The Italian city of Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and almost every single monument, museum and public place in this beautiful Tuscan city tells a story of the flourishing movement that profoundly changed European culture in the aftermath of the Dark Ages. That same city could also be considered the place which symbolically represented the painful, consecutive deaths of an entire country with its Florentine footballing episodes a prelude to dreadful civil wars yet to come.
‘Through me you go into a city of weeping;
Through me you go into eternal pain;
Through me you go amongst the lost people.’
Dante Alighieri, The Inferno
The venue of both ‘funerals’ was the same: the Stadio Artemio Franchi or the Comunale as it was still known at the time. The date was the 30th of June 1990 and the occasion was the FIFA World Cup Quarter Final tie between Argentina and Yugoslavia. The local Italian orchestra was playing the national anthem “Hej Sloveni” which would soon turn out to be a requiem for the SFRY. Only experienced sweeper Faruk Hadzibegić sang the words.
Less than a month before, Hadžibegić was furious after almost the entire Maksimir stadium in Zagreb jeered that same anthem before a friendly against the Netherlands. “It’s us eleven against 20,000 people. C’mon!”, the exasperated Hadžibegić howled just before kickoff, aware that the vast majority of Croats had already turned their backs on Yugoslavia. After the final whistle even the manager Ivica Osim, known to be a calm man, lost his temper and applauded the crowd in Zagreb with deliberate irony.
But this time in the heart of Tuscany it was a different story. With the Italian fans in attendance throwing their support behind Yugoslavia because the opposition was the much-hated antagonist Diego Armando Maradona and his Argentina teammates, the stage was set for a goalless encounter which went all the way to penalties with stars from both teams – Maradona and Dragan Stojkovic – missing the target.
The pressure of the occasion led to Dragoljub Brnovic taking a kick with his weaker foot and giving an easy save to Argentine keeper Sergio Goycochea, meaning it was left to Hadžibegić who had to score with his side’s last kick to save not just Yugoslavia’s World Cup hopes – but the Yugoslav national team, that is. Just maybe…
“I don’t know. Years after that game many people would approach me saying that Yugoslavia would still be alive if I had just scored and if we had advanced to semi-finals”, Hadžibegić recalled recently.
‘The deeper the feeling,
The greater the pain.’
Leonardo da Vinci
Sweat poured down his cheeks while he was talking about his hometown of Sarajevo, an expression imprinted on his face which perfectly matched the devastation of the city he loved so much. Surrounded by dozens of Belgrade reporters in a small room of the Yugoslav FA headquarters, Ivica Osim was saying goodbye. It was a lonely scream of a man surrendering and trying to make the most of that personal sacrifice; hoping that someone would stop the slaughtering if he shouted loud enough; if he gave up on his almost decade-long project. Even without the Croats who had left the national team after the 7-0 victory over the Faroe Islands in May of 1991, Osim had managed to lead a diminished Yugoslavia to qualification for the 1992 European Championships.
Still believing that the power of the game was beyond the monstrosity of the war, Osim had tried to preserve the multinational nature of the Yugoslav national team. A handful of Serbs (Stojković, Jokanović, Jugović, Mihajlović, Petrić); several Bosniaks (Kodro, Hadžibegić, Baždarević, Omerović); two or three Montenegrins (Mijatović, Savićević, B. Brnović); a handful of Macedonians (Stanojković, Najdoski, Pančev) and even Slovenians (Milanič and Novak) whose newly native country had declared independence more than a year earlier – all of them were supposed to represent Yugoslavia at the tournament scheduled for June of 1992.
Following the same pattern from two years before, the Dutch team once again won 2-0 in a friendly played in late March, only this time in Stockholm. Zagreb was already far away from the newly established Yugoslav borders. By this time a new battlefield was slowly rising in Sarajevo where a local Bosnian Serb brandishing a Serbian flag during a wedding party was shot and murdered. Armed Serbs immediately started to organise a night watch around the city which soon escalated into a siege that lasted for more than three years.
For Belgrade-based Osim, born and raised in multinational Sarajevo, it became unbearable to witness the destruction of his hometown. Only two days after winning with his Partizan Belgrade side an exciting final against arch-rivals and European Cup holders Red Star in what would be the last ever Marshall Tito Cup (Yugoslavia’s main domestic cup competition), Osim resigned. From everything.
“Resignation is the most direct thing, a man says he’s leaving and it’s over. As I already said I think I can’t… I won’t go to Florence and to Sweden. This is my private gesture. You can think of it as you wish, but it’s my personal decision. There’s no need to explain, you know why… If nothing else it’s the only thing I could do for my city because you remember I was born in Sarajevo and you know what’s happening… That’s all”, said Osim with tears in his eyes in his farewell from Yugoslav football. The date was the 23rd of May 1992, just five days before that second Florence-based match for Yugoslavia within the space of two years.
The Florence he was talking about was the very last test for the Yugoslav national side before the European Championships, an unusual friendly with the Fiorentina club team. Now it had to be done not only without Osim – replaced by his assistant Ivan Čabrinović – but also without a bunch of the players who followed their long time manager out of the door – Hadžibegić, Baždarević, Kodro, Pančev…
This friendly was an odd and anticlimactic fixture played on the night of the 28th of May in front of less than four hundred Viola fans struggling to find interest in this fixture taking place a couple of days after the Serie A season had ended. Even without Dunga and Batistuta who were already off on vacation, Fiorentina still had enough quality to recover from an early headed goal from Jokanović for a 2-1 win. One short TV report made by Eurosport is still available on YouTube and is the only remaining testimony of this unusual, low-key friendly. And to make the atmosphere surrounding the match even stranger, it was starting to become clear that this friendly was even more pointless than it seemed as Yugoslavia wouldn’t now be allowed to participate in the upcoming European Championships anyway.
Still hoping that sporting diplomacy could prevent the unprecedented scenario, a Yugoslav federation delegation and some of the remaining players flew that night from Florence to Sweden. While politicians at home were celebrating the creation of the new FRY state comprising only Serbia and Montenegro, the Security Council of the United Nations was preparing that hideous Resolution 757 with its appendix 8b…
“All states shall take the necessary steps to prevent the participation in sporting events on their territory of persons or groups representing the FRY”.
As the kit man hung up the blue training kits with Yugoslavia logos on them to dry, a grey limousine approached the base of the Yugoslav national team in Moskogen. Inside the vehicle was UEFA president Lennart Johansson himself, sitting in the back with a copy of that very UN resolution in his hands. Exactly a year before that moment Johansson had delivered the European Cup trophy to Yugoslav champions Red Star. This time he was delivering a true death sentence.
“I very much regret everything that has happened. I understand that the Yugoslav players are very disappointed at the moment, but I think that most people must have an understanding about the decision of the UN Security Council,” explained Johansson on the 31st of May following a meeting with Yugoslav FA chairman Miljan Miljanić.
What followed in the next 24 hours could easily be described as a low budget movie farce with the Serbian pilot struggling to find the fuel necessary to fly the players back home before the sanctions took effect. Unfortunately for the people of the former Yugoslavia, the next couple of years turned into a horror show and a whole generation of outstanding players were left with the inevitable question – what if? Or as Dejo Savićević – who played in both of those matches in Florence – would later say: “As soon as the man starts to think of those days, it brings nostalgia. And nostalgia is never easy”.