Communism prevailed across Eastern Europe for four and a half decades between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall and had a profound impact upon the football played in the various states – organisationally, stylistically and ideologically.
Many great players were produced during the communist years because of, or in spite of the system (depending on your own perspective), but there was one type of player the coaches from the eastern nations struggled to develop by comparison to their western counterparts: wingers.
From the Eastern Bloc we saw many brilliant keepers like Yashin, exceptional midfield playmakers like Boniek and Dobrin and devastating forwards like Sekularac, Streich and Asparuhov, but high-quality wide players were a much rarer breed. This was no quirk of fate as ideologically the whole notion of wingers, probably the most individualistic role on the pitch, was frowned upon at levels high above a mere sporting one.
Sporting socialism was wholly orientated around the team collective at the expense of individual expression. While Eastern coaches could admire the skills of great wingers from the west like Paco Gento and Jimmy Johnstone, allowing certain players to be elevated above others when it came to acclaim and attention could just never be part of their modus operandi, regardless of their personal views on the subject.
Occasionally players who were just too good to hold back emerged and had to find some sort of middle ground of being creatively inspirational without deviating unnecessarily from the greater good of the collective – Hungary’s Ferenc Bene, Poland’s Grzegorz Lato and the Soviet Union’s Oleg Blokhin all tried gamely to solve this near impossible conundrum. And then there was eastern Europe’s greatest-ever winger who somehow managed to seamlessly blend the twin demands of brilliance and selflessness – Dragan Džajić.
In 1961 a modestly clad youth named wearing enormous peasant-like boots left the tiny village of Ub and made the 100-mile journey to the Yugoslavian capital Belgrade. He called at the Partizan Stadium seeking a trial, but as it was the end of the season he was told to come back another time. Not being likely to afford the fare a second time, the young man made his way to the Red Star stadium where Milanic, the coach of the junior side, saw him in action and offered him a four-year contract on the spot. The youngster was paid £23 for the privilege and Red Star had a player who to this day is still acclaimed as their greatest.
Džajić played on the left wing from his earliest days in the game and seemed to emerge at Red Star almost fully formed with no obvious weaknesses. Contemporary wingers of the time would invariably be skilled, some would be fast, some might be strong, some had more than one usable foot, some could hit devastatingly accurate crosses while some could score regularly themselves. Džajić stood out from his peers as he could do the lot and his game was reinforced by an innate sense for making the right decision at the right time and never being concerned about doing the simple thing if that’s what the situation demanded.
He made his Red Star debut in 1963 having just turned 17 and his first Yugoslavia national team start followed just 12 months later. By 1968 he was one of the most acclaimed attacking players in Europe and was both the top scorer and voted the outstanding player of the 1968 European Nations Cup. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was in his prime and Red Star became wholly dependant upon his regular supply of both goals and assists.
There were few better sights in football than Džajić in full flight, tormenting opposing full backs to the point of bewilderment with his near supernatural ball control, then scoring himself or, more commonly, finding a teammate in a better position with an immaculate judged delivery. He was a player who would be adored by modern coaches because for all his skill, his ‘end product’ was so reliable and consistent.
Džajić spent a dozen years with Red Star winning five national titles, four national cups and a Mitropa Cup. At the age of 29, he was permitted to move abroad and joined the ambitious minnows of Bastia where he helped transform their fortunes and turn them into a genuine force in the French game before returning home for one last season at Red Star, his spiritual home.
Yugoslavia nor Eastern Europe as a whole would ever see his likes again.