Darko Pančev nicknamed Kobra (born 7 September 1965) is a retired Macedonian footballer and winner of the Golden Boot award in 1991.
Pančev was the highest scorer in top-division European football in the 1990–91 season with 34 goals, and should have won the European Golden Boot award. However, UEFA decided to make the competition unofficial for the season because of suspect scoring sprees in Cyprus. Pančev did not get the prize at the time, but received it fifteen years later on 3 August 2006 in Skopje. The Golden Boot was presented at a special gala by Michel Platini, Dragan Stojković and Dragan Džajić.
His playing career started in 1982 at Vardar Skopje where he quickly developed into one of the most feared strikers in the Yugoslav League, becoming league top scorer in the 1983–84 season. The skill and seeming ease of his goal scoring exploits in Skopje made him a target for bigger clubs.
Red Star Belgrade
During summer 1988, Pančev was snapped up by Red Star Belgrade, which beat cross-town rivals FK Partizan to the twenty-two-year-old’s signature. Another talented youngster, 21-year-old Dejan Savićević, also arrived to the club during the same transfer window, but both promptly got sent to serve the mandatory Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) stint that kept them off the pitch for the entire league season.
Pančev debuted for his new club in 1989 and played three full seasons for crveno-beli, scoring an incredible 84 goals from 91 league appearances, and winning the European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup in 1991.
Due to his phenomenal strike rate, during the early 1990s, he was widely recognized as one of the best strikers in the world. Displaying great goalscoring instincts and predatory skills, he got nicknamed Kobra by the Serbian sports media. Red Star fans remember him as the player who scored the winning penalty in the 1991 European Cup Final, bringing Red Star the most prestigious trophy in European football for the first time in its 50-year existence.
On 4 March 1992, Pančev scored two beautiful goals for Red Star to defeat Panathinaikos 2–0 at the Olympic Stadium in Athens in a European Cup match. The spotlight was on him because upon completing the forms to gain entry in Greece, he wrote his nationality as Macedonian. This made great havoc among the Greeks, he was detained several hours before being allowed to cross the border. In an interview after the duel he would say, “There is a saying that luck follows the brave. I was happy to score two goals before 80,000 spectators in Athens and Red Star to win 2–0. After that, the earth could open up and I did not mind.”
During the middle of 1992, soon to be twenty-seven-year-old Pančev was signed by Internazionale in a high profile transfer with the ITL14 billion (£7 million) fee paid to Red Star. Arriving at a club that had finished the previous league season in a disappointing eighth place (which precipitated a major squad overhaul with the famous German triumvirate of Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann, and Andreas Brehme leaving San Siro and head coach Luis Suárez getting fired), Pančev was naturally looked to for goals as suggested by his glowing reputation from the Federal League and Red Star’s European campaigns. Upon signing, club president Ernesto Pellegrini even compared him to Paolo Rossi, giving an indication of the level of expectation thrust upon the Macedonian.
Joining a squad that, in addition to new head coach Osvaldo Bagnoli, also featured plenty of new faces, the conventional wisdom was that such circumstances would work in Pančev’s favour in terms of fitting in. His competitors for places upfront were all new arrivals as well: Uruguayan Rubén Sosa who came from Lazio, the Italian 1990 World Cup hero Salvatore Schillaci who came from Juventus, and, depending on formation, even Russian attacking midfielder Igor Shalimov who came from Foggia.
However, in contrast to club president Pellegrini, head coach Bagnoli wasn’t as taken with Pančev’s playing style and already during pre-season reproached the player for lack of movement. Once the season started, Pančev’s performances were nowhere near expectations. From the get go, it was apparent the Macedonian was experiencing major problems adapting to stringent Italian league defences and his goal output suddenly became nonexistent. It didn’t take long for his relationship with Bagnoli to take a turn for the worse, as the two started butting heads, often publicly. Pančev apparently even resorted to faking an illness in order to avoid sitting on the bench. The Italian press got down on the striker too, derisively modifying his Red Star moniker Il Cobra to Il Ramarro (green lizard). He’d wait until after the winter break to net his first league goal, which came at home versus Udinese in January 1993. Parallel to Pančev’s struggles, Inter posted a decent league season behind Sosa’s goalscoring exploits, and with no distraction of European football finished league runners-up to cross-town rival AC Milan. Overall, during his debut season, Pančev appeared in just twelve league matches for the nerazzurri, scoring one league goal in addition to four goals in five Coppa Italia appearances.
