21 Mar 2013 05:41 - 21 Mar 2013 07:07#777492by Pietro Paolo Virdis
Sinisa Mihajlovic - current coach of Serbia – was a real hothead throughout his player career, as most know. Some of this has been on display during his time as national coach, which Fiorentina player Adem Ljajic got a taste of last year. Ljajic, born in Serbia by Muslim parents didn’t sing the Serbian anthem ahead of a game why Mihajlovic kicked him out of the team. It seems, however, the coach will have to take the player back due to pressure from both media and fans, because the very talented 21 year old midfielder is having a splendid season and while Mihajlovic has a world class defence, even in the absence of Vidic who’s refusing to play since 2011 because of negative comments from fans, Mihajlovic is in desperate need of players in the attacking line. Ljajic can play second striker or attacking midfielder, together with Filip Djuricic who I think it’s only a matter of time before he has his big international breakthrough, they’ll still lack in striker options.
I’ve mentioned Stimac – the current Croatian coach - here before. A truly dodgy character involved in everything from beating up people at nightclubs, betting syndicates with mob members and rigging elections both at Hajduk Split as well as the Croatian FA.
Mihajlovic and Stimac got to know each other when in their teens. They played together in the Yugoslavian team which won the 1987 FIFA World Youth Cup and often met while stars in their respective club in the two neighbouring cities.
Stimac is from the southern part of Croatia but was on loan to Dinamo Vinkovci at the age of 19. Vinkovci is a railroad transfer-point in the north-eastern part of Croatia close to where the Serbian border is today. Sinisa Mihajlovic grew up in Vukovar, some 20km from Vinkovci. The two socialized in different crews but they’d often meet at bars and cafés. Their respective friends would pressure for them not to talk but they’d greet and chat about their mutual interest, football.
The war between Croatia and Serbia was ignited one could say in those very parts where Sinisa and Igor lived just a few years earlier. Twelve Croatian police officers and three Serbian militia were killed in a gunfight in Borovo, a suburb to Vukovar, 2 May 1991, just a few hundred meters from the house where Mihajlovic grew up and thus the war begun.
I’m sure you’ve all heard about Vukovar. The town was basically levelled to the ground and is one of the greatest atrocities committed during that war.
Less than a few weeks later, the Yugoslavian cup final was played at the JNA stadium in Belgrade. Red Star Belgrade met a Hajduk Split wearing mourning bands in honour of the fallen police. When the Yugoslavian anthem was played the Hajduk players looked towards the ground and not the flag. Igor Stimac was captain for Hajduk Split and Sinisa Mihajlovic was captain for the Serbian side. When the two met ahead of kick-off at the centre Stimac leaned forward and whispered to Mihajlovic. - I hope our guys kill your entire family in Borovo.
The phone lines to Borovo had been down for several days and Mihajlovic had no idea whether his family was alive or not. He could care less about the cup final and spent every second trying to injure Stimac. The game ended up being more of a brutal kickboxing match between the two with both eventually sent off. Hajduk won 1-0, Stimac raised the cup and said: - It’s ours forever now. The Yugoslavian cup will never be played ever again.
Hajduk-Red Star Belgrade kickboxing
A few months later Hajduk and Red Star met again in a league game. A very hot headed Mihajlovic acted like a ticking bomb and was sent off. Again.
Mihajlovic losing it
The war had put an even greater wedge between the two players. Hajduk’s training ground was door to door with a Croatian army base and Stimac spent more time with military and militia than with his team mates. In October 1991 Hajduk were returning to Croatia after having met Tottenham in the Cup Winners Cup. To cross the border they had to go by bus through Austria. - When we got to the northern parts of Croatia we were at the front. Everything was on fire. Every 200m a bomb detonated and when we were getting closer to Zadar we noticed they’d blown a big hole in the bridge. We had to get out of the bus, all of us, and jump over.
When the team finally arrived Split they were stopped by police. Igor Stimac was arrested because he carried a machine gun without permission and had to spend four days in prison. - Some team mates had bought guns to keep on the bus because we made the judgement that we might need them.
A few months later Stimac was back at the police station. The police had brought him in for questioning due to his association with a group of Croatian nationalists who had burnt and blown up cafés, stores and cars belonging to ethnic Serbs. Stimac didn’t deny he was involved with them, one of them his cousin and another the godfather to his son. But even though he said that he had nothing to do with the crimes he said that he didn’t find anything wrong with them morally. - My friends are part of an anti-terrorist group within the Croatian army. Their mission is to blow up certain buildings. During our conversations they’re always talking about how they will chase out the Serbs from Split since it’s become impossible to live with them.
Sinisa Mihajlovic had it a bit tougher to separate ethnicity. His father is Serb but his mother is Croatian. - All wars suck, but a civil war like ours is worse than anything else. Guys I grew up with are now shooting at each other, families are torn apart.
While Vukovar was controlled by the Croatian militia his Serbian family was living under constant threat of death. A few days after Mihajlovic had them evacuated a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the house he grew up. A few days later some of his friends found a couple of Red Star team photos in the burnt down house. Someone had put a bullet through Sinisa’s face in every one of them. - Who could do such a thing? It was something which haunted me every day until the day I found out. It was Stipe, one of my childhood friends, a bloke I’d looked upon like a brother. He did it simply because I was Serb and he was Croat. How is it possible for war to darken your mind so much about someone who used to be your friend?
After they’d fled to Belgrade, Mihajlovic’ mother got a phone call from her brother, a general in the Croatian army. - Why have you fled? We wanted to kill your husband, the Serbian swine.
