Throwback Thursday: When the “Fog of Belgrade” Saved Milan

The history of football is made of episodes. Sometimes, even the smallest, most fatal event can alter the course of history, paving the way towards glory or defeat.

Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan is almost unanimously regarded as one of the most dominant teams ever seen on European soil. Under the Prophet of Fusignano’s tenure, the Rossoneri collected a Scudetto, two European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, basically revolutionizing the way the beautiful game was going to be played forever.

However, it is common opinion that the epopee of Sacchi’s Milan would have never born and perhaps never blossomed, if not for the unexpected help the Rossoneri received from the infamous “Fog of Belgrade” on November 9, 1988.

In the middle of an epic European Cup Round of 16 match-up against Red Star Belgrade, with Milan down 0-1 and playing with one man less, a thick fog fell on the then Yugoslavian capital and forced referee Dieter Pauly to halt the match.

According to the rules in place back in the days, the game was to be cancelled and restarted from scratch the following day. With today’s rules, the two sides would have restarted it from where they’d left off, with Milan still in numerical disadvantage and trailing by one. And then, who knows.

The re-match ended in a 1-1 draw and Milan eventually advanced on penalties. They would go on to win the top European competition, thrashing Real Madrid and Steaua Bucuresti in the process. The rest, as they say, is history. But history went inches away from taking a different course.      

To understand why a simple Round of 16 match-up could have had such a devastating impact on the Rossoneri’s future, a little context is necessary. In 1988, Milan seemed and felt invincible. They had just won their 11thScudetto after a ten-year long ordeal during which they had almost gone bankrupt and plummeted into Serie B twice.

Entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi had picked up their pieces and patched them up using a revolutionary concept for the days – treating the club like it was a company. At first, the other presidents laughed at him. Little by little, they would all start to follow his example, in Italy and abroad.   

World-class champions started to land in Milan, including the legendary Dutch trio – Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Franklin Rijkaard. They reinforced a squad that could already feature some talented home-grown players – like defenders Franco Baresi and young Paolo Maldini – and a few key elements picked across the Italian peninsula like Carlo Ancelotti and elegant midfielder Roberto Donadoni.

Milan were a blast to watch and, after conquering Italy, they were ready to launch their European campaign – which was their management’s manifest target for the 1988-89 season. In the First Round, the Rossoneri brushed aside Vitosha Sofia of Bulgaria on a 7-2 aggregate score, with the Swan of Utrecht Marco Van Basten scoring four goals in the second leg match.

But the seeding pots delivered them a fearsome opponent in the Round of 16: Red Star Belgrade or, as they were known domestically, Crvena Zvezda. The Italians, who could never manage to pronounce Crvena Zvezda, would get used to the Italian translation and call them Stella Rossa.

As little as the Yugoslavian Champions could be known in a pre-Internet and pre-global age, those who were familiar with international football knew that the white-and-reds were not to be underestimated.

Indeed, only two seasons later Red Star would clinch the European trophy, powered by a formidable attacking trio consisting of Robert Prosinecki, Dragan Stojkovic, and Dejan Savicevic – the Montenegrin Genius who would go on to play with Milan.

In the first leg of their match-up with Milan, Red Star showed that they meant business. The Yugoslavian side gave the Rossoneri quite a scare at the San Siro as Dragan Stojkovic found the back of the net on 47 minutes. And even if Pietro Paolo Virdis equalized just one minute later, the white-and-reds left Milan with a precious 1-1 tie and the advantage of a goal scored away.

Pietro Paolo Virdis scored an equalizer for Milan in the first leg of the European Cup match-up against Red Star, after Dragan Stojkovic had opened the scoring for the Yugoslavian side

Red Star suddenly found themselves in a favorable position, if only because the second leg match was to be played in their impregnable fort: The Marakana Stadium, a gigantic, flaring pressure cooker filled with 100,000 roaring fans – in an age when the concept of “maximum capacity” applied to a stadium was a somewhat vague and flexible idea.     

What’s more, Milan were to face the game without counting on Ruud Gullit. The Dutchman had done everything possible to recover from an injury, even bringing with him to Belgrade his personal physiotherapist, but it was no use. The fearsome Tulipano Nero (“Black Tulip”) couldn’t play.

The match was rough and tough and turned into a nervous stalemate, with the home side charged up by the home support and comfortable with defending the goalless draw. Right after the restart, things took an even worse turn for the Rossoneri as Dejan Savicevic bested goalkeeper Giovanni Galli with a left-foot effort.

Too bad that very few people could actually witness the Montenegrin’s exploit as, in the meantime, a thick fog had suddenly fallen on the Marakana, making it almost impossible to see what was happening. Only by watching a zoomed TV replay could viewers realize that Red Star had taken the lead.

