As the final whistle went, the stands emptied onto the pitch, a trickle at first, mainly teenagers in bad tracksuits, then a few more, then finally a torrent, by which stage it was an invasion that encompassed all generations. Some, overwhelmed by the emotion, bounced incoherently; one fan, boosted onto his mate's shoulders, burst a series of balloons against the angle of post and bar; a balding man fell to his knees and repeatedly kissed the grass. Most just wandered around absorbing the finest night the Marakana had ever known, trying to process the realisation that Crvena Zvezda had beaten Bayern Munich to reach the European Cup final.

There are times watching football when, even as the game is being played, you know you're watching something epic, something that will echo through the generations. That feeling must have been multiplied tenfold in Belgrade that night by the awareness it might be the last time they ever saw top-class football at the Marakana. No game is ever without its context, and few games have ever had a context like that. War was closing in and, as a result, one of the greatest of all club sides would never be fulfilled, would never achieve the silverware and the respect it deserved. The end, for Yugoslavia, for Crvena Zvezda, was near, and that made their achievement all the greater. Yugoslav teams had made a habit of choking at the last, but this time, when it really was the last, they found an inner resolve that carried them through one of the finest 20 minutes of football there has ever been: for once, when the pressure was really on, it was the Balkan side that held its nerve and the Germans who succumbed.

As fans clambered onto the goal frame in front of the North Stand, it collapsed, and that was when the celebration took on a slightly darker edge. The demolition of the posts at the other end was deliberate, and fans then began ripping up chunks of the pitch to take home as souvenirs. Within an hour of the game ending, the pitch was stripped bare. Even today, all over Serbia and beyond, even after everything that has happened since, there are fans who will point to patches of grass outside their homes and insist it began as part of the one true pitch.

To destroy the pitch on which one of the greatest games ever played had just concluded seemed almost nihilistic, but then it would be a long time before Zvezda needed it again for a match of anything approaching that level. And perhaps, even without the wider political context, there was something appropriate about the gesture: after all, how could any subsequent game played on that grass have been anything other than a parody of what had gone before?

Zvezda had been brilliant in the first leg of the semi-final in Munich, recovering from Roland Wohlfahrt's 23rd-minute opener to win 2-1. Their equaliser was magnificent, a counter-attack so quick and so precise it's hard to see how a team could defend against it without sacrificing all attacking ambitions themselves. Slobodan Marović beat Brian Laudrup to an Olaf Thon through-ball and, defying his uncompromising approach in the opening minutes of the game, played a deft pass from tight by the corner flag to Miodrag Belodedici. Still in his own box, still under pressure, the Romanian helped the ball on to Robert Prosinečki, who swept a 60-yard pass down the line that arced perfectly into the path of Binić.

Binić was arguably the least technically-gifted of the side, but he was quick, stunningly so, both with his legs and with his mouth. He is one of football's great talkers, and is particularly great at talking about himself. "I was the fastest player in Yugoslavia," he said. "It was well known that I was fast. I could run 100m in 10.5 seconds. There was a stunt for the newspapers and I ran against a Yugoslav sprinter. I was wearing my boots, and he had spikes, but I was faster from the start and led until 70m, and then he eased past me — but in football you don't have to run 100m. When Carl Lewis came to athletics meetings in Belgrade, I wanted to run against him." For Hans Pflügler, it was a lost cause. Binić whipped a low cross between Jürgen Kohler and the goalkeeper Raimond Aumann for Pančev, arriving at the far post, to slide home. "We scored a lot like that," Binić said. "We were very quick on the counter-attack, and we used to play to that strength."

Zvezda's second goal also came on the counter. The second half had been enthralling; Bayern doing most of the pressing, Zvezda resisting and breaking, largely through the dribbling ability of Prosinečki and Savićević. The decisive moment came at the end of an extraordinary period midway through the half, what the goalkeeper Stevan Stojanović would call "our minute of destiny". Pflügler, overlapping on the left, raced onto a Stefan Effenberg through-ball, but his attempted cross was turned behind, seemingly by the arm of a diving Belodedici. Bayern appealed furiously for a penalty, but the Austrian referee Hubert Forstinger — correctly, as replays would prove — determined the ball had struck the Romanian's chest, and pointed for a corner. In the kick came, Klaus Augenthaler flicked it on, and Stefan Reuter poked it home at the back-post. Forstinger, though, had already blown for a far from obvious shove by Augenthaler.

