A lot of people talk about the Golden Generation of youngsters. Unless they are talking about the Yugoslavians of the late 80s, please take it with a pinch of salt. Quite simply, there has never been an age group side like the one that won the FIFA World Youth Championships in Chile back in 1987.
The statistics tell part of the tale. This Yugoslavia side remain the highest goalscorers in the history of the World Youth Championships. They banged in 12 goals in the 3 group matches alone by playing exciting, dynamic football that blew the competition away. All the more remarkable given the fact that the Yugoslav Football Federation papably only sent the team to Chile to fulfil FIFA obligations – future stars such as Alen Boksic, Vladimir Jugovic and Sinisa Mihajlovic were encouraged to stay at home in the belief that league football would better aid their progression. Red Star even attempted to recall Robert Prosinecki for a UEFA Cup tie during the tournament. Fortunately, Prosinecki was allowed to stay after FIFA intervention and the young men that got on the plane proved more than up to the challenge.
In retrospect, it is of little surprise that they blitzed the opposition. Youth football is notorious for featuring promising young talent that goes on to be unfulfilled. Many of the teams included players that vanished without trace. Brazil’s 18 man squad included 4 players that were to go on to become full internationals, including the goalkeeper Ronaldo who received a single cap. West Germany’s squad had 3 future internationals. The Italian squad had only one player, Alessandro Melli (2 caps), who was to ever appear for the full national team. In contrast, in the great Yugoslavian side, only Zoran Mijucic of their semi-final line-up didn’t go on to full international honours. Many of them were to leave an indelible mark on the game:
The Croatian legend was a vital part of the team’s success in Chile. He scored the opening goal of the tournament against the hosts and finished up by scoring Yugoslavia’s goal in the final before ending the whole tournament by firing in the winning penalty in the shoot-out. In between, he was an important cog throughout, starting in all 6 games and also scoring in the 4-0 thumping of Australia. His promise was confirmed when he made his full international debut for Yugoslavia the following year. Sadly, he was to miss out on appearing at the 1990 World Cup when he found himself caught up in the notorious incident that is often said to have been a catalyst for the escalation of violence in the build up to the Balkan Wars. For Boban, following a memorable Champions League success with AC Milan in 1994, there was to be a glorious swansong as he captained Croatia to 3rd place in the 1998 World Cup.
The undisputed star of the tournament, Prosinecki walked away with a winners’ medal and the Golden Ball award for player of the tournament despite actually being suspended for the final. His sumptuous free-kick against Brazil in the closing minutes to win the game was probably the highlight but there were many others. FIFA cites that ‘among his many talents, it was his brilliant vision that won him most plaudits – almost a second sight, delivering chances on a plate to his front men’. Prosinecki, like Boban, was to be no flash-in-the-pan and would go on to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. He alo appeared at the 1990 World Cup where he went half-way to becoming the only player ever to score for 2 different countries at the tournament – following up in 1998 by scoring in Croatia’s run to the semi-finals.
The Croatian striker was the goal machine of the side, hitting 6 goals in 5 starts (5 in 2 in the group stages). His most crucial was the winner against East Germany in the semi-final although he did also manage to convert his penalty in the shoot-out in the final itself. Suker’s progress may not have been quite as rapid as that of Boban and Prosinecki and yet he still managed to gain a place in Yugoslavia’s 1990 World Cup squad, albeit as an unused substitute. No matter, he was able to make up for this by claiming the Golden Boot at France ’98. Suker also enjoyed a productive club career with his time in Spain at Sevilla and Real Madrid the high point, boasting a goal scoring record of around one in two. His final record for Croatia is even more impressive, finishing up with a stunning 45 goals in 69 games.
