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How Valladolid and Madrid bowed to Rijeka

"There wasn't even room to drop a needle in the stands," recalled Nenad Gračan with HNK Rijeka's next Group I game conjuring memories of two famous wins over Spanish visitors.

Rijeka's Kantrida Stadium is a stone's throw from the Adriatic
Rijeka's Kantrida Stadium is a stone's throw from the Adriatic ©AFP

Eliminating VfB Stuttgart in this season's UEFA Europa League play-offs was a massive achievement for HNK Rijeka, but the Croatian club are harking back to another major success as they welcome Real Betis Balompié in Group I on Thursday.

The match falls on the 29th anniversary of a 4-1 second-leg home win against Real Valladolid CF in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup first round, and even better was to follow for Josip Skoblar's side in their next European fixture as they downed Real Madrid CF 3-1 at the Kantrida Stadium, only to lose the return 3-0 – a game in which three players were sent off.

"We had an excellent team that season," remembered former Yugoslavia midfielder Nenad Gračan, who was 21 at the time. "We were powerful and really motivated. After we defeated Valladolid we were so excited as we looked forward to the biggest match of our careers against Real Madrid. We were not afraid in any of those matches against stronger opponents – in those days the difference between the biggest clubs and the rest was not as big as it is today."

Slovenian striker Adriano Fegić was the star of the show for Rijeka in both victories against the Spanish clubs. He played 161 matches for Rijeka and scored 36 goals, and the four he split equally over the course of the Valladolid and Madrid games are among his favourites.

"Real Madrid were stars – almost as much as they are today," the 56-year-old recalled. "At Rijeka, we were a good team, but they didn't know anything about us and probably underestimated us. It was a unbelievable atmosphere at the Kantrida. We gave our best to give our fans a night to remember. I remember that straight after the Madrid win, dozens of clubs were interested in me."

As fantastic as the triumph against Valladolid was, the Madrid one was the real thriller. Amancio Amaro's side included some huge names – Chendo, José Antonio Camacho, Manolo Sanchís, Martín Vázquez, Míchel, Emilio Butragueño, Jorge Valdano – but Rijeka outplayed them at the Kantrida, winning 3-1 in front of a record crowd of 22,000.

"I remember those matches so well," smiled Gračan. "Against Real Madrid, there wasn't even room to drop a needle in the stands. The stadium was jam-packed. We scored three goals but conceded an unlucky goal late on and it ended 3-1."

That tie did not finish well – a 4-3 aggregate reverse – and worryingly for Rijeka ahead of the Betis rematch on matchday six, no Croatian club has won in Spain in 15 visits. However, Matjaž Kek's team can only hope they will have similar great memories to look back on in 29 years' time after the Andalusian club come calling this week.