by Robert Fielder
1. Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.
2. A person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect: “musical genius“.
Genius is an overused word in football. Nowadays “geniuses” appear to be ten-a-penny, along with “legends” and “great” players. In reality the very essence of genius is its rarity, the creative spark which separates the best from the rest.
Some would scoff at the idea that footballers can be geniuses. In English football the word “genius” is most typically applied to players like Paul Gascoigne or Wayne Rooney, men who do not match the conventional intellectual profile of an Einstein or Newton. Yet few of the doubters would question the credentials of men such as Mozart or Picasso who excelled in non-academic spheres to be lauded with such a term.
Both music and art can draw clear links with the scientific fields that are more commonly associated with the idea of genius. The tempo of musical scores, the rhythm and the pitch all rely on physics and mathematics to create the ideal composition. In art the angles and lines, the sense of perfect proportion, depend on applied of mathematics and make clear why so many figures of the Renaissance were accomplished in scientific disciplines.
The very best footballers do the same which is why the ridicule often given to their intellectual capacities is so misplaced. The metronomic qualities of Xavi dictate the tempo of matches with the quality of the greatest composers. Michael Laudrup demonstrated a level of vision to rival the greatest artists, while the spatial awareness of Michel Platini was illustrative of great intelligence.
Dejan Savicevic was just such a player. His nimble footwork and ability to change direction at pace marked him out as one of the most graceful footballers of his generation. Where many of the best players see passes that do not appear to exist, Savicevic’s dribbling allowed him to find a way through defences which seemed impregnable. His balance, low centre of gravity and sheer doggedness allowed him to ride tackles, evade defenders and retain possession where lesser players would have tumbled.
Naturally dribbling was not the only string to Savicevic’s bow. His control was instant, while his left foot was like a wand in the spell it cast over a football. What set him apart from his rivals was the feeling that he was always one move ahead of his opponents. On countless occasions Savicevic appeared cornered only to somehow anticipate the challenges of defenders, to wriggle out of trouble and create mayhem in the opposing penalty area.
In addition his passing married vision with technique in a manner that only the best could do. In an era where playmakers still reigned supreme, Savicevic could rival the best of them for the range and variety of his passing. If ever something special was required to unlock the most stubborn defence the imagination of Savicevic in his prime was as likely to find the key as any of his competitors. No wonder then that many consider the Montenegrin one of football’s great geniuses.
Savicevic began his career at his hometown club, FK Buducnost of Titograd, and he stood out from an early age. At 17 the young Savicevic had established himself in the team, for despite his tender years his technique was that of a master of the game. Savicevic impressed in Titograd enough to win a call up to the Yugoslav national team and he scored on his debut against Turkey during a Euro ‘88 qualifier. His arrival in the national team found the side caught in between generations, with the bulk of the team who had qualified for Euro ‘84 nearing the end of their career, while the youngsters who would win the World Youth Championship of 1987 were yet to step up to the full team.
Buducnost were perennial strugglers in the Yugoslav top flight and the impressive form that Savicevic showed for both club and country meant it was only a matter of time before a bigger club would come calling for his services. After a three way tussle between the giants of Belgrade, Red Star and Partizan, as well as Hadjuk Split, Savicevic opted for Red Star to provide a better platform for his skills.
In his first season at Red Star, Savicevic was called to national service which saw him miss all the domestic games for the club, though he was permitted to play for the team in the European Cup and for the Yugoslav national team. Red Star overcame Dundalk in the first round of the European Cup 8-0 on aggregate, with Savicevic scoring the final goal in a 3-0 second-leg victory, to set up a clash with Italian champions AC Milan. Having added Frank Rijkaard to the Dutch contingent of Gullit and Van Basten in the summer of 1988, Milan were predictably viewed as among the strongest sides in Europe. Red Star, though, were a match for them, drawing 1-1 in the San Siro as Dragan Stoijkovic’s goal was immediately cancelled out by Pietro Paolo Virdis. In the second-leg Savicevic gave Red Star the lead early in the second half with a stunning strike, only for the game to be called off as the pitch was enveloped by fog. The replay took place the next day but was not so kind to Savicevic. Van Basten had given the Italians a one goal lead only for Stoijkovic to hit back. When the match went to penalties both Savicevic and Mitar Mrkela saw their penalties saved, while Milan made no mistakes as they progressed in a season which ultimately saw them lift the trophy.