The Serbian forward grabbed 3 goals in the tournament – 2 in the group win over Togo while the 3rd was the vital equaliser against Brazil in the quarter-final (shown below). Sadly, things went downhill from there as Mijatovic was sent-off in the semi-final and so was suspended for the final itself. He was another of the team to make his full international debut soon after, although he did miss out on the 1990 World squad. He still managed to gain 73 caps for all incarnations of Yugoslavia, although his most notable achievements are in club football in Spain. After a tremendous time at Valencia where he won the Spanish (Foreign) Footballer of the Year award in 1996, he was to link up with his old youth team strike partner Suker at the mighty Real Madrid. It was here that, in 1998, Mijatovic scored the winning goal in the Champions League final to claim European club football’s greatest prize for Real for the first time in 32 years. He later became the club’s Director of Football for 3 years from 2006.
Igor Stimac was imperious at centre-back for Yugoslavia throughout the tournament in 1987. What’s more, he even managed to prove a threat at the other end of the park – scoring against the hosts in the first game of the tournament and then later grabbing the opening goal in the semi-final. Perhaps Stimac was inspired by a rumoured dalliance with the winner of Miss Chile 1987, and so was less than keen to kiss goodbye to his holiday romance. It was on the field though that Stimac will be best remembered, both by fans in England following his spells with Derby County and West Ham, and as yet another Croatian to play a part in his country’s brilliant performances at France ’98.
Possibly the least celebrated of the players highlighted here, Brnovic is still well worthy of a mention. The Montenegrin defender was an important player for Yugoslavia at the tournament with FIFA noting that, along with Robert Jarni and Igor Stimac, he was ‘irreproachable, as technically gifted as [he was] composed’. He also successfully converted the 3rd penalty in the shoot-out final against West Germany. He was one of the first players from this side to make the breakthrough to the Yugoslavian national side, making his debut in 1989 before finally appearing at a World Cup finals for the country in 1998. Like many of his colleagues he went to Spain in search of club success and enjoyed a 6 year spell at Espanyol in Barcelona.
Jarni – he of the thunderous left boot – patrolled the left side for the Yugoslavian team in 1987 and was one of the few players to play every single minute of every single game. He soon went on to full honours, playing for Yugoslavia in the 1990 World Cup and then scoring Croatia’s wonderful opening goal in the famous win over Germany in 1998. He also represented Juventus and Real Madrid (incredibly, the 4th of this side to play for them) in an illustrious club career.
For all their brilliance it would be quite wrong to suggest their triumph was a stroll in the park. Their first real test came in the quarter-final against perennial favourites Brazil. 1-0 down at half-time they succeeded in mounting the comeback that was to set them on the path to victory. Robert Prosinecki’s 89th minute winner sending the 60,000 crowd into raptures as he curled home a delightful free-kick as shown on the grainy footage here:
In edging past Matthias Sammer’s East Germany side in the semi-finals, things didn’t quite go to plan. Mijatovic was sent-off and Prosinecki was booked, meaning both were to miss the final against West Germany. Fortunately, having seen off Sammer et al, when it came to the final the side rallied. Although what seemed like a late winner from Boban proved a false dawn when the West Germans equalised, the shoot-out was to see Yugoslavia emerge victorious after scoring all 5 of their penalties.
And What Might Have Been…
Of course, the sad footnote to the wonderful brilliance of this side is that they were broken up by war and the country they represented ceased to exist in a unified form while they were still in their early 20s. If these players had been allowed to develop together and play alongside the established stars such as Dragan Stojkovic, Darko Pancev and Dejan Savicevic it is reasonable to think the sky would have been the limit. Certainly, victory at Euro 92 was within their reach – as shown by the success of their famous replacements Denmark. However, let us content ourselves with a more manageable ‘what if’ – what if the Yugoslavian Football Federation had decided that the World Youth Championships were a worthy platform for the talents of those players already needed by their clubs? Here we can allow – with all due respect to the likes of Mijucic who no doubt performed admirably – a little fantasy football for ourselves and speculate on the side that Yugoslavia could well have unleashed on the world that October in Santiago.. now that is a Golden Generation….