18th May 1994
Champions League Final
AC Milan 4-0 Barcelona
With England travelling to Montenegro with some trepidation on Tuesday night, what better time to revisit the finest hour of their greatest ever player, Dejan Savicevic?
Savicevic was perhaps the epitome of the 90s flair player – highly strung, often less than industrious, but capable of the seemingly impossible. Technically, there wasn’t a better footballer around that decade than the man Silvio Berlusconi named “Il Genio”. His dribbling skills were unparalleled, and his low centre of gravity, married to incredible spatial awareness, meant he was able to emerge from many a crunching tackle or seeming crowding out by defenders with the ball still glued to his feet, and get himself out of the tightest of tight spots.
The 1994 Champions League final seemed to take place in some sort of bizarro-world parallel universe, where the opposite transpired to what pretty much everyone had predicted. It was supposed to be the true crowning of Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ after they’d rather laboured to their first European Cup, two years previously, against Sampdoria. Boasting names like Romario, Stoichkov, Guardiola and Koeman, Barca had already secured another La Liga title and went into the final in rare form, winning their last five games to round off a 15-match undefeated streak. It was anticipated that they would make short work of Fabio Capello’s Milan side, who were missing key players, and who (despite holding onto the Scudetto for another season) had found goals hard to come by and stumbled over the line, failing to win their last six games.
Even Cruyff himself appeared to treat the outcome as a foregone conclusion, making disparaging comments about Milan’s defensive style in the build-up and even going as far as to be photographed with the trophy before the match. However, Capello’s under-strength side surprised the Catalans by going for the jugular from the outset, and would turn the Dream Team’s big night into a nightmare.
Milan’s path to Athens really started with Capello’s appointment almost three years prior. Going into his first managerial job with some hefty shoes to fill in replacing Arrigo Sacchi, Capello made the best possible start as his side breezed to the Scudetto without losing a single game, rattling in 74 goals. That summer, President Silvio Berlusconi decided to fix what wasn’t broken by spending around £35m on new players, breaking the world transfer record twice (£10m on Jean Pierre Papin, £13m on Gianluigi Lentini) in the process. Other new arrivals in this monumental spending spree included Savicevic (£9.4m from Red Star) as well as, among others, Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly and Stefano Eranio. Although Capello would often ignore a lot of these new toys, leaving many of the ‘flair’ players on the bench in favour of those more in tune with his mantra of “work, work, work”, Milan retained their title, and almost matched their unbeaten run of the previous campaign, extending it to an incredible 58 games in total until March 1993, when the Parma of Brolin and Asprilla finally defeated them.
However, while they were absolutely dominant domestically, not everything was perfect. Berlusconi’s impulse buying essentially forced Capello to pioneer the rotation system, which didn’t go down well with certain new players acquired at some expense only to find themselves kicking their heels on the bench, as well as other, more established stars previously considered untouchable – such as Ruud Gullit – whose playing time was suddenly reduced. Opportunities were further limited in Europe by UEFA’s short-lived three foreigner rule, and Milan could not immediately translate their Serie A success to the European Cup, being shocked by Marseilles in the first final of the Capello era in 1993.
The 1993/94 season was one of transition for the Rossoneri. The three Dutchmen who had been so pivotal to their success had all departed, Gullit heading to Sampdoria, Frank Rijkaard returning to Ajax and Marco Van Basten taking a sabbatical to (ultimately unsuccessfully) try to overcome a severe ankle injury. New signings included the Romanian striker Florin Raducioiu and Brian Laudrup. Yet while the high-profile departures gave the previous season’s arrivals more opportunities to get on the pitch, Capello’s preference for graft over creativity intensified and the free-scoring Milan of previous seasons was replaced by a much more conservative beast. They won the title again, but managed just 36 goals in 34 games.
Capello’s methods were the source of some discontent, not least among the attacking talent at his disposal. “If Capello’s system looks boring from the stands, it’s even worse to play in,” snorted Papin. Savicevic, always a fiery character, fell out with the stern Italian almost immediately. Having been a major architect of Red Star’s shock European Cup win in 1991 and finished runner-up in the Ballon D’or voting that year, big things were expected from him, and he quickly became a favourite of Berlusconi. Capello took some convincing though, largely because, as he would later describe: ”he played the Yugoslavian style: he was the star and the others had to run for him.” It was a philosophy very much at odds with his own.
In his first season in Milan, 1992/93, he started just 10 league games, and took until January to score his first goal. When Milan travelled to Munich to face Marseilles in that famous final, he was not even named among the substitutes.
