A Throwback Champion for the Modern Champions League


The mementos are everywhere, images of heroes past, snapshots of glories lost.

For the current generation of players at Crvena Zvezda — the club known to the English-speaking world as Red Star Belgrade — they are inescapable: in the dressing rooms at the training facility, in the foyer as they walk into the stadium everyone in Serbia calls the Marakana.

They act as a reminder, as proof, as assertion of what Red Star once was, of what it once did. There are photos of the club’s greatest players and its greatest victories: against Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, all of European soccer’s aristocrats.

Some are of the Marakana itself, when it could hold more than 100,000 fans, when the noise was so deafening that, down in the tunnel before kickoff, the players say, they could feel the concrete walls vibrating. And more than one is of Red Star’s crowning achievement, the trophy that elevates this club into soccer’s most exclusive group: the European Cup.

“It’s a big thing,” Milos Degenek, a defender for Red Star and Australia told Omnisport recently. “You know you’re walking into a club where some of the great players played, players who made an impact in European and world football, not just in Serbia. You know you’re walking into a club that was a European champion, and a world champion.”

When the draw for the group stage of this year’s UEFA Champions League was made in Monte Carlo a few weeks ago, Red Star attracted little attention. All the focus was elsewhere: on Real Madrid’s attempt to win a fourth European title in a row, and Barcelona’s attempt to stop it; on Cristiano Ronaldo’s first campaign with Juventus, and his return to Manchester United; on Paris St.-Germain’s coming meetings with Liverpool and Napoli.

To many — outside Serbia, at least — Red Star was, like the rest of the teams in pot four, something between a makeweight and an afterthought; it could hope to be little more than a nuisance for whichever superpowers ended up in its group (P.S.G., Liverpool and Napoli, in the end). Nobody debated how that draw might affect its chances of winning the competition. It would count as nothing short of a miracle if Red Star even managed to make the last 16.

That is the nature of the modern Champions League, after all: it has become the exclusive preserve of a handful of teams, all of them drawn from Europe’s big five leagues. It is not just an exercise in futile nostalgia to bemoan that. To mourn the fact that Red Star’s victory — in the 1991 edition — can never be repeated is to ignore what makes the Champions League such a success.

It is precisely because the same few teams — three from Spain, one from France and Italy, two from Germany and a rotating cast of four from England — make the latter stages every year that it has such an unyielding appeal. The Champions League’s popularity, its ever-increasing significance, is that it is the one competition in which the very best in the world face each other every couple of weeks.

And yet it is fitting that Red Star should be there this year, even if its visit proves only to be fleeting: not just to make up the numbers, not merely as an obstacle to be overcome, but as a memento, a reminder, of what has been lost.

Red Star’s triumph 27 years ago belongs to another world. That was the last year the European Cup was a straight knockout tournament, the last one featuring only the champions of Europe’s domestic leagues. The following season, UEFA introduced a group stage for the first time, and by the 1992-3 season, the competition had been rebranded as the Champions League.

By that stage, the exquisite, gifted team that had helped Red Star conquer the continent had been disbanded. Seeking sanctuary as much as sporting satisfaction, its players moved to Italy and Spain and France to escape Yugoslavia’s bloody, brutal fragmentation.

Red Star would never win another Champions League trophy; though it returned to defend its title in 1992, it was forced to play its home games in Bulgaria and Hungary. It would not be until this year that it could welcome the finest teams in Europe, the sorts of teams it used to consider its peers, back to Belgrade.

That Red Star victory, though, represented something else: It was almost the last time a team from Eastern Europe was capable of competing with the giants of the West. Only Dinamo Kiev, which reached the semifinals in 1999, has come close to winning the Champions League in the years since. In retrospect, 1991 was the end not just for one club, or one country, but for half a continent.

It can be hard, as the blistering tones of the Champions League anthem ring out and the spotlights shine in the night sky before each match, to see that as much of a loss: the competition itself, certainly, has not suffered in the last two decades.

It remains the high-water mark for players, managers, executives and fans, the surest way to write your name into history, either as an individual or as a team. It has become inexorably more lucrative — the prize money available has almost doubled in the last few years — and, somehow, ever more glamorous.

When we discuss whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest player of the modern era, it is their achievements in the Champions League that come under the most scrutiny. Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Mohamed Salah are the three contenders for this year’s men’s world player of the year award. It is telling that none won the World Cup this summer. Only Modric played in the final. The Champions League — where all three were finalists — is what counts.

Yet there is a sense that somewhere, something has been lost. For the first time this season, the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A have each been guaranteed four spots in the group stage: half the field, drawn from only four of Europe’s 53 countries.

The way prize money is divided has been altered, too, to take into account past performances (so teams who have enjoyed more success can win more). Gradually, driven by the ever-present threat of a breakaway super-league, UEFA is bowing to the demands of Europe’s richest, most famous clubs: That is why games will now be played in two time slots every Tuesday and Wednesday — more television coverage means more advertising space.

UEFA revealed earlier this month that it plans to introduce a third European competition in 2021 — or, more accurately, reintroduce it, given that it abandoned the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999. Many in Europe’s lower-profile leagues believe the most likely outcome of that process will be even fewer chances for teams from the lesser leagues to take the limelight, a streamlining of the Champions League and the Europa League so that more teams from the elite competitions can enter.

In that context, Red Star’s place in the Champions League speaks to more than just one club’s pride: It is an echo of how things used to be, a message that there was a time when the playing field was not quite so egregiously tilted, when teams from across the continent could compete. It is a reminder that history did not start in 1992, that it is not just the titans of England and Spain and Italy who have a monopoly on greatness, on memories of glory.

Marko Djordjevic, 30, was in Salzburg, Austria, last month, when Red Star confirmed its return to the Champions League. He plans to travel to Naples, too, for the only away game for which Red Star will be allowed to take fans — a punishment for the pitch invasion that greeted its progress.

“It is big for us,” Djordjevic said. “We must show Europe that we have come back, that finally, we are back where we belong.”

This is not the competition Red Star won all those years ago, though. It has changed, almost beyond recognition, been tweaked and fine-tuned and altered in such a way that clubs like this are not meant to belong here at all. That, though, is why it matters that Red Star has made it, why it matters to hear that name back alongside the list of giants, that reminder of glories past.

Follow Rory Smith on Twitter: @RorySmith.

James Montague reported from Belgrade, Serbia, and Rory Smith from Manchester, England.

Source : NYtimes