This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Siniša Mihajlović had endured the game from hell. Long considered one of Yugoslavia’s most gifted players, the Lazio defender, renowned for his vision, leadership, and wondrous left foot as much as his combustible temper, seemed to have left all the former qualities somewhere in Rome as disciplinary lapses placed his country in a perilous position.
The nadir of Mihajlović’s afternoon would arrive on the hour mark. After a torturous 60 minutes blighted by needless bookings, referee confrontations and catastrophic defensive errors, the frustrated former European Cup-winning sweeper was dismissed following a petulant shove on Sašo Udovič. With Slovenia already 3-0 up and their former countrymen down to ten men, commentator Mark Lawrenson seemed to echo everyone’s sentiments that the game was as good as over when he sarcastically quipped to colleague John Motson: “I think they’re [Slovenia] favourites, John.”
The reality couldn’t have been more different. The final half-hour of this Balkan barnstormer would turn the game on its head, in the process providing the type of entertainment befitting of the 15,000 impassioned fans who succeeded in creating a fervent atmosphere in a half-full Stade du Pays de Charleroi.
If the draw itself had cultivated a sense of theatre by pitting Slovenia, in their first-ever game at a major competition, against the country they declared independence from less than a decade earlier, then the spectacle on the pitch would increase the drama tenfold.
Inspired by creative linchpin Zlatko Zahovič, Slovenia would run their heavily favoured opponents ragged for much of the first half, their direct play down both wings causing the Yugoslavian full-backs endless problems while Zahovič pulled the strings up top. Their first sign of intent came from a free-kick three minutes in when a Zahovič layoff was struck inches wide by defender Željko Milinovič.
Despite boasting the might of Predrag Mijatović, Mihajlović and Vladimir Jugović in their starting eleven, Yugoslavia looked sluggish compared to their unfancied opponents, who were constantly threatening with dangerous through balls and well-worked set pieces.
The Slovenians would get their just desserts in the 23rd minute when Amir Karić’s whipped cross was met by Zahovič; the Olympiakos attacker’s exquisitely guided header flew past goalkeeper Ivica Kralj and into the bottom corner.
The rest of the half continued in the same pattern with Zahovič missing the chance to double his side’s lead when his one on one effort was saved by Kralj. Concerned by his side’s faltering display, Yugoslavia coach Vujadin Boškov rolled the dice early introducing esteemed veteran Dragan Stojkovič in place of Lazio midfielder Dejan Stankovič.
While the half-time whistle granted an out of sorts Yugoslavia some welcome respite, it would again be the Slovenians who grabbed the…