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 Part Two of Partizan’s story; you can read Part One here.
The ongoing European Cup run remained the single, unifying element for Partizan’s warring factions. Sparta Prague looked a tough Quarter-Final draw and with Bečejac and Kovačević both suspended, keeper Šoškić suffering from a hand injury and Bajić taking ill at the last moment; Partizan appeared severely weakened for the away leg. The Czechs cruised to a 4-1 win and fully exploited the uncertainty of young reserve keeper Ćurković after he fumbled a corner into his own net for the opener.
Partizan returned to full strength for the return and raised hopes with an early goal when Kovačević flicked the ball past keeper Kramerius. Sparta’s self-belief imploded, Partizan dominated, turned around the tie by half-time and ran out eventual 5-0 winners. The feel-good factor from the greatest European result in the club’s history didn’t last long though as management went to war with the players once again. Spurious deductions for supposed disciplinary misdemeanours meant each player received only a small percentage of the £300 win bonus they had been promised.
Semi-final opposition Manchester United had dazzled against Benfica in the previous round and perhaps this result caused them to underestimate their less celebrated Yugoslav opponents. Matt Busby made the mistake of playing a clearly unfit George Best in Belgrade and he was little more than a hobbling and ineffectual passenger. Partizan exploited United weakness in the air with Hasanagić heading unchallenged past Harry Gregg, then Bečejac adding a second from a Vasović delivery. With Best unavailable for the second leg, Manchester United could only recover one of the goals when Šoškić palmed a low cross into his own net late in the game. A dysfunctional club it might have been, but thanks to irresistible home form Partizan had made history and would travel to Brussels as the first eastern European team to play in a European Cup Final.
The players motivation for that Final was simple personal pride with the club’s president Dujić flatly refusing to offer any win bonus whatsoever to his squad. Real Madrid were illustrious opponents, although this Madrid was a very different proposition from the Di Stefano and Puskas driven side that had dominated the early years of the competition. Only captain Paco Gento remained from that era and he was the experienced head in a young, home-grown team.
From kick-off Madrid struggled to cope with the attacking pace of Partizan and were confused by their lopsided 4-3-3 tactic: Bajić played high up on the right-wing while Galić – granted special army dispensation to play – shuttled back and forth on the left flank. With Partizan’s half back line of Bečejac, Rašović and Vasović dominating the play, Madrid looked impotent.
Chances were missed, but Partizan’s superiority was finally rewarded on 55 minutes when Hasanagić nodded back a corner for the captain Vasović to head home. The goal shocked Real into life and throwing caution to the wind started attacking in numbers. This bold approach paid off with an equaliser arriving from Amancio and then a fantastic long-range shot by Serena putting Madrid ahead five minutes later. Partizan could not find a way back into the game and were left to rue their first-half profligacy.
The absurdity of Partizan’s season was clear: in one competition a group of world-class players had competed as equals with the best in Europe; in another, a rag-tag collection of youngsters and fringe players had narrowly avoided relegation, limping home in a lowest-ever League placing of eleventh.
The end of season blood-letting began with the entire coaching staff quitting for new positions abroad. The players were quick to follow: West Germany bound were Šoškić to join Köln, Jusufi to Eintracht Frankfurt and the utility man Miladinović to Nuremberg. To French club Nantes went Kovačević and Standard Liege in Belgium was the destination for Galić. A handful of fringe squad members departed to new clubs in the west too. With relations in some cases having become irreconcilable, some players were released before even reaching the legal exit age of 28.
Vasović was a different matter though. The captain was deemed too important to release early and the club was determined he would not leave until legally entitled, a further 12 months down the line. Vasović was furious at being denied the same rights as some of his teammates and it took repeated threats to quit the game altogether and return to complete his legal studies at Belgrade University to finally force through a move to Ajax in December 1966. The Amsterdam club had not been his planned destination, simply the Dutch League was the only one in mainland Europe with an open transfer window at the time which limited his options.
Within three years, nine of Partizan’s starting European Cup Final team played abroad and the other two – Pirmajer and Bečejac – had transferred to other Yugoslav clubs. The decimation of the country’s greatest club side forced a rapid response from the government and full-time professionalism was hurried in from the start of the 1966-67 season. Players could in future be paid salaries more in line with their talent and clubs could now demand fees for players moving abroad, or ask FIFA to suspend them if they broke contracts and moved illegally.
It came too late for Partizan who received little or no compensation for the majority of their departed stars. It’s ironic that the only other club to appear in a European Cup Final and suffer such a rapid, mass exodus of stars for little recompense would be their bitter rivals, Red Star, a quarter of a century later. The circumstances were admittedly quite different.
Post-1966 Partizan lapsed into the longest barren spell in its history and a decade elapsed before a next trophy win. Success had exacted a high price from the club causing it to suffer perversely from the law of unintended consequences – the closer they edged towards becoming a major European force, the more their administrative amateurism and the political and financial limitations of a Yugoslav system in flux conspired to thwart them and leave them battered and broken.
If you would like to see this historic Partizan Belgrade team in action, do visit Partizan Belgrade On Film, below.