Red Star Belgrade: Fans never stop believing the 1991 European champions will rise again

By | September 19, 2023

Red Star Belgrade players celebrate their fifth consecutive league title last season

Red Star Belgrade fans see their club as an empire.

As the game at Manchester City on Tuesday (8pm BST) approaches, the facts are simple: both clubs have won the Champions League, formerly known as the European Cup, on one occasion.

Pep Guardiola’s troops did it last season, while Red Star lifted the trophy in 1991, but it doesn’t really matter as far as heritage is concerned.

“They were the European champions and no one can take that away from them. As far as Serbian fans are concerned, their club is among the greats,” said Mozzart Sport journalist Dejan Stankovic.

“According to them, Red Star is bigger than Paris St-Germain, because the latter has never won the Champions League. And don’t even dare compare them to RB Leipzig.

“Many fans believe that Red Star’s success on the international stage was interrupted by the civil war in Yugoslavia. If it hadn’t ruined everything, Belgrade’s Red and Whites would have been as powerful as Benfica and Ajax.”

That’s why expectations are always very high.

“Public opinion in Serbia would never accept anything short of total success,” explains Serbian football writer Vladimir Novakovic.

“The national team have not left their group in any competition since 1998, but have always been considered favourites. At club level, Serbia had not managed a single Champions League victory before Red Star beat Liverpool in 2018, but they should do so. it again.

“It’s not just related to sports. The sense of self-importance, or even greatness, is what confuses Serbs the most.”

Last season was typical in that regard. Losing dramatically to Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League qualifying play-offs was considered a disaster, and coach Dejan Stankovic resigned immediately.

His replacement, Milos Milojevic, won the league title with a near-perfect record of 26 wins and four draws from 30 matches, but it was still not enough as Red Star failed in the Europa League, finishing bottom of their group with six points.

“People predicted they would get 12 to 14 points in six games against Monaco, Trabzonspor and Ferencvaros,” says Novakovic.

This season, fans are beaming with optimism more than ever, because for the first time Red Star have automatically qualified for the group stage of the Champions League.

This allowed the club to make detailed plans throughout the summer, both financially and professionally. Korean midfielder Hwang In-beom was bought from Olympiacos for a club-record €5m (£4.3m), while Senegalese striker Cherif Ndiaye arrived from Adana Demirspor for €4m (£3.44). millions).

Red Star Belgrade manager Barak Bakhar
Barak Bakhar took charge of Red Star in May after a successful coaching career in Israel

Such expenses were unheard of in the past, but arguably the most important change occurred on the bench. Barak Bakhar was the coach who kicked Red Star out of the Champions League a year ago, and the 43-year-old Israeli was hired in May to transform the club and make revolutionary changes.

Bakhar’s success in his homeland was simply sensational. He led Hapoel Beer Sheva to their first championship title in 40 years in 2016, then successfully defended the crown in 2017 and 2018.

In 2020, he moved to Maccabi Haifa, the sleeping giant who had failed to finish top for a decade, and guided them to three consecutive titles.

Qualifying for the group stage of the Champions League and the victory over Juventus were the icing on the cake. So he was ready for an overseas experience.

“Bakhar is capable of improving teams and installing a winning mentality thanks to his tactical skills and leadership qualities,” said Walla Sport editor-in-chief David Rosenthal.

“That’s why Red Star chose him, as they are trying to take a big step forward. The main problem is that it is not clear what would be considered an improvement, because Red Star are dominant in the league and winning the title is a given. He would need to score points in Europe to prove his worth.”

The club’s management gave the new coach freedom to make difficult decisions, and several key former players were dropped, including Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan, a huge fan favorite who transferred to Slovan Bratislava.

Israeli goalkeeper Omri Glazer, who Bakhar signed in his place, was an instant success, and early results in pre-season friendlies were exceptionally good. This has only raised expectations even further, with real testing still ahead.

“A foreigner was brought in to make the necessary cuts without emotion, as some players were no longer up to standards,” adds Stankovic.

“Bakhar has the full support so far and everyone likes the speed of play and attacking style. In previous Champions League campaigns, Red Star had less quality and had to play defensively. Now they are capable of attacking – and the fans Can’t wait to see this in Europe.”

Keeping expectations realistic can be a problem.

“The fans will not be happy if the team is beaten 5-0 by Manchester City,” says Stankovic.

“Everyone understands that Leipzig are a superior and well-run club, but they are still considered ‘small’ and losing to them would be painful. Furthermore, everyone hopes to at least finish above Young Boys, which is far from certain.”

The Red Star is shining now, but the fall could be quick.

The Serbian press is notoriously ruthless when a team fails and the knives are sharpened very quickly if the players and coach are not up to the much-remembered 1991 level.

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