Red Star Belgrade welcome Arsenal amid renewed optimism

BELGRADE -- The question brought laughs around the Red Star Belgrade press room and was followed by a semi-serious answer. Had the Serbian league leaders been practicing for an exact replica of the marvellous goal, scored by Dusan Savic, that knocked Arsenal out of the UEFA Cup in 1978?

"No, but his son is in the team now so we'll let him score this time," said Vladan Milojevic, the Red Star coach.

It would be some story if Vujadin Savic emulated his father's heroics in the sides' Europa League group stage meeting on Thursday but Milojevic's answer had added connotations.

At last there is a sense that Red Star, know as Crvena zvezda at home, do not need to hark endlessly back to their glorious past. After two decades of painful decline, one of Europe's famous old powers can look ahead with genuine hope. Arsenal's visit brings pride to a club that has taken a battering and helps put Red Star back on the football map.

"It smells like it!" says Cvijetin Blagojevic, when he is asked if a repeat performance of 1978 is on the cards.

Blagojevic scored the only goal in the first leg of that third-round tie 39 years ago before setting up Savic's strike at Highbury that made the score 2-1 on aggregate, crowning a slick move with an outside-of-the-boot cross that would be replayed for months if it was delivered today.

Red Star went on to reach the final, eventually losing to Borussia Monchengladbach. They were a fixture at the top table back then, "boiling with self-confidence", as Blagojevic puts it and playing a brand of football that, he believes, had a far-reaching legacy.

"We all had good technique and tactical knowledge," he says. "At that time we played 'tiki-taka' football, the kind Barcelona plays now. We called it 'crazy tiki-taka.' What Barcelona play today is just a copy-and-paste from that. People from the Barcelona youth academy came to Belgrade to see how we worked."

That might sound fanciful now but there is no reason to doubt Blagojevic. Until the country broke up in the early 1990s, Yugoslavia could boast one of the world's most competitive leagues, drawing upon a sumptuous array of talent from a diverse region and benefiting from the fact that its players were not allowed to move abroad until the age of 28.

The crowning achievement, both for the country and its most famous club, arrived in 1991 when Red Star defeated Marseille on penalties to win the European Cup. Many of the names from that night remain familiar now: Robert Prosinecki, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Dejan Savicevic, Darko Pancev, Vladimir Jugovic. It was a thrilling team to watch but its heyday feels like a lifetime ago.

"We used to have the best league in Europe; we were stronger than anyone," says Blagojevic. "We had great infrastructure too. We were ahead of our time, but now we are still at the level of 40 years ago. It is sad, but I hope better days will come."

The causes behind Red Star's modern plight, which saw them fail to reach the group stage of a European competition for nine seasons before this season's Europa League, would fill a book but are broadly common to many of the bigger clubs from behind the old Iron Curtain.

It comes down to a cocktail of poor organisation, mismanagement, debt, forced sales of young talent and the general sense of helplessness as clubs from Europe's big five leagues gradually pull up the drawbridge on those outside.

What was, perhaps, Red Star's lowest point came in 2014 when they were banned by UEFA from the Champions League for a year after failing to comply with Financial Fair Play. It bordered on humiliation, but it was also the cue for a slow, overdue, turnaround in fortune.

This season's team have something the club lacked for too long: backbone. In Europe already this season they have beaten Sparta Prague, Krasnodar and, on the last matchday, Cologne. Confidence has returned to their Marakana stadium, a cauldron of a venue that throbbed to crowds of up to 100,000 in better times.

And it will be full again on Thursday, albeit to a present-day capacity of around half that size, and for Arsenal it will be some departure from many of the more sterile modern grounds they have been accustomed to in Premier League and Champions League campaigns.

"Red Star fans move the whole team," says Blagojevic, who now works as a scout for the club. "Without them, we would not be where we are today. I remember how it felt to hear the entire stadium chant my name. I had a song that went: 'Even when it rains, even when the stars are getting closer, Marakana shouts Blagoje, Blagoje. It motivated me so much."

When a young Arsenal side emerges from the players' tunnel -- a passageway that a long, dark cave chiselled beneath the stadium's north curve before rising up -- it will do so to a crowd that has waited too long for new heroes, new memories.

Blagojevic remembers that, after scoring his goal in 1978, he went straight to the bus station and within an hour of full-time was embarking upon the 200 km journey back to his home city, Tuzla. If Savic Jr, or any other of his teammates, has a decisive say in helping Red Star inch that tiny bit closer to their old status on Thursday night, you suspect they will hang around rather longer to bask in the moment.