The Night The Belgrade Fog Saved AC Milan

The Night The Belgrade Fog Saved AC Milan

As the Milan coaching staff exited the field and headed down the tunnel they were shocked to find one of their players, Pietro Paolo Virdis, already washed, dressed and waiting for them in the changing room.

Confused, they asked how Virdis could possibly have done this so quickly. The somewhat sheepish player replied that he had in fact been sent off for a punch early in the second half, a dismissal missed, extraordinarily, by the entire Milan coaching staff. But then it had been no ordinary match…

The European Cup second round tie between AC Milan and Red Star Belgrade had all the makings of a classic. The Italian giants, with the backing of billionaire owner Silvio Burlesconi, seemed to have finally assembled the team that could reclaim the European Cup after a 20-year wait. Their opponents were the dominant force in one of football's most exciting regions. It should have been a classic - instead though, the game would go down as one of the oddest in the tournament's history.

 

 

AC Milan were undoubtedly the favourites. Baresi, Maldini, Tassotti and Costacurta formed what would come to be regarded as one of the finest defensive units ever assembled. Carlo Ancelotti alongside Roberto Donadoni could rival any central midfield partnership in Europe while the trio of Dutch newcomers, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten, affectionately nicknamed ‘tre tulipani’, had recently celebrated Euro ’88 glory with the Netherlands.

Red Star, meanwhile, had no shortage of talent. Dragan Stojkovic and Dejan Savicevic were the team's stars. At just 23 and 21 they were the creative heartbeat of a young side that also included 22-year-old Darko Pancev and 19-year-old Robert Prosinecki. They had not yet developed into the fully-formed team that would lift the European Cup just three years later, but it was clear something was building.

The first leg, at the San Siro, was an uneventful affair. A 1-1 draw meant Milan had it all to do in the return leg in one of the most ferocious atmospheres anywhere in world football.

 

 

Foggy conditions are far from a rarity in Belgrade but  the conditions on the evening of the 9th November 1988 were an anomaly.

Milan struggled to make any headway against a resolute Red Star side, buoyed on by the over 90,000 fans packed into the Marakana that evening. The first half came to an end with the game scoreless.

By the time the players walked back on to the pitch in the second half, thick fog had descended.

And when Virdis saw red for a punch early in the second half, few on the Milan bench, let alone in the stands, were any the wiser. Visibility had dropped to almost zero.

 

 

A few minutes later, a building roar began to echo around the stadium, emanating from the area behind Milan’s goal. The Yugoslav commentator began to tentatively report that a goal had been scored while clearly scrambling for information as to what was going on.

It turned out that Red Star’s talisman Savicevic had arrowed a shot into the top corner. Red Star now led and were facing ten men. But the fog persisted – and l

Less than 10 minutes later, German referee Dieter Pauly was forced to abandon the game. The match simply couldn’t continue. But what followed would prove far more controversial. 

Immediately afterwards, Red Star manager Vladimir Petrovic inexplicably agreed to replay the game less than 24 hours later.

The youthful but exhausted Red Star side would have to pick themselves up to do it all again the very next day.

The re-match started badly for the hosts. Milan had an early goal disallowed before the deadlock was broken by Van Basten in the 35th minute. 

But just four minutes later, Red Star drew level - with easily the goal of the tie. A long ball found Savicevic in space with just Costacurta for company. He cushioned the ball and executed a delightful turn before finding the onrushing Stojkovic who hammered the ball past Galli.

Minutes later, a clash with Red Star’s Goran Vasilijevic left Milan’s Donadoni unconscious -  and with his airway blocked, Red Star’s physio took the decision to break the Italian’s jaw to ensure he could breathe.

No further goals followed – meaning penalties loomed. 

Savicevic and Mitar Mrkela missed for Red Star, leaving Frank Rijkaard to score Milan’s fourth spot kick in a 4-2 shoot-out victory. After 270 minutes of football, the tie was finally over. 

Red Star would ultimately strengthen in the years following the tie. Several of the young side would stay to play a part in the 1991 European Cup triumph. 

For Milan the tie proved to be by far and away their toughest of the competition. A 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid at the San Siro two rounds later proved just what an outrageously talented side they were.

The eventual 4-0 victory against Steaua București in the final was achieved at a canter.

That triumph, their first since 1969, would usher in a period of absolute domination for Milan as first Sacchi and then Capello guided them to new heights.

But how different things could have been had the fog not descended on the Serbian capital that November night. Who knows how radically different the landscape of modern European football could have been.

What’s certain though is that the three-legged tie of 1988 deserves to go down in the annals as one of the most dramatic European football has ever seen.

 

Words by Andy Gallagher

 

 

 

 

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