How Prosinecki & Zidane’s midfield partner Jugovic became one of Yugoslavia’s last world champions

The former Red Star and Juventus player won two European Cups and two Club World Cups before retiring as one of the most successful Yugoslav players of all time
By Oliver Platt

International success always eluded Vladimir Jugovic. In 1987, a Yugoslavia Under-20 team travelled to Chile for the World Youth Championship and won every single match they played, seeing off Brazil, East Germany and the hosts before beating West Germany on penalties in the final. Jugovic, only 18 at the time, did not make the squad.

He was not quite established enough at Red Star in Belgrade when the 1990 World Cup came around to be part of things in Italy, either. Yugoslavia lost to eventual finalists Argentina in the quarter-finals after a shootout, and there ended the hopes of the nation in its fully united form. What was left of Yugoslavia - essentially the present states of Serbia and Montenegro - was expelled from Euro 92 and qualifying for the 1994 World Cup.

But if Jugovic’s luck was out with his country, he had significantly more success at club level. When he finally got his chance at a major finals in France in 1998, he was already a two-time world champion through the Toyota Cup - the predecessor of today’s Club World Cup - and on his way to becoming the most successful Serbian footballer of all time.

Born in 1969 in Milutovac, a village of around 2,000 inhabitants, Jugovic was spotted by Red Star at age 15 by Tomislav Milicevic, a former player at the club who became an influential youth coach after retiring, and progressed through the ranks to the first team.

Unconvinced they could throw the young midfielder in at the deep end as they had done with Robert Prosinecki, Red Star shipped Jugovic out on loan to Rad for the 1989-90 season. He scored seven goals in 16 games and was back before long, bringing coach Ljupko Petrovic with him as legendary former player Dragoslav Sekularac vacated the manager’s post under a cloud.

Petrovic proved an able replacement, and in May 1991 Red Star beat Marseille on penalties in Bari to lift the European Cup. The game itself, a 0-0 draw, was a stinker that did neither team justice. “I think it was the most boring final in European Cup history,” left winger Sinisa Mihajlovic told Sportal 20 years later.

“A few hours before the match, seven of us were shown tapes of Marseille matches. I remember Petrovic telling us: ‘If we attack them we'll leave ourselves open to counter-attacks,’ to which I asked ‘So, what do we do then?’ His answer was: ‘When you get the ball, give it back to them.’ So we spent 120 minutes on the pitch practically without touching the ball.”

Jugovic was particularly restricted, remaining in front of the defence while Prosinecki and Dejan Savicevic fruitlessly attempted to carry the ball upfield. But Prosinecki’s sale to Real Madrid would give Jugovic more licence to roam when Red Star visited Tokyo for their first Toyota Cup match.

Jugovic scored twice - the first a neat finish after breaking into the box, the second pounced upon after a goalmouth scramble - to lead his side to a 3-0 victory over Colo-Colo of Chile and take home a new Toyota car, complete with comedy giant key, as the man of the match. “In Tokyo, I realized that I really could do it in the difficult world of football,” he said.

It was the first time a team from a former Yugoslav state had won any incarnation of either the European Cup or Club World Cup, and might be the last.

“It was quite normal, nothing special - we were all very proud, but when I look back at the moments now I call it phenomenal,” defender Ilija Najdoski told Blic in 2011. “Only now can I see what we did. Our generation was made up of good people, above all, and our biggest asset was the tremendous atmosphere, no fits or feuds between players and no-one standing out. For four years we lived like a family and respected each other.”

A humble nature coupled with enormous talent would take Jugovic to the top. Whereas Sekularac, for example, had been seen by some 30 years earlier as a luxury player whose style might have masked a lack of practical impact, Jugovic was versatile, selfless and did not demand a midfield be built around him. Those qualities took him to through four Serie A clubs as well as Atletico Madrid and to another Toyota Cup final in 1996 with Juventus.

He won again. Angelo Di Livio, Zinedine Zidane and Jugovic played behind Alessandro Del Piero and Alen Boksic in a fearsome attack, but the Old Lady needed just one goal to see off River Plate in front of nearly 50,000 fans. After a swift move across that fluid three-man unit in midfield - backed up by Didier Deschamps - Di Livio's corner to the near post was flicked to Del Piero, who controlled and finished into the roof of the net.

It was a star-studded team but six months earlier, once again, it had been Jugovic who stepped up to take Juventus’ fourth, decisive penalty and deliver victory in the Champions League final against Ajax. Famously, Zidane vomited before taking a vital spot kick against England at Euro 2004 but here, under pressure of even greater intensity, a smile flickers across Jugovic’s face as he puts the ball down. "I will never forget it, that shot from 12 yards remains engraved in my mind,” he said. “The chills, the embrace of my team-mates, the delight of the fans.”