Red Star's upset of Liverpool a reminder of what football stands to lose with a super league
BELGRADE, Serbia -- What would football be without nights like this?
Red Star Belgrade had not enjoyed a victory of this significance since their European Cup win in 1991, and the timing could hardly have been better. On a week when details of the big guns' apparent plans for a continental super league have dominated the news agenda, the Serbian champions served up a vibrant, wild demonstration of everything the sport cannot afford to lose.
Perhaps the executives and money men who would like to create a closed shop among the elite should be made to watch Tuesday's 2-0 victory over a rattled Liverpool side on a loop, and at full volume. It hammered home a vital, increasingly urgent fact: that the soul of football is worth fighting for.
Before kickoff, Red Star's supporters cheered members of the team that, 35 years ago to the day, won 2-1 at Anfield. In those days they would go toe to toe with the best every season. Those players' names were read out one by one on the public-address system; at full-time it was Vladan Milojevic's class of 2018, rank outsiders in a fiendish Group C, who were being hailed in sequence over the loudspeaker.
"This generation will become equal to others in the club's history," Milojevic said afterward. They are in this famous old institution's pantheon now and, at least until their visit to Napoli in three weeks, can keep dreaming of a previously unthinkable place in the knockout stage.
That kind of dream would be dead if clubs from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France cleaved off to play among themselves. One version of the proposed new setup would, it appears, include guaranteed immunity from relegation for 20 years.
On Tuesday's lacklustre showing, it was possible to see how this might appeal to Liverpool, who are among those believed to want a slice of the cake. Although they missed the game's first big chance through the recalled Daniel Sturridge, they did not really get going in the opening period and paid a heavy price -- beaten to every ball by 10 whirling dervishes in red and white stripes, finding themselves picked apart far too easily and failing completely to deal with the towering target man Milan Pavkov, whose two emphatic finishes settled the issue.
"The second goal was out of the blue," Jurgen Klopp said of the 25-yard piledriver that turned the Marakana into a cauldron of bedlam. "That's not cool in a game like this, an atmosphere like this, a situation like this."
The noise was deafening, as it had been from the moment the teams emerged to a silver-and-red tifo display that covered the entire stadium. Red Star warm up for big games on their practice pitch, adjacent to the ground, only taking the long walk through one of football's most hair-raising tunnels when it is time for kickoff. It creates a delicious extra frisson of suspense among the Delije, the ultras who stand behind the north goal, and the fans to either side; it also ensures the team are roared out when they finally emerge and that a raucous, intimidating tone is set from the start.
Klopp stressed his team had not been fazed by the atmosphere, which had been heavily discussed in the buildup and never let up. "It was a good football atmosphere, noisewise and singingwise, not a problem," he said, noting how the temperature rose as Red Star scented blood. That eliminates one potential excuse for a performance that clearly troubled him.
"We made life a bit too easy tonight," he continued. "They were not as lucky as they should be if they win against us."
That was right and, despite dominating the second half, Liverpool posed a consistent threat only in the final 10 minutes. On the back of this and a similarly pallid display in another football hotbed, Napoli's Stadio San Paolo, it suggests an issue that needs correcting when they face the might of Paris Saint-Germain later this month. If Liverpool are not to fall well short of last season's Champions League heroics, they need to rediscover a semblance of their swashbuckling, fearless best form.
Here it was Red Star who had the swagger, the strut and the hard work to go with it. In the latter stages, each bulldozing challenge, each successful clearance was greeted by mini-celebrations from those who had prevented Liverpool from breaking through yet again. "I think even bigger victories will come, I'm not just satisfied with this one," Milojevic said. Red Star's return to the top has left romantics misty-eyed, and much bigger battles are to come if it is to be sustained.
But more raw, visceral, old-fashioned football nights of this measure would help underline the point that they must simply not be lost to corporate greed.
At Milojevic's prematch news conference Monday, Red Star's press officer had blocked questions (on UEFA's request, he claimed) about any potential super league. The thought occurred at the time that it was a short-sighted move: Surely the clubs who would be cast into the ether by such a breakaway need to be allowed a voice at this point more than ever. What nobody knew then was that they would state their own case -- and that of football's supposed also-rans -- in such overwhelming fashion the following day.