There are few who can compare to Darko Pancev’s ability to score, the Macedonian was one of a kind. This is the story of his success for Red Star.
There are but a few occasions when a plan comes together in the way that it should. There is a lot that can go wrong and a lot that can go right. Fortunately, for FK Crvena zvezda and Darko Pancev, everything went absolutely perfectly when they lifted the European Cup in 1991.
It was a victory that was five-years in the making. All stemming from a plan made in 1987, in five-years, the Serbian giants wanted to win their first ever European Cup. And they did so, in Bari in 1991 against the mighty Olympique Marseille.
Their midfield was quite possibly one of the greatest ever witnessed. Vladimir Jugovic, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Robert Prosinecki and Dejan Savicevic. A midfield quartet blessed with talent and intelligence. Ahead of them, was the star striker, Pancev.
Arriving in the capital city of Belgrade at the age of 20, Pancev had already dazzled defences with his goalscoring exploits. At Red Star, he took it to another level and with all the hard work, the glory eventually came along.
Filip Zdraveski is the Chief Editor at macedonianfootball.com – an English site dedicated to Macedonian players across the world and Macedonian football itself. Filip spoke to First Time Finish about Pancev’s career from his early days at Vardar up to his days of glory in Belgrade.
Scoring for fun at Vardar
Born in Skopje, North Macedonia ( Formerly a part of Yugoslavia), Pancev spent his entire youth career at Vardar. Joining their academy in the year 1976, the young forward broke into the first-team in 1983.
“He was always considered a talented footballer, even when he was playing in the youth categories of Vardar.”, Filip recalls.
Having only broken through in 1982, Pancev wasted no time in becoming one of the league’s deadliest strikers. In the following season, he finished as the Yugolsav league’s top-scorer. This made him a natural target for the bigger clubs in the league.
“He was a lethal finisher. One of those strikers that were always at the right time in the right moment. If I have to compare, I would say that Pancev was the predecessor of Filippo Inzaghi.”, says Filip.
Pancev’s exploits made him the subject of interest of two of the biggest clubs in the league, Crvena Zvezda ( Red Star Belgrade) and FK Partizan Belgrade. The former were quick to snap him up before their rivals had a chance to.
Different managers, same Pancev
Arriving at Red Star in the summer of 1988, Pancev alongside Dejan Savićević was required to serve mandatory time as part of the Yugoslav People’s Army. This meant that both players missed their first-season owing to their duties to the country.
In 1989, Pancev made his debut for Red Star. Dragoslav Šekularac was the manager and although he lasted only for one season, Pancev never found managerial changes a challenge.
“The manager of Red Star at the time Pancev arrived was Dragoslav Šekularac. He never had problems adjusting to various managers, at least at Vardar and Red Star. At Vardar he was coached by Vukašin Višnjevac and Andon Donchevski.”, recalls Filip.
A team of superstars
Red Star was a team of supreme talents assembled by Dragan Džajić and Vladimir Cvetković, who were the club’s technical administrators.
It was all part of their big plan.
“As one of the best teams in former Yugoslavia, the club always aimed to collect all best players in the Yu league. Pancev was already established as a top goalscorer while playing for Vardar, so transfer to one of the top clubs was inevitable.”, explains Filip.
It was a star-studded team from the back to the front. In goal was the proud captain Stevan Stojanović. In midfield, stars like Prosinecki and Savicevic ran the show. With such a great team behind him, Pancev’s job became much easier in front of goal.
“He was unique in his way of scoring, always at the right time, great shooter, and with such great players behind him it wasn’t hard for the team to function.” says Filip.
On the way to the final
Pancev continued to score goals for fun in Belgrade during his three-year stint at the club. Scoring an incredible 84 goals in 91 appearances. The Macedonian had earned the nickname of “The Cobra” for his exploits.
The 1990-91 season was a historic one for Pancev as well as Red Star as they lifted the European Cup against all odds against Marseille in the final.
On the road to the final, they faced off against some heavy opposition. Graeme Souness’ Rangers, East Germany’s Dynamo Dresden and Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich. Pancev scored five goals on the way to the final as Red Star contested their first European final alongside fellow first-timers in Marseille.
Ljupko Petrović’s played football that was ahead of the time. It was a style of play remarkably similar to Gegenpressing. With such talented players in his side and progressive tactics that outsmarted everyone, it was probably no wonder that they reached the final.
Pancev’s big moment
And yet, in the final itself, it was Petrović’s pragmatism that led to Red Star keeping the scoreline 0-0 against Marseille. The French side also had many a talent in their ranks. The likes of Chris Waddle, Abedi Pele and Jean-Pierre Papin, to name a few.
In the shootout itself, Marseille player Manuel Amoros failed to convert the first penalty. Red Star players slotted away all of their penalties with composure. The final spot-kick fell to the feet of Pancev.
After winning several games on penalties in the domestic league, Pancev and his team-mates had enough experience of such moments. However, this was no ordinary penalty.
Pancev duly dispatched his penalty and the glory was Red Star’s for the taking. It’s hard to think of a bigger moment for the iconic forward.
“Definitely the last penalty in the European Cup final in Bari in 1991 against Olympique de Marseille. He scored so many goals, but that penalty made history for the Yugoslav football.”, recalls Filip.
Brace against Panathinaikos
An year later, Pancev made history again, but for different reasons altogether.
Red Star travelled to Athens for an away fixture against Panathinaikos. At the time, due to the ongoing dispute between Macedonia and Greece, this fixture was important for several reasons.
“Upon entry in Greece, Pancev was detained as he declared himself as Macedonian. As a footballer they had to let him enter Greece after several hours being detained at the border.” recalls Filip.
It was 2-0 to Red Star at full-time, both goals scored in spectacular fashion by the Macedonian poacher.
“Those two goals were widely celebrated among all Macedonians, even today they are still legendary. Both beautiful and silenced the Greeks. I can’t imagine how miserable they felt, as from all Red Star players, the Macedonian was the one to score.” explains Filip.
Pancev’s career after leaving Red Star was disappointing, to say the least. Recently, the Macedonian declared joining Inter in 1992 as his ‘biggest mistake‘.
Nonetheless, his exploits with him Red Star in the European Cup were rightly recognized in 1991. That year, he finished behind Papin in second place tied with his team-mate Savićević and the German great, Lothar Matthäus.
Furthermore, This is the only time such a voting has taken place where three players have ended up with the same number of votes. On other hand, there will always be those who will call him a disappointment because of his time in Italy and beyond.
Still, it would be a great disservice to his contributions to Red Star to call him anything, but a Macedonian legend.