In his interview with Dragan Stojković in Issue Two of The Blizzard, Andrew McKirdy asked, “Serbian and Yugoslavian football has a history of drama and highs and lows. Do you think this reflects the Serbian psyche and do you think this is true of you?” Stojković is an intelligent man and a good talker, but his answer missed the point. He spoke about bad organisation, poor leadership, a refusal to take responsibility and the lack of a professional mindset, but he didn’t touch the painful truth. The history of drama and highs and lows derives to a large extent from a confused national psyche that leads it simultaneously to overestimate itself and to have an inferiority complex.

The performances and results of Serbia and before it Yugoslavia are characterised by their erratic nature. Stojković perhaps didn’t mention psychological factors because he was an exception. He didn’t suffer that mixed-up psyche; he was always a great professional, a fighter, a winner and a genuine leader. Yugoslavian football has known few enough of those and the result was a team that could be exhilarating or exasperating, often within the space of a few minutes. No game, perhaps, has demonstrated that combination as well as the World Cup qualifier against Romania in November 1977.

If Yugoslavia were to qualify for Argentina 78, they had to beat Romania in Bucharest. Only the side that finished top of a three-team qualifying group made it to the finals and Yugoslavia had already lost twice, 1-0 away to Spain and 2-0 at home against Romania.

Four years earlier, they’d faced a similar situation. A win at home over Spain would have secured Yugoslavia qualification for the 1974 World Cup, but they drew 0-0 in Zagreb meaning they went to Greece needing to win by three clear goals to make it to West Germany. Greece had already been eliminated but they were perceived as awkward opponents. Yugoslavia swept into a 2-0 lead in the opening quarter of an hour, but Greece pulled one back on the half hour, Dušan Bajević was sent off after 37 minutes and then Josip Katalinski scored an own goal after a comical misunderstanding over a backpass with the goalkeeper Enver Marić: 2-2.

The coach, Miljan Miljanić, who died in January this year, gambled on youth, withdrawing Jurica Jerković and Dragan Džajić for the 20-year-old Ivica Šurjak and the 18-year-old Vladimir Petrović. Yugoslavia took control again. Šurjak restored their lead after 63 minutes and then, in the final minute, Stanislav Karasi made it 4-2 to set up a play-off against Spain. They won a famous game 1-0 in Frankfurt to qualify for the World Cup.

In 1973, Yugoslavia’s situation had been difficult; here it seemed all but impossible. Spain had four points from their three games and a goal difference of 3-1. Romania also had four points from three games and a goal difference of 3-2. With no points from two games and a goal-difference of 0-3, Yugoslavia needed not merely to win both games, but to effect a swing of four in their goal-difference. And, unlike in Athens four years earlier, this time they were playing against sides who themselves had something to play for.

Romania’s focus was almost monastic and at one point it seemed that their coach, Stefan Kovacs, who led Ajax to the European Cup in 1972 and 1973, might not even turn up for the pre-match press-conference the day before the game. The squad was based at Snagov, about 20 miles from Bucharest and of great symbolic significance as the place where Vlad Ţepeş, Romania’s great national hero Vlad the Impaler, is believed to be buried.

Romania had lost 2-0 in Spain a couple of weeks earlier and most of the local coverage was dominated by the question of how Kovacs might change the side, with particular attention paid to Mircea Lucescu, whose call up at the age of 32 had been a major surprise. In the end, he kept changes to a minimum. Dumitru Moraru replaced Cristian Gheorghe in goal while Constantin Zamfir came in on the left for Ilie Balaci, but essentially it was the same 4-3-3 that had beaten Spain 1-0 at home and won 2-0 in Yugoslavia, as well as recording impressive performances in friendlies against Turkey (4-0), Czechoslovakia (3-1), Greece (6-1) and East Germany (1-1).

Emphasising their determination to win, the Romanian Football Federation (FRF) opted not to play at the 75,000-capacity 23 August Stadium, but at the newly built Ghencea, the home of Steaua. It housed only 30,000 but was renowned for the atmosphere it generated. Tickets sold out within two hours — even though Romanians knew their fate would ultimately be decided when Yugoslavia went to Spain a fortnight later.