Incensed, Bayern lost their shape. After regaining the ball from the free-kick, Effenberg squandered possession, and as Belodedici cleared, the ball fell for Pančev. He rolled it into the path of Dejan Savićević, who comfortably outpaced Kohler. As he reached the edge of the area, the ball bobbled but, unfazed, Savićević smacked it on the half-volley inside Aumann's left-hand post. "I remember the game with great fondness," Binić said. "With 20 minutes remaining the German fans began to leave the ground. Everybody knows that Germans fight until the end, until the last minute, but the public recognised that Red Star were not just better in terms of the score, but also on the field. Bayern were beaten in every department of football. Manfred Bender said he never had a harder game than trying to control me."

Those who had seen Zvezda knew how good they were, but not many people had, and few had given them a chance against one of the giants of European football. "A lot of people thought the best result we could hope for was a narrow defeat," Stojanović said. It was, after all, 20 years since a Yugoslav side had so much as reached a semi-final. "When we arrived in Munich, we were underdogs because we had not had good results in the earlier rounds," Savićević said. "I remember looking at the Bayern players before the game and thinking that I knew who all of them were, whereas nobody had heard of us. But then I realised that they were the same age as us, so they could not be more experienced, or physically stronger, and I convinced myself that it was an equal contest."

To say they had not had good results, though, is misleading; they might not have beaten any of Europe's grandees, but the sides they had played they had beaten comfortably, and that despite having to adapt to two major changes of personnel. They also had to combat the deteriorating political situation in the country that led to increasing violence at their games. A riot the previous season during a match against Dinamo Zagreb, for instance, is widely seen as being the symbolic moment at which war became inevitable. Zvezda had had a frustrating time of it in the late eighties. They clearly had a number of exceptional players, but never seemed quite to be able to convert that into championships. Even when they were awarded the 1985-86 title after Partizan had been found guilty of match-fixing, it was subsequently taken from them against following legal action. When they won the double in 1989-90, finishing 11 points clear of Partizan in second, it was their first league title in six years. The bulk of the side that would go on to win the European Cup was in place: Stevan Stojanović in goal, Belodedici an elegant sweeper, Prosinečki pulling the strings in midfield, Savićević and Pančev a devastating front two. That summer, though, they lost a central figure.

Dragan Stojković was not merely the side's playmaker; he was also one of the greatest players Crvena Zvezda have ever had, the fifth and last individual to be awarded the title of zvezdina zvezda (star of the star). There had been questions asked about his temperament in the very biggest games, but he had an excellent World Cup in Italy, inspiring Yugoslavia's 2-1 victory over Spain in the second round. That was enough to persuade the Marseille chairman Bernard Tapie, and he pounced later that summer. From Zvezda's point of view, Stojković seemed irreplaceable; as it turned out, his departure gave them greater balance.

Vladimir Jugović was 21 that summer. He had played one game for Zvezda as a 19 year old, before being loaned out for a season to Rad. He returned to take Stojković's place but, while a far more aggressive player than the deep-lying anchor he became, his discipline liberated Prosinečki and, to a lesser extent, Radinović, who was empowered to press forward from right-back, secure in the knowledge that Jugović would cover behind him.

There was another big change before the start of the season. Dragoslav Šekularac, one of the other zvezdina zvezda, was replaced as coach by Ljupko Petrović. Officially Šekularac was replaced because he'd picked up an eight-match European ban for slapping a steward after Zvezda had lost 3-0 in a Uefa Cup tie away to FC Köln, surrendering a 2-0 first-leg lead, but it was also felt that he lacked experience. Petrović, meanwhile, had worked with the national team at youth level and, after a successful stint at lowly Osijek, had impressed in two years at Vojvodina. He spent only a year at Zvezda, but it was both the most successful and the most traumatic in the club's history.

Zvezda had, admittedly, started their European campaign poorly, only drawing 1-1 at home against the Swiss champions Grasshoppers, Binić scoring just before half-time to cancel out Peter Közle's early opener. Kozle scored again in the second leg in Zurich, converting a 62nd-minute penalty, but by then Zvezda had already swept into a 3-0 lead through a brave bundled finish from Pančev, a Prosinečki penalty and low drive from Radinović. A second penalty from Prosinečki seven minutes from time was mere confirmation.

Rangers followed in the second round. The story has it that the manager Graeme Souness sent his assistant Walter Smith to Belgrade to scout Zvezda. When he returned, his report consisted of only two words: "We're fucked." They were. An own goal from John Brown, desperately lunging to cut out a Radinović cross, a Prosinečki free-kick and Pančev's near-post finish from Binić's cross in the first leg meant the tie was over long before a face-saving 1-1 draw at Ibrox.