Two minutes later, the episode of Pietro Paolo Virdis’ send-off was even more surreal. The only one who could see the Milan striker shove a Yugoslavian defender was one of the linesmen, who reported it to referee Pauly. Nobody understood what happened, and the legend goes as far as saying that Milan players didn’t even realize that Virdis had been sent off until they found him sitting on the bench when the match was eventually called off.

On 57 minutes, Dieter Pauly decided to call it a day. It was just impossible to keep going.

Franklin Rijkaard argues with referee Dieter Pauly surrounded by Red Start players and by…the fog! The Yugoslavians pushed for the game to continue, but the referee eventually had to call it off.

And so, a Milan side on the verge of a shocking elimination got a second chance – which they made the best of in a no less dramatic way. The following day, the Rossoneri’s lineup was even more patched up.

Virdis couldn’t play and nor could Ancelotti, who had picked up a second yellow during the previous game. That was because, even if the match had been cancelled, the effects of yellow and red cards were still valid. Gullit gritted his teeth and came into in pitch in the second half.

Milan had a good start this time and took the lead when defender Goran Vasilijevic scuffed the ball into his own net, but the referee incredibly disallowed it despite the ball was cleared well past the goal line – and there was no fog this time!

The second match at the Marakana risked turning into a tragedy – literally – as Roberto Donadoni collapsed to the ground unconscious after crashing into Red Star’s Refik Sabanadzović. A few moments of panic ensued as the midfielder seemed to be having convulsions. Milan’s doctor Giovanni Battista Monti had an intuition that likely saved Donadoni’s life as he had to smash his mandible to prevent his tongue from suffocating him.

Donadoni was carried away. He would get by with three days in a Belgrade hospital, but the panic on the pitch was real and the speaker of the Marakana Stadium eventually had to announce that the Milan player was not risking for his life before things could cool down.

The Rossoneri took the lead with Marco Van Basten but, four minutes later, Red Star had their equalizer once again thanks to the formidable Dragan Stojkovic. The match dragged itself through extra time with neither side able to break the stalemate. In the end, it took a penalty shoot-out contest to decide who would go on to play in the Quarter Finals.

Milan made no mistake from their four attempts while Giovanni Galli denied back-to-back shots from Dejan Savicevic and Mitar Mrkela. It was over. Milan won an exhausting battle of nerves and, from then on, the path towards the European title would suffer no setbacks.

Still, nowadays, the most aged calcio supporters remember the epic battle of the Marakana, whispering and wondering what would have happened, and how the history of football may have changed, had it not been for the “Fog of Belgrade.”     



November 9, 1988 – European Cup 1988-89 Round of 16
CRVENA ZVEZDA-MILAN 1-0 (Match abandoned on 57 minutes)

SCORERS: 50′ Savicevic

CRVENA ZVEZDA (4-3-3): Stojanovic, Najdoski, Vasilijevic, Sabanadzovic, Radovanovic, Juric, Ivanovic, Savicevic, Bursac, Stojkovic, Djurovic (Davidovic, Dimitrijevic, Prosinecki, Musevic, Mrkela) Coach: Stankovic

MILAN (4-3-3): Galli, Tassotti, Maldini, Colombo, Rijkaard, Baresi, Donadoni, Ancelotti, Van Basten, Evani, Virdis (Pinato, Costacurta, Mussi, Lantignotti, Mannari) Coach: Sacchi

REFEREE: Pauly (West Germany)
NOTES: Yellow card: Sabanadzovic (C), Ancelotti (M); Red Card: Virdis (M)


November 10, 1988 – European Cup 1988-89 Round of 16
CRVENA ZVEZDA-MILAN 1-1 after extra time, 3-5 on penalties

SCORERS: 35′ Van Basten (M), 39′ Stojkovic (C)

PENALTY SEQUENCE: Baresi (M) goal, Stojkovic (C) goal, Van Basten (M) goal, Prosinecki (C) goal, Evani (M) goal, Savicevic (C) saved, Rijkaard (M) goal, Mrkela (C) saved

CRVENA ZVEZDA (4-3-3): Stojanovic, Najdoski, Vasilijevic, Sabanadzovic, Radovanovic, Juric, Ivanovic, Savicevic, Bursac (51′ Mrkela), Stojkovic, Djurovic (74′ Prosinecki) (Davidovic, Dimitrijevic, Musevic) Coach: Stankovic

MILAN (4-3-3): Galli, Tassotti, Maldini, Colombo, Rijkaard, Costacurta Baresi, Donadoni (47′ Gullit), Colombo, Van Basten, Evani, Mannari (104′ Cappellini) (Pinato, Mussi, Lantignotti) Coach: Sacchi

REFEREE: Pauly (West Germany)
NOTES: Yellow card: Najdoski, Vasilijevic (C), Maldini (M)