Darko Pančev: The Cobra That Didn’t Get A Chance To Strike


Denmark winning Euro 92 seemed to come from the pages of a fairytale. Everyone thinks that the Danes all climbed off the beach, up from their holiday deckchairs and away from the scorching barbecues to go to Sweden and win the trophy after initially failing to qualify.

But many forget the reason that Richard Møller Nielsen and his squad were able to compete at those European Championships was due to a civil war that erupted in the Balkans in the early nineties.

Yugoslavia had a huge footballing history and pedigree but had began to tear itself apart. The former Yugoslavia consisted of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia. Just think if they could pull all their talents together for this up and coming tournament then they’d be up there as one of the favourites.

Back in the qualifying stages for Euro 92 the Federal Yugoslav team had the likes of Davor Šuker, Siniša Mihajlović, Zvonimir Boban, Roberto Jarni, Dejan Savićević and Robert Prosinečki to call upon. Their pool of players had covered all of Europe’s best pitches and stadia.


Pancev is second from the left.

In 1991 Crvena Zvezda (Or Red Star Belgrade as they were known in the west) won the European Cup. They defeated Olympique Marseille on penalties in the final.

One player had stood out for both Red Star and Yugoslavia at that time and that was Macedonian born striker Darko Pančev. In 1991 he scored the winning penalty in the European Cup final in Bari, won the Golden Boot as Europe’s top goalscorer and was runner up for the Ballon d’Or award finishing behind French star striker Jean-Pierre Papin.

In the qualifying campaign for the European Championships Pančev, nicknamed the Cobra, was on fire. He was your stereotypical number nine of that generation. Basically always on hand to do the final duty of putting the ball into the net. He’d come alive in the penalty area, he possessed a good first touch and could grab goals with either foot. Pančev was also great at finding space and would often do well lurking at the back post and scoring with an accurate header.

He knew his strengths and his weaknesses, once saying:

“There are strikers who don’t run and there are strikers who run. I was one of those strikers with a natural talent for scoring, and I ran only when I was within 30 metres of goal.”

Now Darko might have struggled in modern day football as a lot of managers want to see their strikers run the channels or come deep linking up more with those around them. Indeed the striker would see this problem first-hand soon enough himself (but I’ll get to that later). But for his international team he was afforded the role of just staying up-front and awaiting the ammunition or for a chance to present itself. To be fair, it usually did. At the time of the Yugoslavian side breaking-up and being barred from competing at Euro 92, Pančev had managed seventeen goals in his twenty-seven outings for Yugoslavia.

His ten goals in qualifying couldn’t be matched by any other forward, with Papin and Dutch legend Marco van Basten being his nearest challengers. Those goals helped Yugoslavia top their group ahead of the Danes by a single point. In fact the Beli Orlovi (White Eagles) only lost one game and won the other seven group matches.

It seems extremely cruel that the goalscorer and his teammates didn’t get a chance to go for the European crown. Some might say that glory in those Euros could have helped cool tensions between the warring factions. Although that might just be wishful thinking.

Pančev was twenty-six at the time of the European Championships and all his hard work (Many can joke about the work needed to score tap-ins) seemed to be for nothing.

I always wonder what goes through the minds of those players when they think back to 1992. Obviously in the grand scheme of things the best for their individual countries matter most but surely they must think ‘what if’?

The summer of 92′ was a defining one for Darko Pančev. He missed out on the Euros and he decided to leave Red Star. Europe’s best sides made attempts to convince him that they’d be an ideal home for his goalscoring prowess.

In the end the striker was convinced that his future lay at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza with the Nerazzurri. Inter Milan forked out £7m for the hitman. Unfortunately for the Macedonian the bad luck of missing Sweden followed him to Italy and his career never recovered.

For much of his time in Milan, his coach was Verona legend Osvaldo Bagnoli and he was one of those coaches that wanted his strikers to work hard for the team rather than be the glory guy that only scored the goals. Bagnoli would often drop ‘The Cobra’ and start with the more industrious pairing of Ruben Sosa and Salvatore Schillaci.

In fairness to the coach, Calcio at that time was full of very disciplined defences and chances were never just going to fall at Darko’s feet as they had done previously with Red Star and the White Eagles. His lame return of just three goals in nineteen Serie A appearances seem to vindicate the managers decision, although the forward would believe the lack of consistent game time and a poor attacking style were the real cause for his slump.

With Pančev refusing to bow down to his managers wishes and compromise, he was overlooked as Osvaldo seemingly had the support of the players and the board. The fans weren’t overly kind to the forward either as they often referred to him as ‘il Bidone’ (The Bin).

Darko would later lament:

“Inter was the biggest mistake of my life, because of Italy I closed my career early.”

He would go on and have spells in Germany and Switzerland but injuries and a lack of confidence meant he’d never hit top-form again and he retired at the age of thirty-two in 1997. He also managed to represent Macedonia as they started off in their footballing journey, he would score one in his six appearances for the Red Lynxes.

Ultimately I feel sorry for Darko Pančev as his story is very rarely told. Instead of being known as a world-class goalscorer he seems to be forgotten about. It’s now all about what could have been, which seems odd for a player who would win the Golden Boot and a European Cup medal.

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