In the fall of 1990, the Yugoslav national football team was among the best in the world. Apparently she won her first qualifier for the European Championship in 1992. The leaders have known each other for years. In 1987 they won the Junior World Cup in Chile, and in 1990 they lost only to Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals in Italy. And now, before the 1992 European Championships in Sweden, they wanted to supplement this development with the title.
For decades, the national team was considered a symbol of the multi-ethnic Yugoslav nation. Also in 1990, players from all six republics formed a unit. They came from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia. “The players met again and again in sports schools from a young age,” says sociologist Dario Printin, who studies football in the Balkans. “The players met in the Yugoslav league because they were not allowed to travel abroad for a long time. This is how friendships developed in which national origin and identity did not play a real role.” Players like Robert Prosinecki, Darko Banshev or Predrag Mijatovic believe they belong to a “golden generation”.
When Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in 1991, their fans were waving no longer Yugoslavian flags, but Serbian flags.
However, there was no longer any trace of such harmony in society. Economic crises and tensions encouraged the yearning for ethnically homogeneous individual states. Nationalism led to hate speech, violence, and abandonment of the game in stadiums. When Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in 1991, their fans were waving no longer Yugoslavian flags, but Serbian flags. The Yugoslav national anthem was played in Croatian stadiums in Zagreb or Split. He stormed the national team towards the European Championship anyway. The 7-0 win over the Faroe Islands in May 1991 was the last time the team played at their best.
In June 1991 Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. Then the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army wanted, above all, to regain control of the Croatian region. In the war that followed, more than 10,000 people were killed and more than 250,000 displaced. The rioters also fought Red Star Belgrade in Croatia and committed war crimes. Some of them later showed a street sign from Vukovar, the largely devastated city in eastern Croatia, at a league match in Belgrade. Despite the war, the Yugoslav national team was allowed to continue preparing for the 1992 European Championship – without Croatian and Slovenian players.
In March 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence. The minority of Bosnian Serbs did not want to accept this, and their forces laid siege to Sarajevo. In the center of the Bosnian capital, the FK eljezničar stadium was right on the front line. Fighting broke out, and the runway caught fire. A Serbian sniper has killed a soccer fan while trying to rescue a woman who was shot.
Coach Ivica Osim resigned shortly before the European Championship: “My country does not deserve to participate.”
And in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, Ivica Osim heard the news with great concern. Born in Sarajevo, Osim stood out for the diversity of Yugoslavia and took charge of the national team in 1986. After the war began, Osim tried desperately to reach out to his family in Sarajevo. On May 23, two and a half weeks before the start of the European Championship, he resigned. His speech was televised. “My country did not deserve to participate in the European Championship,” says Ussim, in tears. “Resignation is the only thing I can do for my city, so that people will remember that I was born in Sarajevo.”
Without their beloved coach, the dwindling team continued their journey to Sweden. But on May 30, 1992, that is, eleven days before the start of the European Championship, the United Nations passed Resolution No. 757. It dealt with sanctions against Yugoslavia, for example in trade, diplomacy and culture. The next day, the Yugoslav national team was excluded from the European Championship.
“Today, people in the Balkans look at 1992 completely differently,” says Richard Mills, author of The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia https://www.sueddeutsche.de/sport/. Exclusion does not apply to emerging markets as the end, but rather as the beginning of a great era.” The new Croatian team reached the quarter-finals at Euro 1996 and finished third in the 1998 World Cup. Robert Prosinecki made history as the first player to score goals in a World Cup for two countries, in 1990 for Yugoslavia and after Eight years with Croatia Football accompanied the formation of the Croatian nation.
But in the years since, football has also shown how fine the line is between patriotism and nationalism. Ultras in Belgrade paid tribute to Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, responsible for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, for killing 8,000 Bosnians. In Croatia, fans sometimes glorify the Ustasha, a fascist movement during World War II. In all the successor nations of Yugoslavia, supporters also commemorate the victims of the avalanche wars with songs and choreography. And in the newest country, Kosovo, many people associate the national team with a social awakening.
By the way, at the 1992 European Championships in Sweden, Denmark took the lead as a participant. The team surrounding goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel moved to the hotel in Ystad, which was intended for Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav Federation crest was still engraved on the team bus. Denmark played itself into a frenzy, defeating favorites Germany in the European Championship final. At this point, the Yugoslav players returned home. They had other concerns.