The stadium was Olympic, the city Athens. Yet while it may be tempting to indulge in mythological metaphor, it would be ill advised – the hero of our tale has no interest in such nonsense. We speak, after all, of a man who made a habit of getting to the point with everyone from managers to fans. He even stares out of Panini stickers with a look that seems to say, “I pity you and your pathetic endeavours.”
Dejan Savićević was born in Yugoslavia’s Titograd (now Montenegrin capital Podgorica) in 1966. His school of hard knocks was futsal on concrete, a boy playing against men. His professional debut came for Budućnost in 1983, before a move to Crvena zvezda in 1988. He won three consecutive league titles, not to mention a European Cup triumph against Marseille in 1991.
AC Milan next, in 1992, but coach Fabio Capello had little time for him during the first half of the season; by the end he’d only made 17 appearances. A case of pragmatist v aesthete? “He was the star and the others had to run for him,” Capello would say later.
Milan started 1993/94 as Serie A champions and Champions League runners-up – Savićević didn’t even make the bench for the 1993 final. Relations between player and coach weren’t exactly improving. But a Dutch exodus helped: Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard left for Sampdoria and Ajax, while injured Marco van Basten was ruled out for the season. Gradually Savićević started to get more games and an opportunity to display his unfathomable ability to evade a tackle. It wasn’t too long before he was dubbed Il Genio – a genius nickname that stuck.
Milan reached a second consecutive Champions League final, this time against Barcelona in the Greek capital. Capello’s side arrived fresh from another Serie A title, secured by scoring just 36 goals in 34 games; Barcelona were Liga champions with 91 from 38. The Rossoneri’s strength was their ironclad defence, but first-choice centre-backs Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi were both ruled out through suspension. Foregone conclusion, you would think.
Half-time arrived and it was 2-0 – to Milan. Surely Barcelona would mount a comeback in the second half? That’s a “no” from Il Genio.