Another Prosinečki free-kick put Zvezda ahead in the home leg of the quarter-final against Dinamo Dresden, the last side to qualify for the European Cup as champions of East Germany. Binić scrambled in a second just before half-time and a precise low drive from Savićević gave Zvezda a 3-0 lead to take to Dresden. They were 2-1 up there — the first scored by Savićević after a brilliant dribble — when rioting caused the game to be abandoned with 12 minutes remaining. Zvezda's hardcore, the Delije, had been one of the most feared hooligan firms in Europe until Slobodan Milosević, fearing just what a disruptive and unruly body they had become put them under the charge of Arkan. He made them shave and cut their hair and organised them to the point that they formed the basis of the Tigers, the paramilitary group he led into war. This time, though, it was their opponents who were responsible, and the game was awarded to Zvezda as a 3-0 win.

While it wouldn't be true to say the Zvezda players were unfazed by what had happened in Dresden, given the turbulence of life in the former Yugoslavia at the time, they were probably better equipped to cope than most. Earlier in the year Slovenia and Croatia had declared themselves to be sovereign states and announced their intention to secure independence, while Serbs in Krajina, an area of Croatia with a Serb majority, had begun their rebellion. Tensions were such that on March 16, between the two legs of the quarter-final, Slobodan Milosević admitted, "Yugoslavia is finished."

The first casualties of the war fell on March 31 as Croat troops clashed with Serb militia, to the horror of a large group of Italian tourists, in Plitvice National Park. Then, in April, a few days after the first-leg victory in Munich, a group of extreme Croat nationalists fired three Ambrust missiles into Borovo Selo, the village near Vukovar where Mihajlović had grown up. Even as the players ran up the steps and emerged into the arena for the second leg of the semi-final, there was a sense of what an edgy place Belgrade was in those days. On the concrete lintel at the end of the tunnel was the word "Zvezda" scrawled in spray-paint. It wasn't exactly the "This is Anfield" sign that greets away players as they enter the pitch at Liverpool, but it was probably more intimidating, suggesting the anarchic nature of the Zvezda fans.

Bayern kicked off amid a cacophonous atmosphere, huge multi-coloured flags waving, flares burning, red-and-white balloons everywhere, and lost possession almost immediately. Zvezda held the ball for a while, played a couple of neat triangles, feeling their way into the game in the classic manner, only for Thomas Strunz to intercept as they tried to cross halfway. He laid it inside to Augenthaler, the sweeper playing high up the field, and he slipped a pass to Laudrup. He advanced, evading Mihajlović's attempt to chop him down, and then went down as Slobodan Marović, moved from left-back into the centre to replace the suspended Ilija Najdoski, and Jugović converged on him. In the first leg, Laudrup had clearly been targeted, and was the subject of a series of heavy challenges, Najdoski and Marović seemingly taking it in turns to kick lumps out of him. Both were booked, after which Najdoski, a butcher of a centre-back, did a fine job of neutralising the — admittedly softened-up — Danish forward by more legitimate means.

Najdoski's partnership with the far more cerebral talents of Belodedici was key to providing Zvezda's attacking talents with a defensive platform, but Marović, a left-back who tended to drift infield anyway, proved a more than adequate replacement. Belodedici, a Romanian of Serb descent, was the only non-Yugoslav in the Zvezda side. He had won the European Cup with Steaua Bucharest in 1986, before fleeing Bucharest in the upheaval that followed the fall of Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989, turning up at Zvezda's offices, introducing himself and asking for a trial. The club was only too happy to accept.

This was a game without a prelude. After those two early triangles from Zvezda, there was no period of the sides feeling each other out, no cagey circling; punches were landed from the start and, in that opening 10 minutes or so, at both ends. Olaf Thon, drifting in from the right wing nudged the ball on to Effenberg, who played a pass inside Radinović for Manfred Bender, overlapping from left-back, where he'd replaced Pflügler. Cutting into the box at an angle, his shot was weak and straight at Stojanović, but the goalkeeper fumbled, a sign perhaps of just how tense Zvezda's captain was. Bayern's front three was highly fluid, with Wohlfahrt as the main central point, and Laudrup drifting to either side, with Thon shifting from a position tucked behind the two of them to the flanks. That meant that when Bayern had the ball, they often had a man in space, particularly with Augenthaler repeatedly stepping up to become an extra man in midfield. Laudrup, finding room on the right, rolled a pass to Prosinečki, who chipped a cross towards Wohlfahrt. Stojanović, looking far more decisive than he had a couple of minutes earlier, came a dozen or more yards out to clear. With five minutes played, Bayern had the edge. But then came a dreadful late challenge from Mihajlović on Laudrup out on the Bayern right, so late it was almost off camera as the ball was moved infield; it would be unfair to say it changed the game, but Laudrup, having flickered with danger, was never such a threat again.

