Who can blame them?
The outcome of matches today are pretty much decided by which team has the richest owner, that is, if the game has not been fixed in the first place. At a time when football has arguably never been such an unfair competition, it is good to recall an essential part of what makes it special to us regardless of the trophies, leagues and clubs: individual stories. Tales of unique characters whose existence we know of exclusively thanks to football’s universal language and who play a decisive part in our personal development. Sometimes, these football characters even go on to become testaments of a particular society, in a particular region, during a particular era.
Petar Borota was one of those characters you would either find in a Monty Python movie, or on a football pitch. Born in Belgrade on March 5th 1952 in the freshly created, carefree Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Borota went on to become a “hero of his time”, to quote Lermontov’s work, embodying the positives and negatives of his era to the delight of football fans all over Europe. Just as Yugoslavian society in its early days was a unique social experiment, secluded from both Western and Eastern Europe and looking for its own path, Borota was a unique character who would always favour the spectacular over the conventional at a time when that was still accepted in football.
Borota started his career in one of Belgrade’s lesser known suburban clubs, OFK (which later went on to produce another Chelsea great in Branislav Ivanovic), in 1970-1971, coincidentally the year the Stamford Bridge side win their first major European trophy, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup prevailing against Real Madrid in the final.
Barely aged 19, he quickly established himself as one of the most solid keepers in the Yugoslavian league, helping lowly OFK break the big four oligopoly (Red Star, Partizan, Dinamo and Hajduk) on three separate occasions between 1969 and 1975. In parallel to his performances on the pitch (despite a nascent and lifelong habit of throwing the ball on the crossbar before making a clearance), he became renowned for his erratic outings in the capital, driving around in his trademark Citroen CX whose registration plate was already expired when he bought it. Pledging never to take the same route twice to the OFK training ground, he once joined his team-mates an hour and a half late, exhausted and escorted by two police cars who had chased him on the highway.
He made a total of 176 solid appearances for OFK before moving to Partizan Belgrade in 1975-1976, helping the club win a league of eighteen clubs after conceding only 19 goals, nine in the autumn and ten during spring, with a record-breaking 54 points (a win being only awarded two points at the time).
During a pre-season friendly in France against Nancy in 1977, Borota lined up his wall to defend a dangerous free-kick from up-and-coming youngster Michel Platini. He cautiously picked four men, only for Platini to lodge the ball into the top corner where the Partizan keeper is stood, having not even made a move, only left to warn his astonished defenders that “this small kid looks a player”.
Twenty minutes later, another free-kick is awarded to Nancy. This time Borota picks five men, only for the French wizard to kick the ball into the other top corner. The Partizan keeper gets up to his feet and applauds furiously, adding; “I bloody told you this kid was a player!”
Plying a trade of perilous solo runs into the opposition half, Borota alternated hot and cold and on one snowy night in 1978, during an infamous derby between Red Star and Partizan, Miloš Šestić convinced him that the referee had blown his whistle for a foul only for the keeper to drop the ball just in front of the Red Star poacher, who proceeded to tuck it home.
The year before, he had received his first call-up for the Yugoslavian national team in a game against Romania in Bucharest, but conceded a goal after only one minute from a 40-yard free-kick. Nonplussed, and well aware that nothing makes defenders panic more than an erratic goalkeeper behind them, he uttered the now famous words ; “All under control, folks”. Yugoslavia would go on to win the contest 6-4, but Borota’s reputation never quite recovered and he collected only three further caps for his country.
Odd moments on the pitch and off it too. On one occasion, as he goes to visit injured team-mate Zoran Dimitrijevic at a Belgrade hospital in late 1978 Borata mistakes the entrance of the emergency department for that of the psychiatric clinic, and he is quickly surrounded by dozens of inpatients. Looking for his way out, he is stopped by a guard with whom he argues that he is not a patient but Petar Borota, the Partizan goalkeeper. Visibly unimpressed, the guard tells him off in no uncertain terms; “Sure… Every other guy here claims to be Dragan Džajić.”
In March 1979, Borota signed for Chelsea as a replacement for the legendary Peter Bonetti for a fee of £70,000. His antics quickly earn him the praise of the Shed End supporters, whom he always joins in celebrating his team’s goals. He also runs the show between the goalposts, earning the Player of the Year accolade in 1980 and 1981 after keeping 18 clean sheets in 22 games. A cult hero, he is met by a fan outside Stamford Bridge asking for an autograph on his right hand. The next week he meets the fan again, his signature having been turned into a tattoo.
Geoff Hurst appoints him club captain but his increasingly unpredictable behaviour gets the better of him, such as against West Ham in 1982. With the Blues enjoying a comfortable lead and dominating the game, he sits in his box and opens the match program. Frank Lampard Sr. sees it and unleashes a furious shot from distance, forcing the Chelsea captain to spring to his feet and produce a world-class save. The goal was saved on this occasion but his reputation is becoming increasingly tarnished, especially with Chelsea languishing mid-table and not looking likely to make its way back to the First Division.
Borota is offloaded to Brentford in 1982 before moving to Portugal, first at Portimonense, then to Boavista and finally to Porto where he is condemned to the bench. He calls a day on his career in 1986, aged 34, eventually moving back to Belgrade where he becomes embroiled in several controversial affairs, culminating in his involvement in an art theft ring which sends him to prison for six months. Through his Italian acquaintances Sinisa Mihajlovic and Vujadin Boskov, he settled in Genoa where he devoted his time to his other passion, abstract painting, before passing away in the Italian port city on February 12, 2010 after a long illness, aged 56.
By Igor Mladenovic
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona