Rarely has football seen a better example of the truism that success can be a double-edged sword than the story of mid 1960s era Partizan Belgrade. The club’s great success during that period culminated in a European Cup Final appearance in 1966, but that success came at a price and ultimately brought about a perfect storm in which elements of capitalism, communism, professionalism and amateurism all clashed messily.
The unfortunate consequence was that the greater Partizan’s success on the pitch, the quicker it hastened the club’s broader decline. By adding implausible sub-plots involving player strikes, broken contracts, furtively acquired Western consumer goods and a mass purge of the supporting cast; a picture starts to emerge of the Balkan soap opera that was Partizan Belgrade and the broader Yugoslav game in 1966. This is the first part of that story.
Things had begun so simply back in the late 1950s with the Partinzanove bebe (Partizan’s babies). Yugoslavia was already known as the European Brazil for the conveyor belt of extravagantly skilled talent the country produced, but this generation was one that particularly stood out for its youthful promise.
The spine of the team was forged by a quartet of players who would come to define Tito-era Partizan: Milutin Šoškić was an agile and courageous goalkeeper; in defence Fahrudin Jusufi a technically adroit, attacking full-back who could switch flanks seamlessly and up front was Milan Galić, an opportunistic forward who could switch to play effectively on the left wing too. This trio were key members of the national side that won 1960 Olympic gold and finished runners-up in the European Nations Cup. Emerging a couple of seasons later to make up the quartet was central defender and sweeper, Velibor Vasović. Despite suffering throughout his career from asthma, Vasović was a groundbreaking player who was as significant as fellow 60s luminaries Facchetti and Beckenbauer in revolutionising the role of the playmaking centre-half.
By pipping a dominant Red Star to the 1961 Yugoslav championship, the babies had matured into men. As they continued crushing domestic opposition with ease, the men became Parni valjak (the steamroller). Three further titles followed over the next four seasons, the team growing ever more formidable as new stars emerged around that core quartet.
From the youth ranks came the clever and diminutive attacking midfielder Vladica Kovačević; Ljubomir Mihajlović was an elegant left back who freed up Jusufi to switch to the right; Mane Bajić was a tricky wide man, Partizan’s right-sided equivalent of Red Star’s famous left-winger, Dragan Džajić; Jovan Miladinović was nominally a midfielder, but his versatility would see him appear in every outfield position.
Recruitment from the furthest reaches of the Yugoslav republic was productive too: Branko Rašović was a quick, versatile central defender acquired from Budocnost Titograd; Mustafa Hasanagić a mercurial Bosnian striker with a sharp eye for goal; the midfield general Radoslav Bečejac, the free-scoring forward Josip Pirmajer and reserve keeper Ivan Ćurković all contributed much to the Partizan cause upon their arrival in the capital.
The 1965 title win was the most straightforward yet and what was now an experienced and established side anticipated another tilt at the European Cup. This was a competition that Yugoslavian clubs had embraced enthusiastically from outset – Partizan themselves featuring in the first-ever tie played back in 1955 – but the quarter-final had been the extent of their progress and the tournament felt rather like the exclusive preserve of the Latin clubs.
First Round opponents Nantes were easily beaten 2-0 in Belgrade and held to a 2-2 draw in France. Galić scored a fine goal in that second leg and at the end was presented with a bouquet of flowers – this was his final game before departing to belatedly perform his national service. Even without Galić, Partizan’s fluid, attacking football overwhelmed Werder Bremen in the next round. Three goals in the final 20 minutes gave them a comfortable home win, although the vigorously disputed second and third goals caused bitterness that festered throughout the return in Germany. Bremen won by a single goal, three players were sent off and the Scottish referee had to organise a riot squad to repel a pitch invasion at the end.
While progress in the European Cup was serene, the rest of Partizan’s season was slowing coming off the rails. At the heart of the problem lay the country’s uncertain and troubled lurch towards western-style professionalism. In 1961 the government first permitted its citizens to move abroad to work to increase the flow of hard negotiable currencies back to the republic. Footballers were allowed to move too on condition they had reached the age of 28 and completed their military service.
Two years later significant football reforms were introduced. Clubs were now paid government grants for television rights and allowed to keep their own gate receipts and tour incomes. However with games being televised, attendances fell away badly and clubs became dependant upon the grants as their main source of income. Through controlling these grants, the state had secured greater control over the game and now played a significant role in determining transfer fees, salaries and signing on fees.
Top domestic players agitated for salaries that reflected in some manner their status in the broader European game. Unable to officially pay higher wages without higher grants, Partizan and other major clubs discretely maintained slush funds to finance under-the-counter bonuses to their stars. Sometimes these would be cash-in-hand, though just as often involve consumer goods like fridges and washing machines, Zastava cars or a lease on a better state apartment. As the result of a sudden state clampdown on this practice, the President of Železničar Sarajevo was jailed and his harsh six-and-a-half year jail sentence forced Partizan and other clubs to suspend all unofficial payments.
Partizan’s management now had two major problems to contend with. Success on the pitch had come through team continuity, but this very same continuity meant players were growing old together and a number were approaching the age at which they were legally entitled to move abroad. France and West Germany were the most common destinations for emigrating Yugoslav footballers and, having eliminated the champions of both countries from the European Cup, this only made Partizan’s stars more attractive to admiring eyes. Encouraging players to ignore the lucrative advances of western predators was a hard enough sell; doing so as they suffered a sharp, de-facto wage cut made it nigh on impossible.
Obstinate club president Vladimir Dujić only inflamed the situation when he demanded that players put aside materialist considerations and concentrate on their football. When Vislavski and several other first team players demanded a transfer, teammates Jusufi, Vukelić and Bečejac went on strike in sympathy when the rebels were dropped as punishment. The players heard news of the suspensions while travelling by train to a match in Skopje and promptly disembarked at the next station, hired a car and drove back to Belgrade. Flustered Partizan officials had to hurriedly phone home for replacements to make up a team. The striking rebels were suspended and to add insult to injury, the players had their food and rent vouchers withdrawn by the club.
A tough approach to player dissent had not helped an increasingly confrontational situation. Suspended players and those negotiating their departures abroad were deliberately overlooked for domestic (but not European) matches in the second half of the season, meaning most domestic Partizan line-ups were now comprised almost entirely of youth players. Aside from the necessity element, there was a certain perverse logic to this approach: with most of the current team set to leave anyway, these youngsters would become next season’s first team by default and they needed playing experience. Not that this was helpful for results in the short-term. Form and confidence went into free-fall and a club that had never finished a season lower than sixth in the League was now battling the spectre of relegation.
Read part two of this story. In the meantime if you would like to see this historic Partizan Belgrade team in action, do visit Partizan Belgrade On Film, below.