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Former European Cup winners Red Star Belgrade languishing among Europa League minnows

Tuesday 20th June 2017
One hundred teams featured in Monday's draw for the UEFA Europa League's 2017-18 first qualifying round. Minnows representing Gibraltar, San Marino and Andorra are traditionally among clubs competing in the competition's opening stage. Serbian legend Red Star Belgrade's presence demonstrates a true fall from a grace for the 1991 European Cup winners.

During the 1990-91 season, Red Star beat Rangers, Dynamo Dresden, and Bayern Munich on its way to meeting Marseille in the European Cup final. After neither team scored over 120 minutes, Red Star claimed a 5-3 victory in the penalty shoot-out. Legendary striker Darko Pancev netted the winning goal.

Pancev had claimed 34 goals in the Yugoslav League that season and another 25 in the following campaign before failing to impress following a high-profile transfer to Inter Milan.

Civil war's outbreak in the former Yugoslav republic, in the mid-1990's, ensured Red Star would never repeat that glorious night in Bari. Most players quickly departed. Further, the domestic league was weakened by top Croatian and Montenegrin clubs exiting.

The intense rivalry between Red Star and Partizan Belgrade dominated the new, diluted Serbian Superliga, an Eastern Bloc Old Firm, if you will. While the rivals' legend has faded, local passion for the Zvezda hasn't. There were several crowd disturbances when the teams featured in a 1-1 stalemate at the Red Star Rajko Mitic Stadium in front of 41,000 spectators during March 2017.
Although Red Star still regularly qualify for European football, it has failed to progress beyond the qualifying rounds in all six attempts to achieve UEFA Champions League eligibility this century. Similarly disappointing campaigns have ensued over the same period in the Europa League. Such is Serbian league football's current UEFA coefficient, Red Star was forced to compete in the Europa League's first qualifying round beginning in 2014-15. It was drawn against FC Kairat, from the Kazakhstan Premier League.

Losing both legs while suffering a 4-1 aggregate victory was probably the lowest ebb in Red Star's recent European history, although Kairat did beat Aberdeen in a later qualifying round before losing on away goals to Bordeaux.

There were signs Red Star had recovered from that upset when it won the Serbian Superliga and Championship before beating Valetta of Malta in the Champions League second qualifying round. Alas, defeat in extra-time to Ludogorets Razgrad ended the Zvezda's participation at the next stage.

Although Red Star won the domestic league last season, Serbian top-flight football's complexity demands the top eight teams contest a Championship Round, an American style playoff, with the winners qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. Partizan eventually prevailed with city rivals Red Star finishing runner-up.

Therefore, Red Star Belgrade must once again contest the first qualifying round in the Europa League wherein it will face Floriana. The Maltese team were resoundingly beaten 9-0 and 12-0, on aggregate, in its latest European misadventures. The Serbians, meanwhile, will hope to atone for their loss against FC Kairat.

Red Star Belgrade will probably progress into the Europa League's next round but its days of genuinely competing for European trophies appear to be a fading memory.
John Welsh
I am a freelance sports writer specialising in football covering Premier League, EFL and English non-leagues plus top leagues in France, Germany and Italy. I have written for Inside Futbol, Football Weekends plus football previews for Hong Kong Jockey Club, and I’m also the author of book First Touch, a novel covering the exploitation of young African footballers and their experiences in Europe.

Total articles: 31

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