After the Europa League draw in August, one Arsenal fan wasn’t impressed. “You know you’re in the Europa League when you draw teams called Crvena Zvezda.”
The supporter, as often happens on social media, was immediately bombarded by an army of angry football fans. Crvena Zvezda have actually won a European Cup it was pointed out, something Arsenal are yet to achieve. Zvezda have a rich history, numerous titles, a legion of legendary former players and one of the most atmospheric stadiums in the world. Hardly the minnows they were being made out to be.
Perhaps if UEFA had used their name in English – Red Star Belgrade – the misstep would have been avoided. Of course, Red Star is one of the more recognisable names in the game.
Their name in Serbian is actually Crvena zvezda with a small z, but changes depending on the language – Stella Rossa in Italian, Etoile Rouge in French and Red Star in English. With the club reaching the group stage of the Europa League for the first time since the 2007-08 season (where they battled, unsuccessfully, against Gary Megson’s Bolton) along with great rivals Partizan, Serbian football is enjoying something of a renaissance, especially with the national team qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since 2010.
Arsenal have faced Red Star before in Europe’s second competition, a UEFA Cup third round tie back in the 1978-79 season. The Serbian side won 2-1 on aggregate, the crucial goal scored by Dusan Savic, whose son Vujadin has followed in his father’s footsteps and plays in the current Red Star side.
His father’s generation went all the way to the final that year, losing to Borussia Monchengladbach. It was the second time a Belgrade side had finished as runners-up in a European final with Partizan losing to Real Madrid in the 1966 European Cup.
The Red Star squad that won the European Cup in 1991 were one of football’s great mythical teams, their legend perhaps tainted slightly by playing out the worst final the competition has possibly ever seen – a 0-0 draw with Marseille that was settled on penalties.
Red Star contained a plethora of superstars, as Miodrag Belodedici, Robert Prosinecki, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Darko Pancev and Dejan Savicevic all started in the Bari final – all of whom could probably have walked into any side in Europe at the time.
In contrast to the final, the second leg of the semi-final against Bayern Munich was one of the most gripping, tense and exciting games the tournament has witnessed, settled by an inexplicable own goal as extra-time beckoned.
After winning the first leg 2-1 in Munich, Red Star found themselves losing by the same score when, as the clock ticked towards 90 minutes, Bayern defender Klaus Augenthaler swung a leg at a cross to send the ball looping towards goalkeeper Raimond Aumann. The stopper only had to flick the ball over his crossbar for a corner but was rooted to the spot, pushing the ball into his own net instead.
It was an amazing end to an incredible game showing all of Zvezda’s strengths and flaws; almost unrivalled technique, quick, incisive counter-attacks, but a somewhat typical Yugoslavian tendency to implode when the pressure is turned up.
Recent years haven’t been kind to Red Star. Huge debts have meant any player showing signs of potential has been quickly sold off. Goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic left for Maccabi Tel Aviv two seasons ago for a fraction of his true value. Youngsters such as Marko Grujic (Liverpool), Luka Jovic (Benfica) and the Ilic brothers, Luka and Ivan, who both joined Manchester City for a fee of £5 million, have all departed to service debts. Grujic was sold in order to honour late wage payments to players and staff.
Debt levels are still high at a rumoured £30 million, but nothing compared to the £45 million it was at a couple of seasons ago. Under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, Zvezda were denied a licence to compete in the 2014-15 Champions League due to high debts and were banned from European competition for one year.
After years of Partizan dominating the Serbian landscape – from 2008, Partizan have eight titles to Red Star’s two – Red Star have shown some resistance, winning two of the last four titles. They inexplicably threw away a commanding position last year, however, when leading Partizan by six points with seven games to go.
Of the current side, Dutch midfielder Mitchell Donald has become the linchpin, becoming the first ever foreign captain of the club in the Europa League qualifiers in the summer. The former Ajax youngster, now 28, displays the grit and determination that had been lacking from Red Star in previous seasons.
Academy graduate Slavoljub Srnic is another icon of Red Star, a Zvezdino dete, meaning a player who started with the club as a child. His goals and assists from the wing have proven vital in the last two seasons.
Red Star currently lead Partizan by four points in the Serbian SuperLiga, though it’s fair to say both sides have treated the Europa League as their priority. In this part of Europe, it is a competition still viewed with the prestige that is sadly not reciprocated on English shores.
Arsenal may view the tie as a nuisance, but for Red Star it is one of the biggest games for a generation.