“They’re sad memories,” Slavisa Jokanovic says. “The current generation of players won’t play this summer but they’ll get the chance next year; we had the Euros taken away from us and never got it back.”
This Saturday was supposed to be the Champions League final, the club season then giving way to the European Championship. Instead, the 552 footballers who should have been joining national teams across the continent have been left in limbo, denied perhaps the best days of their lives. For most, at least it’s not for long; for those 20 men, it was forever.
On 31 May 1992, amid war in the Balkans and United Nations sanctions, Yugoslavia were kicked out of Euro 92, sent home from Sweden 10 days before the tournament began, a replacement hurriedly found. On 11 June, Denmark played England in Malmö; Jokanovic and his teammates should have been there. On 26 June, Denmark played Germany in the final in Gothenburg and won; Jokanovic and his teammates could have been there too. “We had a much better side than Denmark,” he says.
Yugoslavia had finished above the team pulled off the beach to become European champions and it wasn’t just that, either. Red Star Belgrade had won the European Cup in 1991. Yugoslavia had been knocked out of the 1990 World Cup only on penalties by Argentina. And six years after Euro 92, Croatia were World Cup semi-finalists. The generation who had been Under-20 World Cup Winners and European U21 runners-up – “I have the silver medal,” Jokanovic says – never found out how good it might have been.
The disintegration had already begun. “By the time we reached Euro 92 we were already missing important players,” Jokanovic admits. Football could not be isolated from the conflict; indeed, some consider it to have started with the infamous clash between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star in May 1990.
The manager, Ivica Osim, claimed Srecko Katanec asked not to face Argentina at Italia 90 because his family faced threats in Ljubljana and Osim resigned a week before Yugoslavia were kicked out of Euro 92 to the backdrop of the bombing of Sarajevo. Darko Pancev, European Golden Shoe in 1991, also pulled out.
“He scored 10 in qualifying,” Jokanovic says. “We could have done something big with the players we still had but a month earlier that team had been even stronger. It was a very ugly time. Teams didn’t want to play pre-tournament friendlies against us. We played at Fiorentina, then went to Sweden. There were rumours.” There’s a smile, a little light, and Jokanovic laughs. “We were the first there, to trick them,” he says, jokingly, but it didn’t work: being in situ didn’t make Yugoslavia any harder to remove.
“A fortnight in, they banned us. The disappointment was enormous. We badly wanted to show what we could do but for political reasons we were heading back, feeling awful. We had to wait two or three days more while they organised a flight to Belgrade. Then there was a problem with the plane and we couldn’t take off. We waited 10 hours at the airport until they let us leave.
“It was traumatic for many of us. Euro 92 was our first major tournament and many of us we had to wait until we were 30 for another one: in my case, the World Cup in France. It was the same for Pedja Mijatovic, [Sinisa] Mihajlovic, Vladimir Jugovic… We were young sportsmen and – without getting too deep into what was happening – we lost that opportunity. But, look, others suffered much more. Our [problems] were sporting; there was so much else happening.”
They watched their replacements win the competition on television. Well, some did. “We weren’t really in the mood,” Jokanovic says. “We had won in Copenhagen, although they beat us in Belgrade. But a couple of months had passed, a lot had happened, and they arrived relaxed. They only actually won once until the final. But I’ve deleted the tournament from my memory. We couldn’t take part, that’s that. We were banned from qualifiers for USA 94 and Euro 96. People say we could have done many things but we didn’t get the chance.”
There is a sigh. “I played 64 internationals: six with the old Yugoslavia, the rest after it disappeared. It was different.” Three tournaments and six years on, Yugoslavia went to France, where Croatia reached the semi-final. Their next Euros was 2000, when Jovanovic’s last tournament game was that dramatic 4-3 against Spain. He was sent off for two yellow cards, the second foul largely inoffensive. “Yes,” he says, smiling, “but it was more like the eighth and I paid for it. We tried to impose ourselves physically and I took it too far.”
Friendship remained even though the team and the country did not, Jokanovic insists. “Mario Stanic helped me at Chelsea.” At Real Oviedo, it was Janko Jankovic and Nikola Jerkan, plus the manager, Radomir Antic. Friends, players from the team that never was, were scattered across the world. Jokanovic was too, beginning a journey that began in Oviedo in 1993 and took him, as player and manager, from Spain to England, Israel, Thailand, Bulgaria and Qatar.
So many places, so many players. “Robert [Prosinecki] was the most talented, but there are others: Gianfranco Zola, Djalminha, Mijatovic, Dragan Stojkovic. At Oviedo, Carlos – I loved how he played – and Antonio Gorriarán. From Tenerife, Felipe.”
“So many stories and I enjoyed it all all,” he says, although he admits he was a bit old by the time he reached Chelsea and struggled with the shift in style. There was winning the league with Deportivo, coaching Partizan to consecutive doubles and the title in Thailand: “I thought: ‘Who plays football in Thailand? Are you mad?’ But Robbie Fowler was there and I thought: ‘If he can, why not?’” Jokanovic led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Champions League group stage for the first time. And, of course, twice won promotion to the Premier League.
“At Watford, I inherited a team made to go up,” he says, despite joining as their fourth manager in five weeks. “Fulham was gloomier, there was no expectation. I’m proud of both.” Promotion did not lead to Premier League consolidation, though, and another faraway destination awaited, this time Doha. Has he got unfinished business in England? “I have unfinished business in my life and I don’t know where that will be.”
Another adventure, then. “I’m not an adventurer,” he says. “I’d live in more natural places and the natural place is my country but there isn’t much work there after Partizan. Or Spain, but the opportunity hasn’t arisen. Would I work in England again? Yes.
“The city I chose to live is Madrid but if I can’t be productive there, it makes no sense to stop. I won’t sit home crying, wondering about calls. I try to improve, keep working. Twenty years more. It’s not: earn money, go fishing. I love to work. The bonus is I like my work.”
“I don’t know how to drive a bus, run a restaurant, work in El Corte Inglés [a department store] or be a journalist, and nor do I like that. I can do this, or at least I have an enthusiasm for it. Why make life complicated? I don’t regret the ‘adventures’ and I’m not thinking about the next step. When the time comes, I’ll try to do a good job. Get depressed in the meantime? That’s not me. I have no intention of stopping. I enjoy life more when I win games. Where? I don’t know.”
There’s no career path, no plan, just a whole world out there. Jokanovic raises his hand high. “Half joking, half serious, I always say anything from Real Madrid down is an option – let’s say Barcelona, Bayern, City, Chelsea and Madrid so no one gets offended – and that’s a lot of clubs.
“Madrid is where you start, up here; where you end, let’s see. We’re all somewhere below Madrid. And what’s below is a lot. It goes from here all the way down to New Zealand and after that there’s only sea, nothing else.”