Pančev remained part of the Inter squad for the 1993-94 season, although he was completely out of the first-team picture as his relationship with Bagnoli deteriorated to a point of no repair. Furthermore, the arrival of £12 million signing Dennis Bergkamp from Ajax relegated the Macedonian even further down the pecking order. He did not get any league appearances during the first half of the season nor did he get any action in the UEFA Cup. In January 1994, during the winter break, he got loaned out to German team VfB Leipzig.
Loan to Leipzig
Arriving to a club fighting for its life near the bottom of the table, Pančev scored two goals in ten matches for Leipzig during Bundesliga spring half-season. The team still got relegated.
Return to Inter
Pančev returned to San Siro following a six-month loan hoping to make the most of his second chance. Playing under new head coach Ottavio Bianchi, the 29-year-old looked on track to do just that early into the season, scoring in a 3–1 home win versus Fiorentina and two weeks later in a 1–2 home loss to Bari. However, subsequent loss of form and injuries meant that he made the total of only seven league appearances during the campaign. In the UEFA Cup, he got a surprise starting appearance in late September in the return leg of the second round tie versus Aston Villa and even had a glorious opportunity to score following Nicola Berti’s thundering shot that bounced favourably off the crossbar, but ended up blasting the rebound high over the bar. UEFA Cup title-holders Inter ended up getting eliminated on penalties that night. It was Pančev’s first and only European match while at Inter. Throughout the season, the entire club was going through major turmoil behind the scenes and eventually the owner and club president Pellegrini sold the team to oil magnate Massimo Moratti in March 1995. At the end of the season, during the summer 1995 transfer window, Pančev got offloaded to Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Due to his less than stellar displays in Serie A, Pančev has often been referred to as bidone by Inter fans, a derisive term in Italian meaning “trashcan”, used colloquially for high-profile flops in the league.
He ended his playing career to Swiss team Sion in 1997.
After retiring from playing, Pančev often talked at length about his failed stint at Inter. In 2002 he addressed the criticism he often received in Italy about his lack of movement off the ball:
||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. Unfortunately Inter didn’t want to accept that style of play.
He also complained about supposed less-than-friendly attitudes in the nerazzurri dressing room towards certain foreigners, and in this regard singled out Inter’s Italian stalwarts Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, and Riccardo Ferri as main perpetrators:
||Yes, they were my problem! They forced Bagnoli, who was a weak coach, to play Salvatore Schillaci instead of me. Recently I ran into Zenga, who’s now coach of National Bucharest, and said, ‘I hope you’re a better coach than Bagnoli was at Inter.’ I said it to remind him of that time. Signing for Inter was my greatest football mistake. In 1992 I was the best striker in Europe. I could have gone anywhere I wanted: Real, Barcelona, Manchester United. My career would have been much richer, in football terms and financially, if I had. And I was only one of the players whose career Inter ruined: think of Wim Jonk, Matthias Sammer, Igor Shalimov. Dennis Bergkamp left after two years, and he needed a year in England to find himself again.
Pančev played in the 1990 World Cup for Federal Team and scored two goals in the 4–1 win over the UAE in the first round. It proved to be the only international tournament he played in, due to the ban on Federal Team participating in Euro 1992 because of the war in Bosnia at the time, although by the end of the European qualifying group stages, he was the top marksman on the continent with ten goals for the group qualifying stage.
He played in the Macedonian national team’s first ever official match, on October 13, 1993, against Slovenia.
In November 2003, to celebrate UEFA’s jubilee, he was selected as the Golden Player of Macedonia by the Football Federation of the Republic of Macedonia as their most outstanding player of the past 50 years.