"I don't think we were afraid of any team, regardless of who we were playing." Darko Pancev is recalling the feeling of invincibility that he knew with the FK Crvena zvezda side who conquered Europe two decade ago.
Pancev was part of the "great generation" of footballers from that part of the world – including Dejan Savićević, Robert Prosinečki, Vladimir Jugović and Siniša Mihajlović – who became the last team to take the European Champion Clubs' Cup to eastern Europe, after their final victory over Olympique de Marseille in Bari on 29 May 1991. It was the last triumph for football for the former Yugoslavia before the Balkans conflict of the early 1990s and came via a penalty shoot-out in which Pancev put the seal on his team's 5-3 spot-kick success.
Recalling the moment he stepped up to beat OM goalkeeper Pascal Olmeta, the 45-year-old says: "It was really hard to walk from the centre circle to the box, because in those ten seconds various things crossed my mind, like 'don't miss, don't make a mistake'. But when I took the ball and put it on the penalty spot, I wasn't getting at myself. I tried to concentrate as much as possible in order to be successful, and that's it." It helped Crvena zvezda, he adds, that for three years previously, the Yugoslav league had featured shoot-outs after drawn matches. "We had the habit, so we weren't surprised that much and all five players scored."
The final stalemate against Marseille came in marked contrast to Crvena zvezda's form earlier in the competition. They had defeated Grasshopper-Club, Rangers FC, 1. FC Dynamo Dresden and FC Bayern München en route to the showpiece, with Pancev – who hit 34 goals to earn that year's European Golden Shoe award – scoring in every round.
The Belgrade club struck 19 times in eight games before the final yet Pancev admits that the occasion at the Stadio San Nicola got to Ljubomir Petrović's team. "In that match we passed the ball more than we should have, we stopped too much. And then we got exhausted, our legs were as heavy as lead, and I think we didn't really show our maximum level, although we didn't play too badly."
Still it is worth recalling quite what a talented group of players Crvena zvezda could call on, not least in midfield where they had the creative powers of Savićević, Jugović, Mihajlović and Prosinečki – the former two would both win the trophy again with AC Milan and Juventus, while Prosinečki helped Croatia finish third at the 1998 FIFA World Cup. "All of us were aware that we had a great team, with extraordinary individuals," says Pancev, who had joined the Belgrade outfit from FK Vardar in 1988.
"We were physically right and the atmosphere in the team was great. I think it's really important that there is a positive atmosphere – if there's no winning mentality, no friendships, a team cannot achieve really great results, no matter how good they are. I think Red Star had that all – we were real friends, aware of our qualities, and we all had a great desire to achieve success. And in the end we did that."
The pity for Pancev, who moved on to FC Internazionale Milano, where he endured an unproductive spell, was that the conflict in the Balkans ensured that the team broke up before its time, notwithstanding their triumph later in 1991 in the European/South American Cup against CD Colo Colo. It was not just his club career that was affected either, for within 12 months, Yugoslavia had withdrawn from EURO '92 in Sweden with the team that replaced them, Denmark, taking the crown.
"I feel sorry that the the Red Star team had to break up because if that team had stayed together I think they would have had great success, like Bayern München and Ajax, who have won the Champions League several times," says Pancev. "I think that generation at Red Star had that chance." Still, they at least have the precious memory of a triumph that, 20 years down the line, refuses to fade.
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