From just outside the box, Thon forced Stojanović into a low diving save, his handling still uncertain but his body, this time, firmly behind the ball. Slowly, though, Zvezda began to take control. Having laid a pass wide to Savićević, Prosinečki gathered the loose ball as Aumann fisted clear, and saw his shot deflected wide for a corner. Mihajlović mishit it but, with forwards and defenders alike seemingly frozen, his scuttling delivery clipped the outside of the post and went wide.

Zvezda may not have had more possession than Bayern, but when they did have it they looked far more threatening. Bayern's 4-3-1-2 meant Zvezda, with their 4-4-1-1, were able to isolate Mihajlović and, to a greater extent, Binić, against their respective full-backs, while Prosinečki began to win his midfield duel with Effenberg. The game settled into a regular pattern of Bayern pressure being frustrated by Zvezda's defensive shape, followed by the home side breaking as Savićević and Prosinečki repeatedly found space to charge into, something that led to Augenthaler having to temper his forward sallies and in turn made Bayern less effective as an attacking force.

Savićević had already suffered one dreadful foul from Grahammer when, with 24 minutes played, Radinović, having won the ball in a natural right-back position, laid a pass to him just inside his own half. He turned and ran. Effenberg, left behind by his burst of pace, made a lunge and missed but, as he got to within 30 yards of goal, Savićević was brought down from by an ugly challenge from Strunz, who became the first player booked — although his offence probably wasn't as bad as earlier fouls committed by Mihajlović and Grahammer. As both received treatment, Mihajlović had time amid the frenzy to compose himself and measure the free-kick.

Prosinečki stood to one side, but from that range there was only ever one player who was going to take the kick. Mihajlović had spent most of his childhood in Borovo Selo smashing a ball against the yard gates for just this moment. If his neighbours had ever complained about the noise, or his father resented how often he had to repair the damage caused by his son, they surely forgave him in that moment. He struck the free-kick truly, and it was just beginning to serve towards the right side of the goal when it clipped Strunz on the end of the wall. The deflection wasn't huge, but it was enough to straighten the ball's flight. Aumann, his weight moving to his left, was wrong-footed, and the ball flew past him, a couple of yards to his right.

Mihajlović ran away, hair streaming behind him, his legs pumping higher and higher, his hands clapping above his head as though he were not merely a player, but simultaneously a fan on the terraces as, in a sense, he was; he had paid for a ticket to watch the first round game against Grasshoppers from the stand. As he slid the final dozen yards towards the touchline on his knees, a huge grin consumed his face. A psychologist would later categorise his celebration as "adolescent", and there was something charming, almost child-like, about him as his team-mates arrived with their congratulations. Mihajlović, although six months older than Jugović, was the baby of the side, nicknamed Barbika for his Barbie-doll curls, an innocent in team that for all its genius was run through with a pragmatism that at times verged on cynicism.

He had joined Zvezda only three months earlier from Vojvodina, a small club based in the provincial city of Novi Sad. His debut, he later admitted, had terrified him. "In the tunnel before the game," he said, "I leaned against the wall to stretch. As I put my hands on the concrete, I could feel it vibrating with the noise of the fans, and I thought to myself, 'Sinisa, what have you done? Why didn't you just stay in Novi Sad and live and calm and peaceful life?'" This was why: because he had just put Zvezda ahead on the night, giving them a 3-1 lead on aggregate, and leaving them on the brink of the final.

Perhaps the ecstasy got to Zvezda, because Bayern suddenly enjoyed a period of dominance. Strunz chipped a ball over the top for Thon cutting in to the left side of the box, but Stojanović came off his line quickly to close him down and blocked his shot with his upper chest. As Effenberg headed the ball back towards goal, Belodedici was in the right place to clear with a diving header.