Kovacs, of course, was already a legend as a coach and his squad was packed with experienced and highly respected names: Anghel Iordănescu, Dudu Georgescu, Alexandru Sătmăreanu, Ion Dumitru, Constantin Zamfir, László Bölöni… Yugoslavia, by contrast, were in all too familiar crisis. Ivan Toplak had been dismissed as coach after only nine months in charge following the home defeat to Romania in May and had been replaced by a three-man selection panel made up of Marko Valok, Stevan Vilotić and Gojko Zec.

Valok was 50 and had been a prolific striker for Partizan in the forties and fifties, scoring 411 goals in 470 games. His coaching CV, though, was rather less impressive: he’d won the league title with Partizan in 1964-65 and had taken the underdogs of Budućnost Podgorica to the Cup final — and a respectable mid-table finish —in 1976-77 but, that aside, he had spent four years in Burma and had worked mainly at smaller clubs. Zec was probably the most deserving coach on the panel with consistent achievements at a number of top-flight clubs, culminating with the 1976-77 league title with Crvena Zvezda. Vilotić, meanwhile, was Yugoslavia’s best-known and most respected youth coach. Valok was named head of the panel, but the fact it was felt necessary to appoint a panel at all suggested the federation (FSJ) didn’t see him as a long term solution.

The home defeat to Romania also marked the end for a number of ageing greats: Branko Oblak, Katalinski, Bajević and Džajić never played for the national side again. 1977 had been a poor year in general for the Plavi [Blues].They also lost a series of friendlies: 5-1 in Mexico, 4-2 at home to the USSR, 2-1 at home against West Germany, 1-0 in Argentina and 4-3 in Hungary.

Valok reacted with a radical team selection: only two players who had featured in that defeat in May — Dražen Mužinić and Šurjak — were named in the starting line-up in Bucharest six months later. He picked two debutants — the right-back Mario Boljat from Hajduk Split and the defensive midfielder Aleksandar Trifunović from Partizan — and two players who had only one cap — the goalkeeper Petar Borota and the forward Safet Sušic. Much of the rest of the side lacked experience. The central defender Nenad Stojković was 21 and had played only three friendlies for his country. The other centre-back, Jusuf Hatunić, had only four caps. In total, Yugoslavia’s starting line-up had won 90 caps, as opposed to the 269 won by Romania. It also contained not a single player based abroad.

“Frankly speaking, nobody thought we could win,” said the centre-forward Zoran Filipović. “And certainly not by the two or three goals we needed to. So we went into the game in a pretty relaxed mood.”

That sense of relaxation was apparent the day before the game. After a light training session and the inevitable reception at the Yugoslav embassy, the players and the coaching staff spent the evening at the circus.

It was a mild and sunny autumn afternoon. The Ghencea was packed, far more than the capacity of 30,000 squeezing in. In the VIP section were the Argentina coach César Luis Menotti, the Brazil coach Claudio Coutinho and, of course, Spain’s manager László Kubala, scouting his next opponent.

Conceding an early goal is never a good thing but some hurt more than others. For Yugoslavia, going 1-0 down in the first minute was a nightmare. From the kick-off, Romania attacked on the left, Zamfir beating two men before being fouled by Trifunović. The free-kick was more than 40 yards from goal, wide on the left, between the halfway line and the Romanian dugout. Everybody anticipated a cross, but Iosif Vigu’s delivery came at a more acute angle than expected, catching Borota out and drifting under the crossbar. It was a dream start for the hosts and a dreadful error by Borota, who misjudged the flight of the ball and was then unable to react and correct his mistake. Yugoslavia not only had to come from behind, but to do so with an inexperienced and traumatised goalkeeper.

