BELGRADE, Serbia: One of the favorite cries for Red Star fans is “UEFA-mafia,” but when their team qualified for the Champions League for the first time in 26 years, all 150,000 tickets for the three home games in the group stage were sold out in an hour.
Like it or not, the 1991 champions are back in the competition and they cannot wait to take on Liverpool, Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain.
“We’ve returned Red Star to where it belongs, the league of champions,” coach Vladan Milojevic said after his team rallied from two goals down to draw 2-2 in a second-leg qualifying play-off against Red Bull Salzburg. The sides had earlier drawn 0-0 in Belgrade.
The notoriously excitable Red Star fans invaded the pitch at the end of the game in Austria to celebrate wildly, although UEFA sanctions for misbehavior mean the supporters cannot travel to the first two away matches in Liverpool and Paris.
The club known locally as Crvena Zvezda beat Bayern Munich 4-3 on aggregate in the 1991 Champions League semis before defeating Olympique Marseille on penalties in the final.
It was one of the most boring finals of all-time but Red Star became only the second team from a communist country to win the European Cup, after Steaua Bucharest.
Red Star was then led by talented midfielders Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savicevic and Vladimir Jugovic, defender Sinisa Mihajlovic and striker Darko Pancev. They all went on to sign big deals with sizeable European clubs when Yugoslavia broke up following bloody Balkan wars.
Red Star has no standout players these days, except perhaps for former German international Marko Marin. It does, though, possess promising footballers like Ben Nabouhane, who scored twice against Salzburg.
Things have not been easy for Serbia’s most popular club in recent times. Four years ago, it was on the verge of closure because of a debt of 54 million euros ($62 million).
“Because of unpaid salaries to the players, all of them had the right to leave,” manager Zvezdan Terzic told the Blic daily, before adding the only way out for the club was to scout for more talent that eventually led to sales totaling 16 million euros ($18 million).
“That was the crucial moment that reignited it all,” Terzic said: “Now, if we had a stadium with 300,000 seats, we would have sold them all.”
What worries club officials, and probably UEFA too, is the Red Star fans, known as Delije, who remain among the most feared in Europe because of their penchant for invading pitches and chanting racist slogans.
The cry “UEFA-mafia” began after European soccer’s ruling body accepted Kosovo, the separatist former Serbian ethnic-Albanian dominated province, as a member.
“Whatever happens, we will conquer Europe,” Red Star fan Marko Karic said as he recalled a famous Spartan war cry.
Red Star take on Napoli in Belgrade, when the Champions League group stages kick off, next Tuesday.