Bayern came again, and won a corner. Thon slipped as he took it, and sliced the ball out for a goal-kick, only for the referee, mystifyingly, to allow him to retake it. This time he played it short, to the top of the box where Grahammer was charging in. The centre-back mishit his shot and Radinović cleared to Pančev, a dozen or so yards inside the Zvezda half. He turned, advanced, and as three defenders went to him, slipped the ball through for the onrushing Radinović, a full-back with extraordinary reserves of energy. As he neared the box, with defenders closing in, he slowed, and chipped a pass to the back post for Pančev, who headed down, but fractionally too close to Aumann, who saved diving to his left. If Bayern weren't already aware of the dangers of over-committing, of Zvezda's power on the break, this was compelling evidence.

In possession, even if they weren't countering, Zvezda could be devastating. Prosinečki, only 10 yards outside his own box, produced a backheel spin — a sort of three-quarter roulette — to turn away from Effenberg and Thon, and knocked the ball left to Šabanadzović, a holding midfielder converted into a left-back. He played a pass down the line for Savićević, who had space to attack Grahammer. His run was a masterpiece of temptation, the ball always seemingly at the edge of his control, but never quite far enough away for Grahammer to risk a tackle. By the time he finally made his move, Savićević was entering the box; predictably, he was left on his backside as the Montenegrin jinked inside him. His shot, though, was hurried, and flew over the crossbar.

Bayern had their opportunities — Thon whipped a free-kick not too far over, Strunz hit a long-range effort into Stojanović's midriff and Augenthaler missed his kick after Thon had pulled the ball back into his path — but the aesthetic of Zvezda's football was superior. When they attacked, it was in majestic waves, in patterns both unexpected and yet inevitable. Savićević and Prosinečki were both at the top of their games, both crazily energised, both finding space and picking passes with invention and precision. To combat one would have been hard enough; with a player of that nature playing that well at both the back and the front of midfield, it was borderline miraculous that Bayern survived until half-time only a goal behind. Even Effenberg, a majestic playmaker on his day, was humiliated, Savićević first opening him up by deliberately flicking the ball with his right foot into his left, and then completing the debagging by nutmegging him.

Zvezda's equaliser in the first leg had been a sumptuous team goal, but they almost bettered it six minutes before half-time in the second. Šabanadzović dispossessed Laudrup by the left corner-flag, where the ball was picked up by Mihajlović. He accelerated away from Laudrup and brushed by Augenthaler — the willingness of Zvezda's players to run at opponents even in tight areas was remarkable — and then, as Reuter came across, nudged the ball infield to Savićević. He turned infield, ran about ten yards parallel to the halfway line, and then jabbed a lofted pass into the path of Radinović, who played it forward to Pančev. With his back to goal, he touched the ball off to Jugović, who slipped a beautifully-weighted pass inside Bender for Binić. Hurtling on an angle into the box, Binić could have rolled the ball across the six-yard box for Pančev — as he had for the equaliser in Munich — but instead he lashed a lame shot into the side-netting. "Dragiša, Dragiša..." said the commentator, Milojko Pantić, in admonition, while at the back post Pančev threw his arms down in frustration. It wasn't just a good chance wasted, but a masterpiece despoiled.

Then, in the final minute of the half, came another great Zvezda chance, created entirely by Savićević, who dispossessed Reuter, zipped by Strunz, and poked a shot from the edge of the box that Aumann saved well low to his left. That, surely, would have taken the game beyond even German powers of recovery but, as it was, despite having had the better of the half, Zvezda were not quite out of danger.

They could have been two minutes after the break, only an incorrectly-raised linesman's flag checking Pančev as he bore down on Aumann's goal after a slick one-two with Savićević. Generally, though, it was Bayern who had the initiative in the opening minutes of the second half; they clearly still believed, and that nurtured doubt in Zvezda. Stojanović, his nerves all too evident, flapped hopelessly under no pressure at all after coming too far to claim a misdirected Effenberg cross. Only a stretching interception from Marović prevented a charging Grahammer laying in Wohlfahrt and then, 11 minutes into the half, came an extraordinary let-off for Zvezda.

Bender snuck in to prevent a Jugović pass reaching Binić, and played the ball to Thon, who exchanged passes with Strunz and burst into the left-side of the area. With Stojanović drawn to his near post to cover the shot, Thon rolled the ball square for Wohlfahrt, who should have had a tap-in. The pass was — fractionally — behind him, but it seemed any kind of contact would send the ball into an empty net. Wohlfahrt, slightly overrunning the pass, tried to drag the ball with the inside of his heel, scuffed the contact, and with the whole stadium apparently resigned to the inevitable, stumbled away in horror as his effort trickled between Stojanović and the post, and wide.

