Dragoslav Šekularac was ill. He postponed our interview. Experience suggests that once an interview is rearranged, the chances of it ever happening plummet. But the next day, he said he could speak to me, so long as I could go to his flat opposite the Metropol Hotel in Belgrade. He really was ill. So ill that he was in bed when I arrived, an emaciated figure swaddled in a loose tracksuit. He dragged himself into a chair to talk and for an hour was hugely engaging, an outrageous story-teller, swearing freely, hissing confidences, eyes flashing mischievously. But he soon faded and the scent of death in the room became more noticeable. 

Before I went, he insisted he had to show me something, the one piece of football memorabilia he had on display. “I understand that fame is a quality that passes by,” he said when I asked why he had so few totems of his career. “Even though I’m 78, a lot of people recognise me when I go out and that’s enough for me.”

By the door into the kitchen, though, was a plaque denoting that he had played for Crvena Zvezda against Manchester United in the European Cup quarter-final in 1958. Šekularac is one of the greatest footballers Serbia has ever produced, a showman of great technical ability who became a celebrity with an appeal through Yugoslavia that far transcended sport, known by his nickname ‘Šeki’. He won the league title five times in Yugoslavia and once in Colombia. He made 41 appearances for his country and played in the finals of both the 1956 Olympics and the 1960 European Championship. Yet, to himself at least, Šekularac’s career was dominated by the fact that he played against Matt Busby’s United in the final game before Munich.

That was in November 2015. Given how weakened he was by his cancer, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Šekularac had died later that year. As it was, some inner strength kept him hanging on until 5 January 2019.

Šekularac was born in Štip in the eastern part of Macedonia in November 1937, son of a Macedonian mother and Montenegrin Serb father whose work as a lawyer had taken him to the town. Before Šekularac reached school age, the family moved to Belgrade where his father had got a job in the Ministry of Agriculture. 

His footballing talent was evident early and he joined Zvezda’s academy at 13. He was slightly bow-legged, but that just seemed to make him harder for defenders to read. “I was not very fast,” Šekularac said, “but I changed direction quickly, was good at dribbling, played with my head up, had good vision. It wasn’t easy to deal with me.”

He made his debut for Zvezda at 17 and, the following season, 1955-56, he was a regular, scoring seven goals as Zvezda lifted the title. They won the league the following season as well and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, in which they were beaten by Fiorentina. “We had a very good striker in Bora Kostić,” said Šekularac. “He was capable of scoring all the time. Often I had to dive near the edge of the box when the score was 0-0 near the end because he had a 50 per cent record with free-kicks. 

“I made a lot of goals for Bora with passes and crosses and the fans were always making fun of him, saying Šeki made all his goals. Once, we had a free-kick, 35 or 40m from the goal and I told him to go into the box and I would find him with the cross, and he said, ‘Let me: I’ll score with the free-kick.’ And I said to him, ‘Fuck off!’ I didn’t want to let him take the free-kick. But he took it and it was like a torpedo. Right in the top corner. I’d said if he scored I would kiss his foot, so he holds his leg up for me, and he said, ‘I suppose you fucking made that one as well!’”

In November 1956, Šekularac flew to Melbourne as part of the Yugoslavia squad for the Olympics. Given the differing interpretations of what constituted amateur status, Olympic football was always a slightly odd spectacle, but the tournament that year was rendered particularly lop-sided by the withdrawal of the defending champions Hungary following the Uprising. As a result, Yugoslavia reached the final by thrashing the USA in the quarter-final and India, who had been drawn against Hungary in the first round, in the semi. Four years earlier, Yugoslavia had beaten the Soviets in a replay in the quarter-final in Helsinki, a defeat that so infuriated Stalin he disbanded CDKA, the army club on which the USSR side was based. This time, though, the Soviets won 1-0, Yugoslavia’s third successive defeat in the final.

Late on the afternoon of 7 February 1958, Šekularac left a cinema in the district of Zemun in the new part of Belgrade. A small boy ran up to him and told him that Manchester United’s plane had crashed as it departed Munich. Others confirmed the story. “When I got home,” Šekularac said, “I turned on the radio and then people started calling me on the telephone. It was terrible.”

Zvezda weren’t as good that season. Their coach Milovan Ćirić had left for Lazio and under his replacement Miša Pavić, who had been a big influence over Šekularac at youth level, Zvezda struggled. Šekularac found himself marked tighter and, partly as a result, began to suffer a series of injuries. He was fit, though, in the January for the first leg of the European Cup quarter-final, away to United. Lazar Tasić put Zvezda ahead in the first half but goals after the break from Bobby Charlton and Eddie Colman gave United a 2-1 win. “[Vladimir] Beara was a world-class goalkeeper,” said Šekularac. “Maybe without him it would have been 3-1 or 4-1 at Old Trafford. We had two very strong full-backs who were eating people. There wasn’t so much passing round in those times. They were hard. We were good in the air at the back so when United put crosses to [Tommy] Taylor, our centre-backs coped with that well. We were not happy that we lost, especially the way it happened, but we were confident we could beat them in Belgrade. We said we had to take care of Charlton, Taylor and [Dennis] Viollet but what we saw in the first leg was that their defence was maybe vulnerable, the weak part of the team. At Old Trafford we’d had a couple of chances.”

By half-time, though, Zvezda were 3-0 down, trailing 5-1 on aggregate. United hadn’t dominated, but they had been ruthless, taking a second-minute lead through Viollet before Charlton scored twice in quick succession around the half-hour. At half-time, the discussion in the Zvezda dressing room was merely about avoiding embarrassment, maybe getting a goal to make the scoreline look better.