The following season Red Star regained the Yugoslav title they had lost the previous season and the beginnings of a special side were starting to emerge. Savicevic occupied a role somewhere in between the midfield and attack, with the freedom to move across the line. Behind him sat Stoijkovic, the classical playmaker, who dictated the tempo for the team alongside the young Robert Prosinecki. With the predatory Pancev up front, Red Star had a man well placed to finish the multitude of chances fashioned by this creative trio.
The summer of 1990 saw Yugoslavia’s last hurrah on the international stage. Savicevic began the match against West Germany which saw the Yugoslavs steamrollered by a team at the peak of their powers, with Lothar Matthaus in particular giving a masterclass from midfield. From then on his role in the tournament was as a substitute (no disgrace given the options that Yugoslavia enjoyed in clubmates Pancev, Prosinecki and Stoijkovic as well as Safet Susic, Alen Boksic, Davor Suker and Zlatko Vujovic). In the quarter-final against defending champions Argentina, Savicevic emerged on the hour-mark and converted his spot-kick in the shootout, only for Stoijkovic, normally so deadly from set pieces, to crash his penalty against the bar.
Stoijkovic’s heroics at Italia ‘90 made it inevitable that a host of suitors would beat a path to Red Star’s door. Bernard Tapie’s Marseille were the team that managed to tempt him, but the gaping hole in the midfield would not be easy to fill. Sensibly Red Star did not attempt to replace Stoijkovic, rather to build a midfield around what talents they already had. The return of Vladimir Jugovic from a loan-spell with FK Rad, gave Red Star a tenacious central midfielder who could reduce the burden on Prosinecki and supply the ball to the mercurial Savicevic with greater speed.
For Red Star the ‘90/91 domestic season was wrapped up with little difficulty, winning the Yugoslav title by eight points from Dinamo Zagreb, yet it was in Europe that the real excitement came. An incredible run in the European Cup saw the club overcome Grasshoppers, Rangers and Dynamo Dresden to set up a semi-final encounter with Bayern Munich. The first leg saw Red Star pull off an improbable victory in Munich with Savicevic scoring the second of their goals. In the return leg in Marakana the game looked set for extra-time with Bayern leading 2-1, only for Klaus Augentahler to put through his own net in the ninetieth minute to hand Red Star a place in the final.
The game in Bari against Marseille proved to be a drab affair. Despite the host of attacking players on both teams (Marseille’s team contained the likes of Chris Waddle, Abedi Pele and Jean-Pierre Papin, with Stoijkovic on the bench) neither was adventurous enough to go for the victory. Red Star in particular showed the limit of their ambition as they withdrew Savicevic in the closing minutes of normal time to put on a far more defensive midfielder in Vlada Stosic in search of penalties. The strategy paid off as Manuel Amoros’s missed spot-kick handed Red Star the European crown. Savicevic finished joint second in the voting for the Ballon D’Or in recognition of his contribution to the success.
In 1991 Yugoslavia fell apart as civil war gripped the nation. Red Star won the Yugoslav championship ahead of Partizan, yet the Croatian clubs had already withdrawn. While insignificant in the context of the conflict raging in Yugoslavia, the war had a dramatic impact on football in the country. The Yugoslav national team had qualified in style for the European Championships of 1992 to be held in Sweden and were regarded by many as among the favourites for the competition. International sanctions though forced their withdrawal from the tournament allowing Denmark (runners up in their qualifying group) to take their place. The Danes’ shock victory at Euro ‘92 only served to raise further questions on just how well Yugoslavia might have done had they been allowed to compete.
With his country in tatters, Savicevic joined the exodus of Yugoslav players in the summer of 1992 and joined AC Milan in a big money move. However, Savicevic’s transfer was put rather in the shade by the world record transfer fees paid first for Jean-Pierre Papin and then Gianluigi Lentini, as Fabio Capello strengthened a side which had not lost a single game in the previous season.