Borota, who died in 2010 at the age of 57, became one of the great characters of the Yugoslav game. He joined Chelsea from Partizan in 1979 and made over 100 appearances for them but, gifted as he certainly was, he never quite shook off his reputation for eccentricity. He could be brilliant, but he also made some dreadful errors. The two biggest came in the year that followed the Bucharest game. In the first round of the European Cup in 1978, Partizan went to Dynamo Dresden with a 2-0 lead from the first leg. Nine minutes into the away leg, Borota caught a simple cross and then, inexplicably, put the ball down as though to take a goal-kick. Hans-Jürgen Dörner was lurking and calmly nudged the ball into the empty net as Borota lined up his clearance. Partizan lost 2-0 and went out on penalties. That same season, in the Belgrade derby, Borota conceded an almost identical goal. He caught a cross under pressure and, assuming a foul had been given, put the ball down for a free-kick, allowing Miloš Šestić a simple finish. Partizan lost 3-1.

With Yugoslavia rattled, Romania took control. Borota let a Bölöni cross sail over his head for Georgescu, who missed with a free header, and Bölöni and Zamfir also missed good chances in the first 10 minutes. The game could have been over almost before it had begun, but Yugoslavia, having survived, gradually began to claw their way back into it. Savisa Zungul hit the side-netting from a Šurjak free-kick and then in the 14th minute the Plavi equalised.

Šurjak initiated an attack in his own half, shepherding the ball to the halfway line where he found Zungul with a deep pass to the left. Zungul sent a firm, low cross into the box and Sušic met it six yards out. The 1000 or so Yugoslavia fans in the stadium came alive in a flurry of flags and banners.

Three minutes later they were celebrating again as Yugoslavia took the lead. Dušan Nikolić won the ball in the Yugoslavia half and played a quick pass into the centre-circle for Zungul. He deceived his marker by letting the ball run through his legs to Stojković, up from centre-back to join the attack. He played the ball forward to Sušić, who took the ball in his stride at full tilt and, from a position to the right of centre, lashed the ball goalwards from about 15 yards. His shot beat Moraru but slapped against the post, bouncing out to the edge of the six-yard box where Alexandru Sătmăreanu hacked it away. His clearance fell to the left-back Dragan Mužinić 25 yards out and he smacked a left-foot shot into the top corner for his first and — it would turn out — only goal in 32 appearances for his country. Mužinić as a goalscorer? With a goal like that? After Vigu’s bizarre opener it was already clear this would be no normal game.

Sensing weakness, Yugoslavia poured forwards. Romania struggled to deal with their fluid 4-2-3-1 formation — and it was a genuine 4-2-3-1, over a decade before Juanma Lillo, who is usually credited as being its originator, developed a similar formation at Cutural Leonesa in Spain. Šurjak operated as the deep-lying forward, a central playmaker behind Filipović, with the wide players, Zungul (nominally on the right) and Sušić (left) constantly switching positions and Sušić regularly joining Filipović to become a second centre-forward. That they could play with such freedom was down to the platform provided them by the holding midfield duo of Trifunović and Nikolić (whose nickname was ‘Staja’, a corruption of ‘Stiles’ — as in Nobby) with Šurjak dropping deep to support when necessary. Yugoslavia were aggressive and fluent, an effective combination of the hard and combative and the creative and skilful.

The problem was the defence. Impressive as Yugoslavia were going forward, they always looked vulnerable at the back, in part because of Borota and in part because of Hatunić, who was dreadfully nervous at centre-back. At one point, a worried Mužinić ran to the bench and shouted at the coaching staff, “The midfield isn’t helping us enough...nobody’s covering space... we need more running and pressing.”

Romania were always going to get chances and one arrived after 32 minutes. From Yugoslavia’s point of view, it couldn’t have fallen to a worse player. Georgescu had won the European Golden Boot the previous season, scoring 47 goals for Dinamo Bucharest. When the ball dropped to him, unmarked, in front of goal and with Borota inexplicably out of position, he only had to roll the ball goalwards to score. Instead, he hit the shot with great power — and put it high over the bar. It was a let-off, but Borota’s positioning was so bad it seemed hard to understand why Valok didn’t replace him; Yugoslavia, it seemed, were effectively playing without a goalkeeper.

