The Yugoslav-French connection

The long-established relationship between the French league and Yugoslavian footballers has been a successful and mutually beneficial one. The former Yugoslavia wasn’t known as the Brazil of Europe for nothing: each generation produced players of outstanding technical merit and with a relatively open government for an Eastern European nation, their stars were permitted to move to the west later in their careers.

French football was not an obvious destination for a Yugoslav footballer to make a quick end-of-career fortune, but with foreigner bans in place in Italy and Spain during much of the 60s and 70s, by default France became the next most likely destination.

It proved a happy pairing. Balkan stars like Dragan Dzajic with Bastia, Josip Skoplar at Marseille and Yvan Curkovic with Saint-Etienne wowed French crowds with their verve and technique whilst in turn enjoying on a personal level everything that France has to offer a foreigner in terms of quality of life. The relationship prospered and Yugoslav players continued to flock to France during the 1980s, even when other potentially more lucrative options opened up to them.

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The last national squad to represent Yugoslavia at a World Cup before the federation broke up was in 1990 and it featured four French-based stars: defender Faruk Hadzibegic at Sochaux, midfielder Dragoljub Brnovic from Metz and two higher-profile luminaries with interesting Ligue 1 back stories.

The surprise inclusion was the brilliant and temperamental midfield playmaker Safet Susic who played with Paris SG. Now 33, Susic had been recalled the previous November for the vital qualifier against, ironically, France after a five-year absence. He put in an exceptional performance and the role he played in Yugoslavia’s 3-2 win went a long way towards ensuring that France themselves did not qualify.

The little creative wizard emerged back in 1977 with two goals on his international debut against Hungary, rapidly followed by a hat-trick against Romania. A star at club level for Sarajevo, his excellent performances over a number of seasons meant he was given the green light to move west after the 1982 World Cup by Yugoslav authorities.

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Susic managed to somehow sign contracts with both Internazionale and Torino, then was permitted to move to neither after Yugoslavian authorities grew tired of the contractual squabbles. Eventually, six months later he was finally permitted to leave and with Italy no longer an option, he signed a deal in 1983 to join Paris Saint-Germain.

He rapidly became the creative hub of what developed into a fine Paris side that won first the French Cup, then the title itself with Susic starring alongside other fine players like Bats, Fernandez and Rocheteau. Susic’s career at the Park des Princes spanned nine brilliant, if volatile seasons.

Another PSG man made up that quartet of Yugoslavian French-based 1990 World Cup squad players. The 31-year-old predatory striker Zlatko Vujovic joined PSG in the summer of 1989 from French rivals Bordeaux, the club that first brought him to France from Hajduk Split in 1986 along with his twin, Zlatko.

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At Bordeaux, Zoran had formed an effective partnership with Philippe Fargeon and was instrumental in the club’s conquest of the league and cup double. And yet despite 20 goals in two seasons, Bordeaux brought in Clive Allen as a replacement and allowed Vujovic to move to PSG where he prospered with 18 goals from his debut season.

The French-based members of the 1990 Yugoslav World Cup squad might have bitten the hand that fed them by ensuring France didn’t make it to Italy, but there were no hard feelings in Paris, Bordeaux or Marseille. The symbiotic relationship between the two nations carried on regardless and remains strong to this very day.

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