So impressed was Pelé with the technical ability of the Yugoslavian footballers he encountered that he labelled them as ‘the Brazilians of Europe’. He was more right than he realised. As well as parallels in the instinctive, naturalistic flair of the players both countries produced, Yugoslavia became just as prodigious an exporter of its talent to other countries as Brazil.
One big difference between the two was that many Yugoslavs forged great reputations in the west despite not being permitted officially to move abroad earlier than 28, an age when many were drifting past their peak. Even with this significant obstacle you could create a brilliant Eleven for almost any League in Europe based around late-career Yugoslav players whose talents crossed borders so seamlessly.
We have done just that here with our Yugoslavs in France Eleven, a team consisting of capped Yugoslav internationals who, in our view, made the biggest impact on Ligue 1 in the years from the 1960s through to the 1990s. Read more detail about the players we have selected below.
1. Ivan Ćurković (19caps) Saint Etienne 1972-81
A Velez Mostar youth product, Ćurković transferred to Partizan and was reserve to the legendary Soskic when the Belgrade club reached the 1966 European Cup Final. When allowed to move abroad he joined Saint Etienne and was a key player for the club over the next decade, participating in another European Cup Final – also lost – in 1976.
2. Vladimir Durković (50 caps) Saint Etienne 1967-71
A right back of poise and presence who successfully blended defensive rigour with attacking intent, Durković arrived in Saint Etienne after an abortive season in Germany. A mainstay for four seasons at the dominant French club where the Yugoslav won three French titles and a Coupe de France. Tragically and accidentally shot dead at the age of 34 by a drunken Swiss policeman.
3. Ivica Šurjak (54 caps / 10 goals) Paris St.Germain 1981-82
A hero of Hajduk Split’s trio of 1970s Yugoslav title wins, Šurjak may have spent just a single season in Paris before moving on to Italy but he still made a huge impression in that short time. A player who could perform effectively in any defensive or midfield position, we have selected him at left back which was probably his best known role.
4. Mehmed Baždarević (54 caps / 4 goals) Sochaux, Nimes 1987-97
An elegant and skilled midfielder, Baždarević made his name with Željezničar Sarajevo before spending a successful decade playing in France. His ideal pitch position would typically be slightly advanced of where we have selected him, but as the deepest lying of our midfield trio we would imagine him performing the playmaker role.
5. Josip Katalinski (41 caps / 10 goals) Nice 1975-78
A powerful central defender with an unusual knack for grabbing goals. Another Željezničar Sarajevo luminary and 1974 Yugoslav Player of the Year, Katalinski joined Nice and spent three well-received seasons there before injury cut short his career.
6. Faruk Hadžibegić (61 caps / 6 goals) Sochaux, Toulouse 1987-95
After nine seasons with Sarajevo as one of the Yugoslav League’s best sweepers, Hadžibegić departed for Betis in Spain and two years later to Sochaux in France. Along with his compatriot Baždarević he brought solidity and experience to the French minnows.
7. Ivica Osim (16 caps / 8 goals) RC Strasbourg, Sedan, Valenciennes 1970-78
Yet another product from Željezničar, Osim was a bewitching dribbler who would have been a wonderful winger if he had carried more pace. Instead he excelled playing in a more central role with licence to create, something he did with acclaim for eight seasons in France after an injury hit season in the Netherlands.
8. Safet Sušić (54 caps / 21 goals) Paris St.Germain, Red Star Paris 1982-92
Another of our Bosnian contingent and one of the two players we’ve selected who would also play internationally for their new nation in the years post-Yugoslavia break-up (Baždarević was the other). Sušić spent a decade in the French capital, the majority of it at PSG where he is still revered as one of the club’s finest ever imports. A creative and elegant midfielder with an all-round game.
9. Vahid Halilhodžić (15 caps / 8 goals) Nantes, Paris St.Germain 1981-87
Halilhodžić moved to Nantes after a decade and 103 Yugoslav First League goals with Velez Mostar. He flourished in his new environment and during his five seasons at La Beaujoire he finished top League scorer on two occasions, helping his club to a championship in the process. A dynamic and skilled forward.
10. Josip Skoblar (32 caps / 11 goals) Marseille 1966-67, 1969-75
Stylishly nicknamed ‘the Dalmation Eagle’, this incredibly prolific Croat dominated the French scoring charts during his time with OM. European Golden Boot winner in 1971 with an as yet unmatched Ligue 1 total of 44 League goals, Skoblar was French top scorer for three consecutive seasons between 1971 and 1973 and his goals inspired the club to two League titles and a Coupe de France win. He scored goals at the rate of a great centre-forward but could play anywhere across the front line, so we’ve selected him to play just off the main striker in our fantasy team.
11. Dragan Džajić (85 caps / 23 goals) Bastia 1975-77
Džajić is no less that Yugoslavia’s greatest ever player and one of the finest left wingers the game has seen. After a stellar career with Red Star Belgrade he moved to Corsica at the age of 29 to join unfashionable Bastia and would make a huge impact in his two seasons there. In addition to contributing numerous assists, Džajić finished as the club’s joint top scorer in 1977 with 21 goals to inspire Bastia to a highest-ever third placed Ligue 1 finish.