“Of course we were asking ourselves on the bench whether to substitute Borota,” Valok said. “I was considering it, but at the same time I hesitated because I felt that we would need two fresh players later in the second half. So, I decided to continue with Borota and later [Velemir] Zajec and [Momčilo] Vukotić turned the rhythm and pace of the game in our favour.... So, eventually it proved that it was the right decision that we didn’t hurry with the substitution.”

Borota was left out of a friendly against Greece in Thessalonikki three days later, which ended 0-0, and didn’t play against Spain in the final qualifier. A year later, he was selected again, winning a fourth cap in a Euro 80 qualifier — again against Romania in Bucharest. This time Borota was blameless as Yugoslavia lost 3-2, but he was never picked again.

The warning was there, but it wasn’t heeded and Romania levelled five minutes before half-time. A long ball caught Yugoslavia out, Hatunić failed to clear and Anghel Iordănescu, collecting the ball on the edge of the box, swept his finish past Borota, who had come charging too quickly from his goal-line.

And by half-time Romania were ahead. The speedy right winger Zoltan Crisan beat two defenders and, as the ball bobbed up, he headed it on to Bölöni on the edge of the box. Stojković went to block the shot, but the ball deflected off his heel and into the net. Borota was left flat-footed on his six-yard line, unable to react. To blame him would be unfair, but he didn’t look good. “It was the strangest match I’ve ever played in,” said Nenad Stojković. “There were those constant switches from joy to sorrow and vice versa. At the end we were not only exhausted and happy about the victory, but we also felt somehow lost and confused.”

Romania had been perhaps a little fortunate but half-time brought a decisive change as Kovacs was forced to replace the injured Sătmăreanu with Vasile Dobrau. “In the moment Sătmăreanu was injured,” Kovacs said, “I feared we would have problems. Our defence underperformed in the face of the mighty attacks from the Yugoslavs.”

Still, the first chance of the second half went to the home side, Yugoslavia’s defence dithering and allowing Iordănescu the opportunity to shoot from the edge of the box. This time, Borota made a decent save, intercepting the strike as it arrowed towards the top corner. It was a vital stop, as was emphasised two minutes later when Yugoslavia levelled.

Šurjak took a quick free-kick near the halfway line, passing to Sušic who received it around 40 yards out to the left of the Romanian box. He accelerated through two challenges and as Moraru came out, he slipped it past him. Bölöni got back to attempt a clearance but couldn’t prevent it crossing the line: 3-3.

Any sense of caution disappeared. Both sides ripped into each other, trading attacks, blow for blow. A draw was of no use to either side: there could be no points decision, only a knockout would do. Georgescu put two good headed opportunities wide. Filipović, with a fine chance after 58 minutes, opted to try to lay in Zungul, who was offside. Iordănescu missed another good opportunity a minute later.

It was then that Valok made his first substitution, introducing the Partizan forward Vukotić for Zungul. His fresh legs quickly made an impact. With his first touch, Vukotić dribbled past Stefan Sames who tripped him a couple of yards outside the box. Šurjak ran over the free-kick, Trifunović rolled it to Sušić, whose ferocious shot beat a partially unsighted Moraru. It was the 22-year-old Sušić’s hat-trick and meant he had scored five goals in his first two internationals. He went on to become one of Europe’s most feared forwards, a legend at Paris Saint-Germain, who enjoyed a swansong at Italia 90 at the age of 35. His 54 games for Yugoslavia brought 21 goals and he is now coach of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

That was 4-3, but with half an hour to go the game was far from over. Both sides made changes in midfield. Mihai Romila came on for the disappointing Ion Dumitru, then Zajec was brought on for Nikolić. “We had nothing to lose,” Nikolić said. “Practically nobody gave us any chance. Nobody thought that we could win in Bucharest, let alone with such a spectacular result and get back in the race for Argentina. But we played a real attacking game, without fear and when we conceded the goals, we encouraged ourselves to go on, to keep on fighting and playing. When I was substituted, Moca [as Vukotić was nicknamed] came on for me. This showed that we wanted to keep on attacking, that we were looking for the victory. It was a weird game.”

