Savicevic, Stankovic and Mihajlovic – Degenek hopes Red Star can return to glory days
Belgrade is a city steeped in history. It's also home to a sleeping giant – Red Star.
Red Star Belgrade conquered European football in 1991 – a star-studded side, including Dejan Savicevic, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Robert Prosinecki and Darko Pancev, upstaging highly fancied Marseille.
Once the toast of Europe, it has been a long time since Red Star etched their name in history at Stadio San Nicola in Bari 27 years ago.
While Red Star have continued to dominate domestically in Serbia, the tumultuous breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and lack of finances hampered them internationally – not since 1992 had they qualified for Europe's premier club competition.
But that all changed last month thanks to the head of Milos Degenek, the Australia international's 66th-minute header helping complete a stunning comeback from 2-0 down and sealing a decisive victory over Red Bull Salzburg on away goals in Austria.
Degenek represents the Socceroos on the world stage but the 24-year-old's links to Serbia and Red Star run deep – he and his family fled the war-torn region in the 90s, relocating to Australia.
But having spent time in Germany with Stuttgart and 1860 Munich and with Yokohama F. Marinos in Japan up until July, Degenek is back in the Serbian capital.
"It's very hard to put into words. It was probably a lot of relief. Like a big stone fell off your heart and chest," Degenek told Omnisport as he discussed the moment his looping header found the back of the net at Red Bull Arena, where more than 10,000 Red Star fans descended, on August 29. "I came to Red Star, I could've stayed in Japan and played there. I was in the best XI last season. I could've stayed and played maybe the next 10 years there. But my dream was to come back to Europe.
"Obviously coming to Red Star, I knew the road to the Champions League wasn't going to be easy. I knew it was going to be almost mission impossible. It was going to be one of the hardest things to do. But we as a squad, we believed in that very much and that's what got us over the line.
"That's why that goal meant so much. Pure relief, joy and satisfaction that we achieved something that's been long overdue here."
While Degenek spent time away from Serbia, Red Star was never too far away – the red and white-striped jersey worn with pride in the streets of Sydney.
Degenek, having turned a childhood dream into reality, knows what it means to represent Red Star. "This club is not big financially. It doesn't have the wages of the English, Spanish, Italian clubs. But this club has a fanbase that's spread all over the world," he said.
"Of course the Manchester Uniteds, Barcelonas and Real Madrids they have the most fans. The population of Germany is 80 million and 60 million support Bayern Munich. But when you put the population of Serbia, where it's five, six, seven million, across the whole world, from that seven million, to be honest five and a half support Zvezda. Knowing that, this club is huge.
"I think if we had a stadium that held 150,000, this stadium would be sold out and there would be another 100,000 people waiting outside. That's what it means to the people. Now I can't walk down the street without someone congratulating me, whether that's a person who is 60 years old, eight, 15 or a woman or whatever. There isn't one person who doesn't stop you to say you've done something we've been dreaming of for 26 years. Hopefully this will spark something big."
Red Star's reward for qualifying for the Champions League is dates with last season's finalists Liverpool, Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain and Italian side Napoli.
U 10 časova je počela redovna prodaja paketa ulaznica za grupnu fazu Lige šampiona. O interesovanju zvezdaša najbolje svedoči red koji se proteže stotinama metara od blagajne #fkcz #UCL pic.twitter.com/j4UvAu3gVw— FK Crvena zvezda (@crvenazvezdafk) September 11, 2018
Degenek and his team-mates, however, are not daunted by what's ahead in Group C: "We're not going into this wanting to just have fun and enjoy the experience. We actually want to go and do things. People didn't believe we'd get into the Champions League. People didn't believe Zvezda were going to stand on their feet again after the past 10 or so years but things turn out better than what you expect sometimes."
"We know it's a long way to the top," he continued. "There's photos in the club of the European Cup. There's photos when they beat Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern. There's photos of every major game in and around the changerooms. That's a big thing because you know you're walking into a club that was a European and world champion. You know you're walking into the club where some of the great players – Savicevic, Stankovic, Mihajlovic, Pancev, Prosinecki – played. These are players who made impacts in European and world football, not just in Serbia. It's a big thing."