Rewind back to October 1987. Zico had just tipped his Flamengo team-mate Bebeto to become “one of the greatest players in Brazilian football history”; Enzo Francescoli was fresh from inspiring Uruguay to a second consecutive Copa America crown; Diego Maradona was in the midst of his incomparable contribution to Napoli’s maiden Scudetto; and Marco van Basten had recently swapped scoring breathtaking bullets for Ajax to do it for AC Milan.
Those were merely four examples that dazzling diamonds spotted at the FIFA World Youth Championship could be polished into some of the finest players on planet football. So, when that competition’s sixth edition headed to Chile that October, so too did the attention of fans across the globe eager to get an early glimpse of some superstars of the future. Hype had spread about towering potential of Bismarck, Matthias Sammer and Andreas Moller, the respective No10s of Brazil, East Germany and West Germany, while Bulgarian Emil Kostadinov had thrived in the previous instalment of the tournament that has since become the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
And while nobody was mentioning any Yugoslavians in the same bracket as those aforementioned aspirants before the action got underway, they soon would be. Indeed, in the tournament’s opening match, Yugoslavia exhilarated in a 4-2 defeat of the hosts. The boys in blue then thrashed Australia and Togo 4-0 and 4-1 respectively. By the end of the group stage, Davor Suker had struck five goals and Predrag Mijatovic and Zvonimir Boban two apiece, while Robert Prosinecki had wowed spectators with his mercurial drag-backs and nutmegs, extrasensory vision and immaculate execution of pass.
After falling behind to a Brazil side chasing a third consecutive FIFA World Youth Championship title in the quarter-finals, a superb last-gasp free-kick from Prosinecki – which was later named Goal of the Tournament – snatched Yugoslavia a victory that was unforeseen and deserved in equal measure. Elegant defender Igor Stimac put them ahead against East Germany in the last four and, after Sammer equalised, Suker earned Yugoslavia another 2-1 win. It nevertheless came at a significant cost: Prosinecki and Mijatovic collected a yellow and red card respectively meaning both would miss the decider.
Just as it had in the 1962 FIFA World Cup Final™, the Estadio Nacional in Santiago hosted a meeting between a world footballing giant and a major underdog. However, this time, in front of 65,000, David would not be overwhelmed by Goliath as Czechoslovakia had ultimately been by Brazil.
This time Yugoslavia took the game to their illustrious opponents. Despite the pressure, however, it took until the 85th minute for Boban to break the deadlock. Many other sides would have thrown in the towel. Not the West Germans, who, encouraged by many an improbable comeback from their predecessors, immediately won a penalty which Marcel Witeczek converted to send the game into extra time. That failed to produce a goal, meaning for the first time in history, a FIFA trophy would be decided by penalties.
Witeczek confidently stepped up for his second spot-kick of the night. This time, though, he pulled it wide. And though the West Germans wouldn’t miss another penalty in the shootout, Dubravko Pavlicic, Branko Brnovic, Suker, Ranko Zirojevic and Boban scored all five of Yugoslavia’s to complete a mightily unexpected conquest.
So unexpected, in fact, that only one Yugoslavian journalist was present to cover it – and that only after a last-gasp decision from his employers due to there being a large number of Yugoslavs living in Santiago!
That man, Toma Mihajlovic, explained: “Everybody had taken it for granted that it would be three games and then home, so I was only sent to do non-footballing features on the Yugoslavian community in Chile. But we beat the hosts Chile and then we just kept winning matches nobody gave us a chance in, all the while playing such beautiful football. I’d hoped to do a bit of sight-seeing but I ended up working round the clock! It was crazy!”
It wouldn't be the last we’d hear from Robert Jarni, Boban, Suker and especially Prosinecki. They were all part of the Croatia squad that stunned Germany 3-0 in the France 1998 quarter-finals before going on to beat the Netherlands and finish third.