The twentieth century saw tycoons such as Edoardo Agnelli and Angelo Moratti patronise football clubs in the way that the Medici had treated the likes of Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance. Silvio Berlusconi was no different. His rescue of AC Milan prompted a recruitment drive which brought in players of the calibre of Van Basten, Gullit and Roberto Baggio. Yet even he considered Savicevic special. His description of Savicevic as Il Genio (the Genius) summed up the priceless flashes of brilliance that marked the Montenegrin out as a rare artist.
Unfortunately for Savicevic and Berlusconi, the restrictions on foreigners in Italy at the time made the opportunities afforded to him far less he might have hoped. Just three non-Italians were allowed in the team and with Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard the foundation of a Milan side which had swept all rivals in the previous years it was a giant task just to get in the team. Even Papin who had been brought at such cost was often left out of a Milan team in imperious form. His first season at the San Siro saw Savicevic make only ten league appearances as Milan again swept to the league title. They were also losing finalists in the Champions League though Savicevic did not feature in the final against Marseille.
The ‘93/94 season saw Milan win Lo Scudetto again, but Savicevic was far more involved in their success. The career ending injury suffered by Marco Van Basten in the 1993 Champions League final and Ruud Gullit’s move to Sampdoria meant that there were far more opportunities for Savicevic to start. Milan’s title was secured primarily off the back of their astonishing defence as they scored just thirty-six goals in thirty-four league games, but conceded a miserly fifteen. Savicevic featured in twenty league games but did not score a single goal demonstrating that his talents lay more in the making than the taking of chances.
It was in Europe though that Savicevic’s impact would be most keenly felt. Milan progressed smoothly to the Champions League final with the defence again the basis of their success. Conceding just two goals in eleven games en route to a clash with Barcelona, Milan would have to make do in the final without both Baresi and Costacurta who were suspended. Facing Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” few gave Milan much hope prior to kick-off yet the Rossoneri stunned the Catalans in a 4-0 drubbing in Athens. Savicevic was inevitably to the fore, scoring with a fabulously weighted lob over the head of Andoni Zubizarreta after robbing Nadal.
The remainder of Savicevic’s time at Milan would be frustrating both for the player and for fans. A combination of injuries, competition from other foreigners (as well as Roberto Baggio, who was signed in1995) plus the on-going mistrust of the mercurial Montenegrin led to Savicevic getting only limited opportunities in the team. The largely defensive nature of the team under Capello meant that the unpredictable Savicevic was viewed as luxury that the team could not always afford. Even the admiration of Berlusconi could not ensure a place for Il Genio.
Capello’s departure to Real Madrid in 1996 might have led to more opportunities for Savicevic, but Milan entered a chaotic period which saw a host of managers (including Arrigo Sacchi) come and go as well as a raft of players brought in only to be subsequently jettisoned. Milan could only manage mid-table finishes in the ‘96/97 and ‘97/98 seasons and with the arrival of Alberto Zaccheroni as manager in 1998, Savicevic chose to return to Red Star. His time there was brief and he rounded off his career with two seasons at Rapid Vienna where he shone, despite injuries restricting his playing time.
Savicevic’s list of honours (a hat-trick of both Yugoslav and Italian league titles to go with his two European Cups) compares favourably with the very best players of his era. Yet there will always be a sense of what might have been when discussing such a gifted footballer. The political instability in Yugoslavia, the injuries suffered, as well as the restrictions imposed within Italy while he was at Milan meant that he never had the opportunity to do full justice to such remarkable talents.
Despite that, Savicevic remains one of the most fondly remembered players of the early 1990s. His slaloming dribbles, deft touches and clinically taken goals made him a fan favourite in a league which possessed almost all the world’s greatest players. Because, for all the difficulties Savicevic faced he was, on his day, as graceful and spectacular as any player in the world. He possessed the innate ability to produce the incredible at any moment, to conjure something from nothing and send fans away talking of nothing else. That’s why to his admirers he will always be Il Genio.