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Born: Sunday 19 November 1922, Dolac, Yugoslavia (now Serbia)
Died: Saturday 29 March 2008, Belgrade, Serbia (aged 85)
Position: Inside Forward
Inside-right Rajko Mitić was one of the stars of the Yugoslavian team that reached back-to-back Olympic finals after the Second World War. Known for his strong personality and remarkable sportsmanship on the field, Mitić was captain of Red Star Belgrade from the team's formation and led the club to numerous domestic honours. He later managed Yugoslavia to the European Championship final in 1968.
Born in the small village of Dolac near Bela Palanka on 19 November 1922, Mitić moved to Belgrade as a child due to his father's work. He began playing football on the local playing fields, although his parents were not thrilled about his interest in the game and even cut up his football to try to stop him from playing. Not to be dissuaded, Mitić joined local side FK Košutnjak in 1937 and after just one season playing lower division football was spotted by BSK Beograd, one of the country's leading clubs at the time.
Signing in 1938, he made his debut for the first team in 1940 and quickly became a member of Yugoslavia's newly formed youth team. Later that year however the league closed down due to the Second World War, which severely disrupted the early years of Mitić's career. Representing his squadron gave him the chance to keep playing football, so by the time Yugoslavia was liberated he had developed into one of the finest players in the country.
Although not the strongest player, Mitić was a skilful dribbler with a powerful, right-footed shot. He never intentionally committed a foul and was critical of anyone who did. In the spring of 1945 he was one of the players signed up by a new club formed in Belgrade - Crvena Zvezda, or Red Star Belgrade. Mitić made his debut for Red Star in their first official match and spend the remainder of his playing career with the club. His strong personality, leadership skills and sense of fair play made him the ideal club captain and young players were encouraged just to stand and watch him in training, both for the way he played and the way he conducted himself.
Mitić scored on his international debut in Yugoslavia's first match after the Second World War and would remain an international regular for more than a decade. As captain of Red Star, he helped the club to quickly become a major force in Yugoslav football. Their first trophy came in 1948 when Mitić scored one of three first half goals to seal a 3-0 cup final victory over city rivals Partizan. That proved to be the beginning of a hat-trick of cup victories and Mitić would later say that lifting the trophy three times in a row was one of his best memories in the game.
At international level, Mitić was selected in the national squad for the Olympic Games in London. He scored in the opening rould victory over Luxembourg, where Yugoslavia had to come back from a shock half-time deficit and also in the semi-final against hosts Great Britian, where his second half strike clinched a place in the final. Ultimately a 3-1 defeat to a highly talented Swedish side left Yugoslavia with the silver medals.
There was further frustration in the World Cup in 1950. Mitić opened the scoring in against Switzerland as Yugoslavia won 3-0, before a 4-1 win over Mexico left them needing only to draw with Brazil to reach the final group stage and knock the hosts out. Unfortunately, Mitić cut his head open on a steel girder on the way out onto the pitch for that decisive match. The referee did not allow a delay for him to be treated so Yugoslavia started the game with ten men, Mitić joining the action a short time later unaware that Brazil were already leading. They went on to win 2-0 and reach the final group, sending Yugoslavia out.
On the domestic front Red Star were still waiting for their first league title, but that came in dramatic fashion in 1951. Trailing the unbeaten Dinamo Zagreb by five points with three games to go they saw Dinamo falter spectacularly, losing all three. Red Star pounced to claim the championship by the smallest of margins on goal average. Despite the disappointment of a second place finish and a crushing 6-0 cup final defeat in 1952, Mitić did get a second chance to lead his country in the Olympic Games in Helsinki.
Mitić scored six goals in the Olympic tournament, including one in each game of a replayed tie against the Soviet Union which came at the height of political tension between the countries. Remarkably, the replay only came about because Yugoslavia lost a 5-1 lead in the final 16 minutes of the first match, Mitić having missed a glorious chance to extend the lead to 6-1. He also scored two crucial goals in the 3-1 semi-final victory over Germany, but in the final Yugoslavia came up against an incredibly talented Hungarian team who beat them 2-0 to give Mitić a second consecutive silver medal.
His career was beginning to be characterised by domestic success and international disappointment. Another league title in 1953 was followed by another frustrating World Cup exit a year later. Yugoslavia had beaten France and drawn with Brazil to reach the last eight, where in Mitić's 50th international they outplayed West Germany for long period but lost 2-0. That proved to be Mitić's last major tournament, as his international career ended partway through qualifying for the 1958 tournament.
Mitić led Red Star to two more league championships in his career, in 1956 and 1957, often displaying his own unique brand of leadership in doing what he believed to be right. He ordered one of his own team-mates to leave the field after he had been fouled, knowing he would be likely to seek retribution. Then in 1957 when one of his team was hit by a stone thrown from the crowd in a game against Hajduk Split, he insisted that the team leave the field, a decision which earned most of the side a one-month ban.
By 1958, Mitić was on the verge of retirement. Although Red Star finished a disappointing fourth in the league, they did reach the cup final. The match again Velez Mostar was the last of Mitić's career and despite being frustrated for an hour, Red Star scored four late goals to give him a perfect end to his playing career. In all, he scored 262 goals in 571 games for Red Star. Although no longer a player, Mitić stayed on at Red Star as part of the coaching staff. The team went on to win league and cup doubles in 1959 and 1964, as well as another league title in between in 1960.
In 1967 Mitić became manager of the Yugoslavian national team. He led his country to the last four of the European Championship in 1968, where his young team beat world champions England 1-0 to set up a final against hosts Italy. In the final Yugoslavia led 1-0 and were ten minutes from being champions, before Italy equalised to force a replay which they ultimately won 2-0. After failing to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico, Mitić left the job towards the end of 1970 and became a journalist, a job which he retained until his retirement in 1983. After serving as Red Star's vice president, he died on 29 March 2008 at the age of 85.
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- Published on Wednesday, 07 March 2012 12:59