Bayern kept on coming. Augenthaler, advancing with the ball from the back in the classic manner of the German libero, fed Wohlfahrt, whose attempted chipped ball through to Laudrup was blocked by the chest of the sliding Belodedici. As he came away with the ball, the opportunity of a counter presented itself. The Romanian exchanged passes with Savićević and then laid in Binić, who jinked by Grahammer, only for his shot to be saved by Aumann: classic parry and riposte. The sense was that the equaliser was coming, but when it arrived it was entirely avoidable. Laudrup was tripped about 10 yards outside the box by Mihajlović, a position similar to that from which Zvezda had taken the lead in the first half. Reuter touched the ball off for Augenthaler. Mihajlović went to close him down, but was slightly late, and Augenthaler's shot passed between his legs. Perhaps Stojanović was momentarily unsighted, but the shot was straight at him, and as he crouched to retrieve the ball, there seemed little danger. The ball, though, slipped through his grasp, slithered between his legs, and dribbled into the net: 1-1 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate, and Bayern had a lifeline.

The game tipped even further in Bayern's favour. Strunz won a corner off Mihajlović. Schwabl took it and Strunz, unmarked at the near post, sent a firm header at goal; Stojanović this time had his body firmly behind it. Moments later, a similar move was ended by a Mihajlović foul on Strunz. Thon curved in the free-kick and Reuter headed just wide. Zvezda were wobbling badly, and the goal they dreaded arrived after 66 minutes.

Reuter played the ball left to Effenberg, who crossed towards the edge of the box. Wohlfahrt jumped for it with Marović, but the ball was too high for either. Šabanadzović, just behind, was unsighted, and the ball hit him and dropped into the path of Bender, hurtling in from the left. He struck the bouncing ball first-time, leaving Stojanović standing as his shot cannoned in off the far post.

Stojanović sat, disconsolate, the passage to the final that had seemed inevitable at half-time vanished. Bayern weren't just level, but they had matched Zvezda's two away goals and had the momentum. Inevitability now was the sort of crushing German comeback for which they were renowned. Zvezda looked into the abyss, the ghosts of former Yugoslav failure rising all around. Three times in succession Yugoslavia had reached the Olympic final, and three times they had walked away with silver. They had lost also in the final of the European Championships of 1960 and 1968. Partizan had been beaten by Real Madrid in the 1966 European Cup final and Zvezda themselves had lost to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the 1979 Uefa Cup final. And then there were the five European semi-finals lost by Serbian clubs and Yugoslavia's defeats in the World Cup semi-finals of 1930 and 1962. There was the two-goal lead Yugoslavia had lost to West Germany on home soil in the European Championship semi-final of 1976 to lose 4-2 and, most pertinently, there was the memory of the Köln game the previous season, and a two-goal advantage overturned by German opposition in the Uefa Cup. But this time, as a 3-1 lead turned inside six minutes into 3-3, it wouldn't just be another choke; this would be the choke to end all chokes, because as war encroached there was unlikely ever to be another opportunity. If a Yugoslav side was ever to lift a European trophy, this was the final chance.

And this time, the Yugoslav side — and with its mix of Serbians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Bosnian Muslims and a Croatian (albeit one with a Serbian mother), it was almost as though it had been constructed to represent the Titoist ideal — did not flinch when glory was within reach. This time they found within themselves an extraordinary inner strength and, like cornered tigers — to use the image with which Imran Khan would lift the Pakistan cricket team at the World Cup the following year- fought back. Orthodoxy, perhaps, would have suggested the wisest course was to sit back, opt for a policy of retrenchment, pack midfield and wait for the Bayern storm to pass. But Zvezda attacked. Perhaps they were so far gone mentally that they lacked the composure to slow the game down; perhaps they really were, like wounded beasts, simply lashing out. Whatever the reason, they counter-attacked brilliantly, and with Bayern already committed to attack, the result was perhaps the most extraordinary 20 minutes of football there has ever been. The effect, watching the video two decades later, is of a strangely extended package of highlights; you almost have to remind yourself that this is real time.

