamo supporters with chants of "We'll kill Tudjman" and "Zagreb is Serbia," the Red Star fans began throwing their seats and bits of rock at their opponents in the stands. All the while, the police stood silent. Finally, thousands of Dinamo fans flooded the pitch and ran at their Red Star counterparts, only to find their path blocked by the police.

By this point, only a handful of players remained on the grass. One of them was Boban, and he spotted a Dinamo fan being attacked by a police officer. Instinctively, the player ran at the officer and kicked him off the supporter. It was a single, simple act, but it transformed Boban into a Croatian hero. Barely a year later, the war of independence began, and would last four years.

Banned from competing

As the region descended into chaos, Yugoslavia's national team was banned from competing in both the 1992 European Championships and 1994 World Cup. Not that anyone was particularly concerned with soccer prestige — sports, after all, is not a matter of life and death — but the penalty could not have come at a worse time for Yugoslavian soccer.

Just two years earlier, they had gone all the way to the quarter-finals at Italia '90, only losing to Argentina on penalties. And three years before that, their up-and-coming players had claimed the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Chile.

Boban, incidentally, scored a crucial goal in the final against West Germany, and the squad also included future Real Madrid and Barcelona midfielder Robert Prosinecki, future Valencia and Real Madrid forward Predreg Mijatovic, and the legendary Davor Suker. After the formation of the Croatian national team, all three were part of the side that went all the way to the semifinals in France in 1998.

Who knows? They might have won Euro '92 in Sweden. As it happens, the team that took their place in the tournament, Denmark, went on to lift the trophy.

But Yugoslavia's footballing pedigree had been well established before the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At the first World Cup in 1930, they knocked out Brazil en route to a fourth-place finish. They were quarter-finalists in both 1954 and 1958, losing to West Germany on both occasions but beating France twice along the way. In 1962, they finally exorcised their West German demons, only to bow out to Czechoslovakia in the semifinals. Drazan Jerkovic scored four goals in that World Cup to share the Golden Boot.

Jerkovic added another two goals to his international tally-sheet at the 1960 European Championships, where Yugoslavia hammered Portugal 5-1, beat France 5-4 but lost in extra time to the Soviet Union in the final. They were runners-up again in 1968, this time losing to Italy over two legs. But not before they beat England in Florence.

For the 10 years between 1958 and 1968, Yugoslavia was right on the cusp of contending for major titles — an entrenched member of international soccer's second tier alongside the likes of Portugal, France and the Netherlands. In 1992, they might have hit those heights again, or even surpassed them. But nothing derails momentum like politics or war.

Model democracy

Politically, Slovenia has become a model democracy in the former Yugoslavia. The country held its first independent elections in 1990, and 14 years later was admitted into NATO. In May 2004, the stable economy and the country's political institutions were recognized as Slovenia was admitted into the European Union, for which it held the rotating presidency in 2008.

Things have been progressing steadily on the pitch as well, and Slovenia will make its second World Cup appearance this summer. Bracketed with England, Algeria and the United States in Group C, they'll be longshots to get out of their group, but they won't be embarrassed, either.

Having come through a difficult qualification group that included 2006 World Cup participants Poland and the Czech Republic, they dispatched favoured Russia over two legs to book a spot in the South Africa finals. Imposing Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic led the charge with five goals, and he'll be one to watch over the next few weeks.

So will Robert Koren. The Slovenia skipper was released by West Bromwich Albion at the end of the club season and will be hoping to attract suitors at the World Cup.

In Group D — one of the groups of death — Serbia will be making its second consecutive appearance in a World Cup finals. And just like four years ago, they breezed into the tournament with a convincing qualification campaign. Losing only twice in 10 matches — and conceding just eight goals — they finished ahead of France and also led the group in scoring.

They'll need the goals to advance from a pool with Germany, Ghana and Australia. As Serbia and Montenegro in 2006, they were bereft of offence. But perhaps morale had something to do with that.

While Premier League defenders Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic are the most recognizable names on the squad, Danko Lazovic is a decent striker for Zenit St. Petersburg, and former Valencia hitman Nikola Zigic was recently signed by Birmingham City. He's 6-7 and provides a big target for midfielders Milos Krasic, who made such an impression with CSKA Moscow last season, and Inter Milan stalwart Dejan Stankovic.

Now, neither Slovenia nor Serbia will win the World Cup. Let's not kid ourselves. But they're there, and given what they've come through to be in South Africa, it will be easy to cheer them on.

At the very least, let's hope they leave a memorable image of the positive sort. Something to remember four years down the road for all the right reasons.

Soccer in the former Yugoslavia may not be what it was, but it's trending upwards. And won't it be fun to watch it rise.