Real Madrid clash holds significant interest for Manchester United
As Yugoslavia slid into war and eventually split into eight countries, Red Star Belgrade fans set off for the 1991 European Super Cup final just 200 miles from Skopje, the scorching hot venue of the 2017 final between Manchester United and Real Madrid on Tuesday night.
The Red Star fans travelled overland on two double decker buses. Fired up by the intense nationalism, they sat at the back of the main stand and proceeded to make more noise than the rest of the crowd. Normally, the winners of the European Cup Winners' Cup and the European Cup played games over two legs for a trophy that has never really caught the public's imagination. However, UEFA decreed Belgrade unsafe and ordered the game to be played over 90 minutes at Old Trafford.
An embarrassingly low crowd of 22,000 attended a treat of a match, where Manchester United were completely outplayed by the genius of Croat Robert Prosinecki and the Montenegrin Dejan Savicevic. Yet United won 1-0 on a Brian McClair penalty.
"Red Star played astonishingly well and yet somehow managed to lose," recalled winger Andrei Kanchelskis, who won his first United trophy that night.
"Anyone who was at that game must still be wondering how we managed to win it," wrote Sir Alex Ferguson in his autobiography.
"I know I am. In the first half the Yugoslav's star player, Dejan Savicevic, was absolutely sensational and it was a miracle that we came in level at half time. I had to make a tactical move and once again it was to Mr. Reliable, Brian McClair, that I turned. I told him to withdraw into the midfield to squeeze the space that Red Star had been exploiting. He did that to such good effect that we gained some decent possession and a measure of control. Then he scored the only goal of the match to claim a fairly outrageous victory."
McClair actually cheered when Savicevic was substituted. United won their only Super Cup (which was first played in 1972) that night against the best team in Europe -- a club that would be broken up like Yugoslavia, never to return to its former powers.
As Red Star and Serbian football declined, United twice became the dominant force in Europe and the world. Ferguson's side would reach the Super Cup final twice more, each time as Champions League winners in 1999 and 2008. United lost both, falling to Lazio in 1999 and coming up short against Zenit St Petersburg in 2008. Both matches were played in Monaco, a glamorous location for the August game that allowed UEFA's suits a few days by the French Riviera during prime holiday season. Additionally, the stadium's relatively small size allowed UEFA to avoid the spectre of empty seats.
United took the game semi-seriously. Lazio were the big-spending Italians, boasting Juan Sebastian Veron as their star and man of the match.
"Lazio won, but United were the treble winners," Veron told me last year. "I knew they were a team who never wanted to lose, but Lazio were at a more advanced stage of the season and that helped us."
That's because Ferguson was planning for the Premier League and seeking to retain the European Cup, rather than win the Super Cup. He hadn't even attended the first part of the preseason tour in Australia a few weeks earlier, where the players enjoyed several extended and unexpected night outs in his absence.
By 2008, the Cup Winners' Cup was no more and the Super Cup was played between the Europa League winners and the Champions League winners. Given the destruction Glasgow Rangers fans wreaked in Manchester ahead of their 2008 Europa League final against Zenit, it was probably for the best that Rangers didn't win and travel to Monaco. Not that Zenit fans were angels. Their club rightly took the match seriously -- one large group of hooligans even tried to ruin the relaxed summer atmosphere by attacking United fans, and the Russians took a 2-0 lead before Nemanja Vidic scored. That's the same Vidic who idolised the Red Star team of 1991.
As United left it late, Paul Scholes put the ball in the net in the final minute, except he used his hand to do so. The goal didn't stand and Scholes was dismissed.
There is no doubt that Mourinho is taking Tuesday night seriously. United fans, for their part, appear far more invested in this contest than they did in any of the three previous Super Cup finals. It's a recognised trophy, it's Real Madrid and it's a competitive game that will be viewed globally. United are not yet strong enough to win the European Cup, and while they couldn't beat Madrid over two legs, they could win a one-off cup game. Mourinho specialises in that.
While United have never played in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia before, the game is a dream for the local United supporters' club -- a passionate group that struggles to get visas to travel to Old Trafford to see a game live. They've kept busy organising events and trying to stop fans from being ripped off.
In neighbouring Greece, the Hellenic Reds are organising a first ever bus trip from the port of Thessaloniki, while groups of Bulgarian and Serbian Reds are also travelling to Skopje.
Then there are the travelling United fans, who will easily outnumber Real Madrid fans in the 30,000 capacity Philip II Arena, a striking new stadium in an ethnically divided city that has nevertheless built vanity projects along the banks of the Vardar River.
They'll look as impressive to the visitors from abroad as the giant statue of Macedonia's most famous son, Alexander the Great.
The Republic of Macedonia wants to raise its profile, and sees the Super Cup as an event capable of doing just that. The capital is difficult to reach for both sets of fans, but both teams are very keen to win. Madrid want to claim their fourth Super Cup, and third in four years; United want to land their first since that victory over Red Star Belgrade.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.