Zvezda won a free-kick, 35 yards from goal. Mihajlović took it, struck it well, and the ball, never rising more than a yard off the ground, scudded just wide, close enough to the right-hand post to have Aumann scrambling across his goal. It might only have been a speculative, off-target effort, but it had symbolic importance; here was proof that Zvezda could still offer a threat. So too, though, did Bayern. Belodedici, splendidly calm, dispossessed Thon on the edge of the box, but Mihajlović then gave the ball away. Laudrup crossed and a stretching Thon just couldn't get his right foot to the ball.

Mihajlović was fouled and the ball was worked out to Radinović on the right. He crossed, Pančev headed down, and Binić, on the turn, hooked his shot goalwards. Aumann was beaten, but the finish, slightly mishit, looped just wide. On the bench, Petrović, otherwise motionless with intensity, puffed away on a cigarette. The momentum — just — had tipped back Zvezda's way. "It was one of the toughest and most unpredictable matches of my career," Petrović said. "There was a lot of drama, excitement, uncertainty. We'd missed good chances at 1-0 up, but the second goal would not come and instead we conceded a soft goal from Dika's [Stojanović's] mistake. Then we let in a second and the game was hanging by a thread. Both sides were attacking and it was just a question of who would score first. Naturally, all of us on the bench were tense and nervous."

Grahammer tripped Savićević, who landed awkwardly, the television pictured capturing him pointing plaintively at his elbow, indicating the Bayern defender's culpability with his eyes. Mihaljović touched the free-kick to Prosinečki, and his low drive brought a low save from Aumann diving to his right. There were 10 minutes remaining, and apparently not a thought on the part of either side that they might play for extra-time.

The pace of the game, its relentlessness, was astonishing given neither side had nothing to lose. Strunz and Effenberg combined to work the ball to Thon, who laid it back infield for Strunz, who struck a powerful shot from 25 yards. Stojanović, so uncertain until that point, leapt up and to his left and tipped the ball over the bar; an exceptional save, but so breathless was the action that Serbian television never had the chance to show a replay. The corner was cleared, Zvezda broke down the left. Mihajlović's initial cross was blocked, but as Reuter miscontrolled he retrieved the ball, and slipped it infield for Pančev. He chipped it back, and Mihajlović, although presumably startled by the pass being played in the air, nodded it back to Pančev, who suddenly had space in the edge of the box. Perhaps he couldn't believe quite how the defence had parted, though, for he snatched at the chance, and blasted it well over.

Pančev's reputation, at least at that stage, was of being a devastating finisher, and after scoring 34 goals in 32 games, he was awarded the European Golden Boot for that season — although he was only presented with the award in 2006, after a suspicious goal-scoring spree in the Cypriot league was ruled unlawful. In that game, though, the Macedonian looked awkward, less technically gifted than many of his team-mates and, a minute or so after missing one great chance, he wasted another. Savićević burst forward, and played a one-two with Prosinečki, touching the return into Pančev's path, a moment of great deftness and vision. Pančev was, it's true, under pressure, but there was still something wild about the way he thrashed the ball high over the bar.

Bayern came again. Laudrup played a pass infield to Thon, and he measured a through-ball for Wohlfahrt, who had broken Zvezda's offside trap with a cleverly angled run as Marović tried to step up. He got to the ball, saw Stojanović coming out, and clipped the ball over him. As he hit it, he must have thought he'd scored; the trajectory seemed perfect and the ball appeared to be heading just inside the left hand post. Stojanović, on the ground, turned and watched, a despairing hand already beginning to appeal for offside. In the air, though, the ball began to fade a fraction to the left, and when it bounced, it drifted further that way, hitting the post and bouncing back towards Stojanović, finding just the right angle to elude Effenberg as he charged into the box. Talented as that Zvezda side were, they also had fortune on their side. "Only after Bayern missed that great chance, when Effenberg didn't reach that rebound from the goalpost, did I start believing that we would make it, that we would score," Petrović said.

Stojanović cleared to Prosinečki who, like Savićević a minute or two earlier, strode forward with the ball at his feet, both retaining possession and gaining territory. Eventually he turned the ball inside to Savićević, who played a brilliant first-time pass out to Binić. His low cross-shot flew across the face of the goal, a fraction wide of the post and a fraction too far in front of Pančev.

Finally, as Pančev clashed with Schwabl, there was some respite as the Bayern full-back received treatment. The game, though, was merely drawing breath for one outrageous final twist. Again, the move began at the back, Stojanović throwing the ball out to Radinović, who played the ball down the line. Effenberg stole in ahead of Binić, but he couldn't control the ball as he intercepted and it ricocheted back to Radinović, who helped it on to Jugović. He made an angled run forward, and exchanged passes with Pančev. About 25 yards out, still heading on a diagonal across goal, he was half-challenged and the ball broke to Prosinečki, who carried on towards the by-line, eventually checking and knocking the ball back to Mihajlović.