Within a minute, though, Kostić had pulled one back. Four minutes later, Tasić converted a penalty and it was 3-2 with 40 minutes still to play. “Maybe at 5-1 United took it a little bit easy in the second half,” said Šekularac. “When we scored the first and second goals we were relieved. We were a good team but they were better than us.”

But before the hour came a third, from Kostić again. With no away goals rule, one more would have taken the game to a replay. And Zvezda had opportunities, the best falling to Šekularac in the final minutes. “I had a big chance three minutes from time,” he said. To say the miss haunted him would be an exaggeration, but Šekularac had clearly dwelt on its consequences. “It could have been 4-3. Then we would have played a third game and they would not have travelled on that day. I wasn’t a goal-getter. I made assists and final passes. I missed that chance. I was to blame maybe that we didn’t win the game. I curse myself for that. I was 3-4m from the goal and I put it over the crossbar. I wanted to put extra power on it and it didn’t work out right.”

It had been a hard game and match reports spoke of a number of bad fouls – Šekularac guilty of many of them. With knowledge of what was to come, the report in the Manchester Evening News, the final piece by Tom Jackson, who had joined the paper at 14 as a messenger boy before becoming a crime reporter, working with Intelligence Corps during the war and helping unmask Irma Grese, a torturer at Belsen, takes on a terrible poignancy.

“[Bill] Foulkes,” he wrote, “takes top marks because he was the coolest and surest United defender all through the game. Eddie Colman had a splendid first half, but he was out of touch when the battle was at its thickest later on, and Duncan Edwards was much below the rip-roaring form he showed at Old Trafford in curbing the activities of inside-forward Šekularac. The Yugoslav wonder-boy had a much brighter game before his own fans, but some of the shine was lost because his tackling was often too robust. It was only the spirit and courage of young [Kenny] Morgans that kept him going after taking a nasty knock above the knee on the first few minutes – an injury which puts him in doubt for Saturday’s top-of-the-table League tussle with the Wolves. The only other United casualty was Duncan Edwards, who has an ankle injury, but he is expected to be fit for Saturday’s game.”

Despite the physicality, there seems to have been deep mutual respect between the players and after the game they attended a banquet together. In his autobiography, Charlton described the “local beer and drop of slivovitz… the usual array of eastern European cabaret acts, including jugglers and dancers.” 

But even before the official meal, the players socialised together. “The Metropol was the best hotel in town at the time,” said Šekularac. “The bar was famous. I had my wedding there. I was a regular customer – I had a discount. They knew me there. It was not my custom to be so friendly and to go out with players from the opponent’s team. Their friendship, their kindness, how they received us in the first leg in Manchester and how they behaved here, and how we greeted each other, I’m not saying this because they lost their lives, but even today I take my hat off to them.”

He and Charlton remained in touch after the tragedy. “I am still a supporter of Manchester United,” he said, “even though they don’t have good results after the departure of Alex Ferguson. I like to bet, it’s one of my hobbies. Instead of sex, now I bet on football. All the time when Manchester United play, I bet on them.”

Šekularac’s career reached greater heights. He inspired Zvezda to the league and cup double in 1958-59, performances that more than anything else led to him being named a Zvezdina zvezda – a star of the Star; only four other individual players have ever received the accolade. He was part of the Yugoslavia team that came from 4-2 to beat France 5-4 in the semi-final of the European Championship semi-final in 1960, before losing to the Soviets in the final, and was the subject of an enormous bid from Juventus that would surely have been accepted by Zvezda had the Communist authorities not decided that he was required at home to “entertain the youth”, as the interior minister Aleksandar Ranković put it.

It wasn’t an entirely straightforward career. Šekularac was banned for 18 months following an incident in 1962 when he attacked a referee, and that suspension had barely come to an end when he had to fulfil his military service, leading to the farcical situation of 5000 turning up to watch him train. He eventually was allowed to leave Yugoslavia in 1966, moving to Karlsruhe in the Bundesliga, then to St. Louis Stars before, after a season back in Yugoslavia with OFK, he moved to Colombia, where he seems to have felt very much at home playing for four different clubs over six years.

When I met him, Šekularac had just received an invitation from Santa Fe, the first of the Colombian teams he played for, to attend a dinner in celebration of the club’s 75th anniversary. After initial excitement, he decided not to go. “When I looked at myself in the mirror without teeth,” he said, “I was ashamed to go there and let them see me like this.”

Šekularac clearly knew the end wasn’t far away. “I don’t go to games any more,” he said. “I watch television and read the newspapers. Maybe this is the best life I have lived because I have a pension and no stress.”

Yet in his tone there were obvious doubts. Could he have done more? What if he had been born 20, 30, 40 years later? “For my first contract I got two LPs of Caterina Valente, the Italian pop star,” he said. “For my second contract I decided after four years to get married so I went to the mother of my future wife. She asked if I had education. No. A flat? No. Do you have this? No. Do you have that? No. So she told me to fuck off. 

“I went to Zvezda and said I wanted to get married and they had to give me a flat. They gave me a little flat. After another four years I had children so I needed a bigger flat. They gave me a bigger flat and gave my small flat to a centre-back. For 13 years I played for a fucking flat. [The then-Chelsea centre-back Branislav] Ivanović makes enough in one week for two such flats.

“An old guy, the same age I am now, talked to me when I was young. ‘Šeki,’ he said. ‘You have very bright legs for a stupid head. Take somebody who will lead you through life and you will be a multimillionaire.’ I came home and thought, fuck this old guy. Today I would take three advisors. I have 12 hours a day to think about these things.”

And when he looked from his window, he saw the Metropol and was reminded of his wedding and of long sessions in the bar, but also of the banquet with Manchester United in 1958, the last night for so many of that team. And he would think also of the chance he missed with three minutes to go and of how different it might have been.