Visits to Germany on European club business have proven unusually troublesome for Real Madrid historically, well at least up to 2014 when we published an article about this anomaly and within weeks the Spaniards blew apart their hoodoo with crushing victories in Gelsenkirchen and Munich. It transpires there’s another European nation to have exerted a similar mental block on visiting Real Madrid sides – the former Yugoslavia – and we welcome back Bojan Babic to tell us the story of the assorted unrewarding Balkan trips the Spanish giants have undertaken.
El horror! is the most apt Spanish expression to describe Real Madrid’s memories of every fixture they’ve played on Yugoslav soil spanning five decades, a minor if rather curious blemish on the European history of a club with eleven European Cups to its name. Finding the reasons why there seems to have been some sort of historical fear-factor for Madrid on visits to the Balkans is rather more complex however.
The majority of those clashes were played when dictatorships ruled the respective countries – Marshal Tito on one side and General Franco on the other – so it comes as read that the two nations, and thus their football teams by proxy, were enemies from an ideological standpoint and had been since the Spanish Civil War. Every trip by Real Madrid to Yugoslavia was considered a high-risk event.
Whatever reasons and motivations lurked in the background, one thing is certain: between 1956 and 1987 Los Blancos lost five of their six visits to the former Yugoslavia with a miserable goal difference of 6 scored and 18 conceded. Even though some of those losses would be overturned in second legs played back at their Santiago Bernabéu stadium, the memories of those shambolic performances in Belgrade, Split and Rijeka have been a source of some puzzlement for Real’s fans.
This intriguing sequence began in a snowbound Belgrade on the 29th January 1956 when Partizan Belgrade demolished the Madrid of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento 3-0 in the Quarter Final Second Leg of what was the very first European Cup tournament. The match was illuminated for the 35,000 in attendance by the brilliant winger Miloš Milutinović, although the fixture would be remembered mostly for a smart trick that gave the home side an advantage in the awful conditions. The Partizan team rubbed the soles of their football boots with petrol to enable better traction on the snow, while Madrid’s unprepared stars spent much of the game on their backsides. Alas, this resounding win wasn’t enough for Partizan to advance as they themselves had lost heavily in the first leg in Spain, 4-0.
Fifteen years later los merengues were back in Yugoslavia for a high-prestige and high-cost friendly with Hajduk Split, the hosts forked out $16,000 dollars (approximately 83,000 Euros today) for the privilege of bringing the Spanish side to their Stari Plac Stadium. Even lacking key players like Pirri and the veteran Gento, few expected Real to be trailing by three goals by half-time. It wasn’t until Hajduk’s coach Luštica showed some mercy and replaced his main stars that Real regained some dignity to finish this match on the wrong end of a 4-2 defeat.
The very next summer Real Madrid discovered at first-hand the potential of the new Red Star Belgrade wonder kid Vladimir Petrović and his contribution was the undoubted highlight of a one-sided friendly that finished 4-1 to Red Star. That encounter set in motion a rivalry between the clubs that would resonate in their European club competition meetings. Red Star defeated Madrid 2-0 in Belgrade in their 1975 Cup Winners Cup fixture and 4-2 in the Quarter Final of the 1986-87 European Cup, a competition Red Star were involved in despite not actually being Yugoslav champions.
The 1975 encounter was famous for its Džajić v Camacho duel and Red Star’s two goal win reversed the result from the Bernabéu. With the tie level on aggregate after extra time, celebrations proliferated when the Yugoslavs progressed via the penalty shootout. Twelve years later the Madrid of Hugo Sánchez and Emilio Butragueño somehow survived a Red Star onslaught inspired by the mercurial Dragan Stojković to progress on away goals, despite that 4-2 Belgrade loss.
Real Madrid’s Balkan allergy flared up again in 1984 when they were thoroughly outplayed by NK Rijeka in a 3-1 UEFA Cup defeat. The late consolation goal the Spaniards scored that night proved crucial though. A 2-0 win in the return would be enough to earn progress, a scoreline Madrid duly secured in the most controversial of circumstances. Rijeka lost three players to red cards with two of them departing in shadowy circumstances, none more so than their deaf and dumb striker Damir Desnica who was dismissed for supposedly swearing at the referee.
The only clash on Yugoslav soil from which Real Madrid emerged undefeated came in August 1972 in what is now Bosnia, and that 2-2 draw with FK Sarajevo stands as the Spanish giant’s best result during the existence of the Yugoslav republic. Even in the post-separatist years, the Real Madrid ‘Galacticos’ team that included Zidane, Figo, Raul, Beckham, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo still couldn’t break their winning duck on a trip to Serbia to play Partizan – a 2003 Champions League group stage game in Belgrade finishing scoreless.
Football writer Boris Antić, the son of FK Sarajevo’s legendary player and manager Boško Antić and a long-standing supporter of Real Madrid, thinks that Yugoslavian home superiority over Real Madrid can be understood as a coming together of many different elements.
“First of all, at that time Real didn’t have so many foreign stars like nowadays, so those were practically clashes of Yugoslav and Spanish players. Now we have mostly young and inexperienced guys against the mighty Foreign Legion of Madrid with almost no Spaniards in their roster. Furthermore, the quality of the Yugoslav league was at a really high level since no-one was allowed to move abroad before turning 28, which kept our finest ‘products’ in our homeland”, еxplains Antić.
He follows on with another salient point:
“In those days technology was quite poor; there were no CDs, hand cams and other stuff, so they couldn’t analyse every single player, tactical set-up and virtues and weaknesses of our teams. Their assistant managers would maybe watch a game or two before the team’s arrival in Yugoslavia, but then they would often be surprised by some anonymous, highly-motivated youngster who made their defenders look silly. I don’t believe Real’s bad results had anything to do with a style of play because, for example, Sarajevo and Rijeka had one and Partizan and Red Star a completely different style”.
“When we talk about some kind of a tradition, and six games without a single victory certainly proves this,” continues Antić, “then we cannot ever neglect the influence of ‘X factor’, whether it refers to extraordinary motivation by the players or some unpredictable move during the game. Bad news for the Balkans is that the X factor is losing its importance because of galloping poverty on our side, and enormous progress by Real in every single sporting aspect. That’s why this Partizan vs Real draw in 2003 has nothing to do with earlier Madrid’s fixtures in Belgrade, it was just pure coincidence and not a rule in itself”, he concludes.
As time goes by the memories fade and yet those victories over Real Madrid still seem quite sensational, almost as if they were taken straight from some low-budget sporting fairytale. The gap between Los Merengues and their former tormentors from ex-Yugoslavia grows ever more seismic today and it’s a sad reflection on how European club football has developed that we will never see such unlikely and disparate rivals competing on level terms again.
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Partizan 3 Real Madrid 0,1956
Dzajic vs Camacho, Belgrade 1975
Red Star 2 Real Madrid 0 & penalty shootout, 1975
Rijeka 3 Real Madrid 1, 1984
Red Star 4 Real Madrid 2, 1987