He had Pančev and Binić to aim at, but mishit the cross. It was too low, seemingly a comfortable clearance for Augenthaler. He took a swing, but misjudged it, and the ball, rather than clattering into the stands and effectively ensuring extra-time, looped up off his ankle. Up it went, up and up, and then slowly, lazily, down and down. Aumann, it seemed, simply had to reach up and catch the ball. He was under no pressure, but suddenly something in his body-language changed. His feet, it became apparent, were rooted. Still, though, it should have been a simple take. But the lower the ball got, the more it became apparent that he had misjudged the flight of the ball. His legs wouldn't move. He went to shovel the ball over the bar, but something went horribly wrong, and he merely pushed the ball into his own net, a moment of farce to decide a game of raw drama. "Dva-dva," shouted Pantić, seeming somehow uncertain of what he'd seen. Then the reality dawned: "Gol. Gol. Gol, gol, gol, gol, gol..."

The emotion was atavistic. The roar of the crowd, oddly delayed as though at first disbelieving such a thing could have happened, that such a goal could be allowed to stand, was as visceral, as elemental, as any human sound can be. This was not just the celebration of a goal, but the final defiant howl of a dying nation. The commentator, his voice hoarse with something beyond exultation, was reduced to shouting the names of Zvezda players, interspersed with the word "Bravo!" Savićević turned a solitary somersault. Prosinečki, having raced to meet the bench as they encroached onto the field in celebration, hugged a substitute so vigorously it seemed he was trying to rip his read off. "It's true that the equaliser came after a series of lucky events, but I think we deserved to go through based on our performances over the two legs," Petrović said. "At 2-2 it was a madhouse, but I tried to retain my focus and made one substitution and prepared another one."

Bayern kicked off, but the crowd barely seemed to notice. Petrović sent on Vlada Stošić for Pančev, a substitution clearly designed to kill time. Reuter smashed a desperate long-range effort well over, and just after he'd done so, the camera caught Mihajlović looking physically sick, hands to head as though overwhelmed. As Stojanović took the goal-kick, Mihajlović could be seen on his knees, apparently trying to bury his head in the turf. The final whistle brought ecstasy, relief and the pitch invasion, a strange combination of jubilation and the sad awareness that it would be a long time before a game of such magnitude was played on Serbian soil again — if, indeed, it is ever is. It is hard to imagine Zvezda ever experiencing such a high again.

Even the final was anti-climactic, a penalty shoot-out victory over Marseille in a game rendered sterile by paranoia. There could be no going back. "The situation in Yugoslavia that summer made it impossible," said Stojanović. He was sold to Antwerp, Prosinečki to Real Madrid, Binić to Sparta Prague. In the year that followed, Marović went to Norrköping, Jugović to Sampdoria, Mihajlović to Roma and Savićević to AC Milan. Somehow, amid all the turmoil, and despite being forced to play their home matches in Budapest and Sofia, Zvezda still had enough quality to threaten to retain their title. Going into their penultimate match in the European Cup's inaugural group stage, at 'home' to Sampdoria in Sofia, Zvezda topped the table, and when they took a 19th-minute lead through Mihajlović, they looked on course for the win that would have carried them to a second successive final.

This time, though, when the choke came it was final. The Slovenian Srečko Katanec, once of Zvezda's great rivals Partizan, equalised, and before half-time Goran Vasilijević had added an own goal; the two scorers offering a reminder that in Yugoslavia the greatest danger always came from within. Roberto Mancini added a late third, and when Zvezda lost away to Anderlecht a fortnight later, they were out. "Zvezda had a great team at the time and it would've been very different at the Marakana, in front of 100,000 people," Katanec acknowledged. As it was, though, it was his Sampdoria who went on to the final at Wembley, where they lost to Barcelona. No eastern European team has reached the final since, and it was not until 12 seasons later that Partizan became the next Serbian representatives in the group stages.

Zvezda themselves have never fully recovered. The consolation is that that game at the Marakana, that victory over their own demons as much as themselves, means more than a dozen devalued Serbian championships. Glory is not merely about medals; it is also about something deeper. It is about looking into the deepest recesses of your soul, facing the fear and somehow overcoming it. That's what Zvezda did that night.