The following season saw tensions between Savicevic and Capello intensify as the former Red Star man again found his chances limited. This exploded into open warfare on more than one occasion, most notably when he refused to be a substitute for a Champions League group match against Anderlecht, and again when he was dropped for the World Club Cup final in Tokyo – having previously been told he was playing. As long as Capello reigned at the San Siro, it seemed Savicevic’s days there were numbered.
Then came Athens. Injuries and suspensions had well and truly scrambled Capello’s ‘Plan A’. Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, his first choice centre back pairing, had both picked up cards in the semi-final against Monaco (Costacurta being dismissed following an embarrassing piece of simulation from Jurgen Klinsmann). Lentini was still recovering from a serious car crash that initially left him in a coma. The manager’s favourite workhorse, Demetrio Albertini, was also out through injury. So Capello’s hand was forced; he went with an inexperienced back line featuring youngsters Paolo Maldini and Stefan Panucci, and ageing reserve Daniele Massaro in attack. Most eye-catching of all though, was the midfield in Capello’s 4-1-4-1, in which the supremely skilful but decidedly lightweight duo of Savicevic and Boban were protected by Marcel Desailly, sitting in front of the back four. It shouldn’t have worked.
Yet it did – and that owed a lot to Savicevic, who had the game of his life. It was his cleverly weighted chip that created the opening goal after 22 minutes as Milan came out all guns blazing, Massaro firing into an empty net. They continued to dominate, adding a second on the stroke of half time through a brilliant 16-pass move that was again finished off by Massaro.
It was soon time for the Montenegrin’s crowning moment. Just after half time, Savicevic raced down the right to close down Miguel Angel Nadal. Dispossessing the Spanish international defender, he then noticed Andoni Zubizarreta off his line and, from just outside the box, clipped an incredibly audacious, sky-high lob that was perfectly weighted to float over Zubizaretta before dropping into the net. It was one of the great European Cup goals.
The Rossoneri weren’t finished there, Desailly storming forward to complete Barca’s humiliation with number four. In the aftermath, Capello was full of praise for both his players, each of whom he awarded a mark of ten, and particularly for Savicevic, the man of the match, describing him as the only player capable of such “an unthinkable play of brilliance…it is the way of Savicevic“. As is his wont, however, Savicevic did himself no favours with his response, dedicating his goal to Berlusconi.
Capello talked of the game being “perfect”, but couldn’t bring himself to stick with the same set-up, soon reverting to the conservative style he’d used in the league. It would not have the same success at Milan again however. Juve took the Scudetto from them in 1994/95, and though they again reached the Champions’ League final, they looked a shadow of the previous year’s team, proving negative and toothless. Savicevic saw more action in Serie A but could still not make himself a regular. He scored the two goals in the Champions’ League semis against PSG that took Milan through, but again did not even make the bench for the final itself.
Capello left for Real Madrid in the summer of 1996 after one last Scudetto with Milan, while Savicevic stayed for another two seasons until 1998. His career winding down, he made a brief, ill-fated return to Red Star before spending a very happy couple of years at Rapid Vienna, where he was given pretty much a free role to float around and cause havoc. He retired in 2001, and later that year, despite a lack of experience, embarked on a disastrous tenure as coach of Serbia & Montenegro, failing to get a strong side to qualify for World Cup 2002 or Euro 2004, falling out with star striker Mateja Kezman, and even managing to draw at home and then lose away to lowly Azerbaijan.
Savicevic has found, by his standards, a degree of consistency and stability as head of the Montenegrin FA, a post he’s held since 2009 and was recently re-elected to serve another four years. He’s been helped in the role by his enormous popularity as both the ‘Michael Jordan’ of Montenegro and as literally a poster boy of Montenegrin independence, which was finally earned in 2006. It’s difficult to agree, however, with Henry Winter’s assertion that the upper echelons of English football administration ‘needs a Dejan Savicevic’ – the former Milan star could start an argument in (and possibly with) an empty room, managing to fall out with everyone from Serbian newspapers to his own second in command in his four years in the job to date, while also sacking a successful manager (Zlatko ‘father of Niko’ Krancjar) for no apparent reason – amid whispers he was stealing Dejan’s limelight.
Nevertheless, Savicevic’s legacy on the pitch is that of one of the talents of 90s football, and at his best there were few more exciting players to watch. The former Yugoslavia produced many great creative talents who flourished during the decade – Boban, Prosinecki, Stoichkovic – but only one ‘genius’.