The making and breaking of the greatest international side never to be

Team 33's Raf Diallo looks at the legacy of Yugoslavia's 1987 U20 world champions

Zvonimir Boban, Croatia, Yugoslavia

Zvonimir Boban, center, of Croatia's national soccer team challenges for the ball with Yugoslavia's defenders during Group Eight, Euro 2000 qualifier soccer match Croatia vs Yugoslavia, Wednesday 18. August 1999 in Belgrade,Yugoslavia. (AP PHOTO/Srdjan Ilic)

When a war begins in a land, sport can never remain immune from the fires that rage around it.

The Balkan War of the 1990s was no different and one incident sums it up more than any other.

The second week of May 1990 was no ordinary week in Croatia. Just a few days earlier, the budding nation's parliament had voted in parties that aimed to break away from Yugoslavia.

Into that tinder box, Serbia's most successful football club Red Star Belgrade would arrive in Croatia's capital Zagreb just a year before they would enjoy their greatest night by beating Marseille in the European Cup final with Croat stars (and current Azerbaijan) Robert Prosinecki scoring the first penalty in that shootout.

Red Star were in town - their Delije ultras coming along for the ride - to take on the crown jewel of Croat football, Dinamo Zagreb.

The tensions which had already spilled over pre-match exploded into riotous scenes in the Maksimir Stadium with police losing all control of the situation.

In the melee a Bosnian policeman was involved in an altercation with a Dinamo fan, when a symbolic moment in the Croatian independence struggle occurred.

Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban would later go on to star for AC Milan and help Croatia to a famous bronze medal at the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

But on that day in May 1990, the midfielder's boot (with his foot still in it) crashed into the policeman, earning him a lengthy ban from the Yugoslav FA but in turn propelling him to Croatian national hero status.

Three years earlier though, he was lacing up his boots thousands of miles away in Chile alongside Prosinecki but in the shirt of Yugoslavia.

In 1987, the then fresh faced duo were part of the flowering of the greatest international team that never came to be at senior level.

In this May 18, 1991 photo, Dinamo Zagreb's Zvonimir Boban, right, clashes with police during the Yugoslav league soccer match between Belgrade's Red Star and Zagreb's Dinamo, in Zagreb, then Yugoslavia. By some, the Yugoslav wars started on the football pitch when Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade fans clashed in the Croatian capital during that league match (AP Photo/Renato Brandjolica)

The Yugoslavia's U20 team which went to South America for the FIFA World Youth Championship (now known as the U20 World Cup but not before Brian Kerr's Irish generation of Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and co had a good go at it in the late '90s) contained some of the greatest names that played the game in Europe and enjoyed international success in separate teams as the Balkan break-up pitched new teams into the mix.

Prosinecki, Boban, 1998 World Cup golden boot winner Davor Suker, the 1998 Champions League final goalscorer Predrag Mijatovic, Robert Jarni, Igor Stimac ... all football names that roll off the tongue.

All of them - bar Mijatovic - were part of the Croatian side that were within a Lilian Thuram miracle attacking performance from reaching a World Cup final in '98.

Croatia's Davor Suker (left) and Zvonimir Boban celebrate third at World Cup 1998 (Picture by: Michael Steele / EMPICS Sport)

Mijatovic went to the '98 tournament but with Yugoslavia which has undergone a few name and geography changes since then to emerge as the Serbia national team.

But 11 years earlier, the Croat contingent and Mijatovic found success in unity as they raced through the '87 World Youth Championship group stage against hosts Chile, Togo and Australia, by winning three from three and scoring four goals in each game.

Suker plundered five goals, fellow forward Mijatovic added two more and Boban also kicked twice balls into nets at that stage.

So far so good, but next up was Brazil, who always stirred feelings of awe in the century prior to 2014's 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany.

A goal apiece left the scores at 1-1 with just a minute to go in Santiago's Estadio Nacional, which had a dark history that would not have been out of place in the Balkan conflict, having been used as a torture chamber by Augusto Pinochet's right-wing forces in the wake of the 1973 Chilean coup.

Montenegro-born Mijatovic had equalised against the Brazilians on 52 minutes but it was his Croat colleague Prosinecki who came up trumps to send Yugoslavia through on a 2-1 scoreline with this finish which is worthy of the tune used in the video:

Quarter-final victory led them onto a date with East Germany, which still existed as an entity at the time and like their opponents had endured the not so joyful experience of living under their own distinct brands (Karl Marx won't appreciate that term you'd imagine) of communism after World War II.

Carried by their golden generation again, Yugoslavia prevailed again as Suker scored the winner in a game which saw 1996 European footballer of the year and current Bayern Munich sporting director Mathias Sammer score for East Germany:

They would have to play Germany again in the final at the Estadio Nacional - only this time it was the mighty West Germany.

In some ways it is ironic that the decider threw up a country that was about to break up against one which was about to grow in size by merging with the East a few short years later.

Drama was involved in both political trajectories and so it was on the field as the tension of penalty shootouts tore the nerves of both teams.

Given that his boot played a small part in the breakup of Yugoslavia years later, it is ironic that Boban took the final winning kick for Yugoslavia, which led to he and his team-mates physically uniting on the pitch in joy as you can see exactly 27 minutes into the video just above.

It is tantalising to think what feats could have been achieved had Boban been joined by a former comrade-in-arms like Mijatovic at senior level in their peak years, added with players not involved in  1987 like Yugoslavia international greats Dragan Stojkovic (scorer of two wonder goal winners against Spain in the 1990 World Cup) and two-time European Cup winner with Red Star and Milan, Dejan Savicevic.

But that is just a football dream and it's the citizenry of the various constituent parts of Yugoslavia which were most important when it came to aspirations and hopes and separation into individual nations was the ultimate outcome - albeit the painful one that new nations often go through at the times of their birth. 

But in one way, Ireland were involved when Croatia and Yugoslavia were brought together on a pitch again as Euro 2000 qualifying saw Boban's side and the other camp pitched into the same group as Mick McCarthy's men.

Yugoslavia got through with 17 points, we ended up in the playoffs with 16 points and Croatia on 15 points and that was the last major tournament the Yugoslavs qualified for under that name. 

The rest as they say in history.

You can read more from The World Is A Ball series every Wednesday on Newstalk.com. To find past articles, head to the Team 33 show page.