'Pure robbery!' - The incredible story of the deaf footballer sent off vs Real Madrid for protesting

In commemorating the 60th birthday of legendary Rijeka winger Damir Desnica, Goal recalls one of the most bizarre and unjust dismissals in football history

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"It was pure robbery," Damir Desnica still says of Real Madrid's victory over his beloved Rijeka in the second leg of their UEFA Cup second round tie in 1984. It is difficult to disagree. The winger and his team-mates had arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu with a 3-1 lead after dominating their first meeting in the former Yugoslavia. They left defeated, disconsolate and disillusioned.

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At the time, Madrid boasted a squad containing the likes of Michel, Jorge Valdano and a young Emilio Butragueno. They did not need a helping hand - but they got one. A big one. From referee Roger Schoeters.

Rijeka had three players sent off on the night, including Desnica. They were only a goal and a man down - so still ahead on aggregate - when he was dismissed in the 74th minute.

Desnica had already been booked by Schoeters for alleged time-wasting as he went to take a corner when he received a second yellow for alleged dissent after the official reprimanded him for playing on after the whistle had blown for an earlier offence. That would sound perfectly justifiable were it not for the rather important fact that Desnica is deaf.

"I was sent off for protesting, which was impossible," he explained in a 2011 interview with AS, "because I can't speak!"

Desnica was born deaf. As a result, life was never easy. He was bullied by other kids at school but the football field offered an escape route. He could not hear those around him, but he could sense them. Even without looking, he knew where they were at all times.

When it came to following instructions, he explained, "I never had problems communicating with my team-mates because I could read their lips." In truth, though, he didn't have to be told what to do; he knew full well how best to wreak havoc in the opposition penalty area.

"He would just wait for the ball by the corner flag, seeming indifferent," revealed former Rijeka team-mate Zdravko Pugelj. "But when he would receive the ball, he would just run directly at goal and he would either score or win a penalty!

He still maintains he should have been awarded two spot-kicks that night at the Santiago Bernabeu, after being felled twice in the area by Real right-back Chendo. "The Belgian referee destroyed us," he laments of the eventual 3-0 defeat, with Madrid actually going on to win the whole tournament that season. "And I know that UEFA banned him for life after that match."

Desnica knows only too well, though, that you don't always get what you deserve in life. During his playing days, unscrupulous club officials often cheated him out of his earnings. His daughter Maja told Novi list, "Even as a little kid, I had to call many clubs' presidents and directors to get him the money he earned because my mother is deaf too.

"Those were really hard times; we hardly had the money to survive. Now it is a little better because my father has the right for a pension since he participated at the deaf athletes' Olympics in 1973 and won bronze."

His career was certainly not without its highlights. He won two Yugoslav Cups and scored 55 goals in 265 games to become a club legend for Rijeka between 1976 and 1985 before spending five years in Belgium with KV Kortrijk. He eventually retired at the age of 41, having made one appearance for Yugoslavia - in a Euro 1980 qualifier against Romania. Inevitably, he scored.

However, his career was also interrupted by injuries and he acknowledges that, as a skilful winger, he would have been both better protected and better remunerated in the modern era. However, despite that, Desnica feels that the game is no longer as romantic as it once was.

"In my day, we played with our heart," he told Dnevni avaz. "Nowadays, football is all about money."

Again, Desnica is speaking from experience. He knows that there is no place for someone like him in a cut-throat business masquerading as an all-inclusive game.

"I was fired from the youth academy at FC Rijeka two years ago because of my handicap," he claims. "I was really disappointed because I enjoyed working with kids.

"I am now a janitor at a football ground in Rijeka."

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Life has taken a lot from Desnica. The game has treated him unfairly. However, he is not a bitter man. He holds no grudges.

When asked in 2011 to offer some advice to the youth of today, he said, "Follow your dreams. With this handicap, I was able to realise my childhood dream.

"God took my hearing but gave me a talent. And a love of football." Nobody has managed to take that away from him. Or ever will.

Happy 60th birthday, Damir Desnica!