Three minutes after Romila’s introduction, Romania equalised. Bölöni, having been fouled 30 yards out, took the free-kick himself, knocking the ball to Vigu who helped it on to the left winger Zamfir. He crossed to the back post where Georgescu headed in unmarked. Again the Yugoslav defence was at fault, Stojković, Zajec and Boljat all drawn to the near post while nobody picked up Romania’s main goal threat.

With a quarter of the game remaining, the scores were level at the result neither side wanted. Yugoslavia came again. The tireless Šurjak escaped on the left-hand side and put in a hard low cross that a stretching Flipović couldn’t quite get on the end of. A one-two between Bölöni and Georgescu broke through the Yugoslavia defence, but Borota saved from the midfielder. Then Zajec, in characteristic style, dribbled through only to hit a weak shot from the edge of the box that Moraru saved comfortably.

Another goal was coming and it arrived with 11 minutes remaining. Šurjak took a throw on the left, finding Mužinić, who passed it on to Trifunović. He played a one-two with Sušić and then hit a fearsome shot from a narrow angle 12 yards out. It flashed under the crossbar. “It was a difficult position, a tight angle, for a shot on goal,” Trifunović said, “but I hit the ball well. The goalkeeper probably didn’t expect such a strike and also it was quite close, so he had no chance for a save.” A lucky punch, maybe, but it was a phenomenal goal and Yugoslavia led 5-4.

This time Romania couldn’t rally. They seemed dazed as Yugoslavia swarmed over them, looking for further goals that would reduce the magnitude of their task against Spain. With six minutes remaining, Vukotić played a pass with the outside of his foot into the path of Flipović and he hit a first-time shot past Moraru. As Trifunović, Sušić and Mužinić jumped on the tired but happy scorer they were joined by a Yugoslav fan waving his flag deliriously.

It could have been an even more decisive scoreline. Šurjaka had a free-kick well saved by Moraru and the keeper then made another excellent block to deny Sušić. But 6-4 it finished. Had they got a seventh perhaps it would have changed things, for then Yugoslavia would have played Spain in the final qualifier needing only a win to qualify for the World Cup rather than having to win by two goals.

As the Belgian referee Fred Delcourt blew the final whistle, the Romanians looked stunned and left the field to the celebrating Yugoslavs. Even Petar Borota, who had had an awful day, ran around with his arms in the air and when Nikolić came towards him, he lifted him up and carried him around with a big smile on his face. A few minutes later Milan ‘Raki’ Arandjelović, Yugoslavia’s legendary physiotherapist who had worked at over 300 international matches, went into the Romanian dressing-room, bumped into Kovacs and asked him if he could have a Romanian shirt as souvenir. “Kovacs’s face was completely pale, almost white,” Arandjelović said. “You could see that he was disappointed and angry but he acted well and brought me a shirt. Still, when he handed it over to me, he mumbled something in Romanian, which I couldn’t understand, but I can bet that he said something like, ‘Here’s the bloody shirt, and now get the fuck out of here.’”

Valok, his thoughts perhaps already on the Spain game, tried to give an impression of calm. “Congratulations to the blue giants,” he said. “They held out in a fiery atmosphere, they came twice from behind and found strength to attack for the victory. I congratulate everybody. I wouldn’t single out anybody; still I have to mention the shining Safet Sušić. Also I want to congratulate the hosts for their fair play.”

César Luis Menotti was also impressed. “To see so many goals in one game is really unusual,” he said. “Before the game I predicted that Yugoslavia would qualify for the World Cup finals. Now they are much closer to achieving that.”

But they didn’t. Two weeks later, in front of a packed Marakana in Belgrade, Yugoslavia lost to Spain, Rubén Cano scoring the only goal in the 70th minute of a frenetic and often ill-tempered game. So Spain went to Argentina and Yugoslavia were left with nothing but the memories of the thriller in Bucharest.