When Vukovar finally fell the same uncle was captured by the Serbian forces, led by warlord Arkan Raznatovic. Execution by fire squad was only a few hours away when someone told Arkan about one being family to Mihajlovic. - Then he called me and I managed to convince him to spare my uncles life.
Sinisa and Arkan got to know each other when he moved to Red Star Belgrade less than a year before. The ex-ultra leader had already then reached a new position and status since he had armed the supporters in the Delije (Red Star ultras) and transformed into some sort of militia commander. - I met him through football. During a short period we spent a lot of time together and I will always be grateful for saving my uncles life. It’s easy to point finger from the outside, but he defended the Serbs who would otherwise be massacred in Croatia. I condemn the war crimes he’s committed but in a civil war there is no good or evil. There is no black and white, the colour of war is always red like colour of the blood of the innocent.
Both Mihajlovic and Stimac have been judged by their certain affiliations together with some of their actions and have become anti-symbols for both sides. Lots of Croats hate Mihajlovic because he defended Arkan and stood by Slobodan Milosevic. A lot of Serbs hate Stimac because he praised the Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. And they’ve continued to build on it by throwing insults one another.
Igor Stimac: - He claims that I’ve wished for his family to die but I don’t express myself like that. Mihajlovic doesn’t exist for me anymore. Since his mother is Croatian, he’s always the one trying to prove something, like he’s a greater Serb than anyone else.
Sinisa Mihajlovic: - That he can’t stand for what he says makes him an even lesser person in my eyes. He should just vanish. I don’t believe in violence but Igor Stimac is the only human I would actually want to kill.
Sinisa Mihajlovic has not been in Vukovar since 1991 but he has been in Croatia once. October 1999 with the national side still playing as Yugoslavia against Croatia in the European Championship qualifiers. - The stadium in Zagreb was like a volcano. Police everywhere. Everybody still had the war in their bodies. There were many players from the old Yugoslavian team on the field but this time we played against them.
Last time Mihajlovic was in Vukovar he couldn’t even recognize it. Whole streets and city blocks were gone. Left were only skeletons of houses and people. He felt like there weren’t even any birds in the air anymore. - When I entered the pitch to play Croatia in that qualifier I saw the name of my hometown again. A huge flag was hung in the Croatian section behind goal which read “Vukovar 91”. I kneeled and made the cross sign in remembrance to all Serbs who had fallen there. The stadium felt like it would crumble to the ground from all the fury around me.
The game 99’ finished 2-2. Croatia missed the EC, Yugoslavia qualified. Igor Stimac out of the game due to bookings, Sinisa Mihajlovic assisted to both goals. Yugoslavian player Zoran Mirkovic received a red card after he had grabbed Robert Jarni by the balls and on his way off the pitch he made the provocative Serbian sign with three fingers towards the crowd. - I will never forget that game. It’s the biggest game I’ve ever played, said Mihajlovic.
Igor Stimac was in Vukovar in November 2012. A few days before the Hague tribunal had decided in the appeal from the Croatian generals Gotovina and Markac regarding their respective 24 year and 18 year prison sentences they’d been given. When the jury found Gotovina and Markac not guilty more than 60,000 Croats travelled to Vukovar to celebrate. Stimac was one of them. - They are the greatest heroes in our history. I really hope they can make it to our next game and make a symbolic kick-off.
That next game is tomorrow, Friday. The first game ever between Croatia and Serbia. Where Igor Stimac will sit as coach on one bench and Sinisa Mihajlovic on the other.
A few years ago Igor Stimac was a guest on a Croatian talk-show. The host was breaking down the whole feud between Stimac and Mihajlovic when he presented a surprise. A pre-recorded phone conversation with Sinisa was played. - I’m already old and father of six children. Perhaps it’s time to move on with some things. Everybody can make mistakes in life. Stimac made a great mistake which he probably is aware of. I can forgive him, but on one condition, that he gives me two, three bottles of wine. And it has to be real Dalmatian wine. I’m prepared to meet Stimac, to kiss and embrace him and drink wine together. I’m prepared to forgive him for the Dalmatian wine alone.
Sinisa Mihajlovic had tried to play down the situation but Stimac reacted with anger: - What can I say about a man who’s gone out and said that I’m the only one he’d kill in cold blood. He never asked about his old friends during the war. He signed campaign letters for Arkan and promoted a great-Serbia even though his mother is Croatian. No, Mihajlovic, I don’t accept your offer. I can forgive him but I’ll never embrace him or drink wine with him.
In fall 2012 there was a UEFA conference in Warsaw. National managers from whole of Europe were invited to discuss current football affairs and solve some administrative issues. Suddenly Stimac and Mihajlovic stood face to face. They hesitated but then sat down together for a cup of coffee. Less than an hour later they parted.
Stimac: - When I was a young man I wasn’t always making the brightest decisions but I’ve matured. I understand now that we must prevent the game against Serbia to be a continuation of the war. If the crowd starts to chant “Death to Serbs” or sing Ustasja songs I will take my players off the pitch. Most of all we have to protect the children and youth in the stadium from being pushed down by the same war which destroyed so many lives in our generation.
Mihajlovic: - When I accepted to be manager of Serbia a big reason was this game. I would give three years of my life to be able to play it and I hope to be able to convey some of that hunger to my players. But, both I and my players will applaud the Croatian anthem since we always do so out of respect to our opponent. If any of my players are sent off due to unsportsmanlike conduct or for agitating the crowd he will never play for the national side again. The world is looking at us. It’s time to forgive and forget, to reach out a hand and move forward instead. This game is not a continuation of the war. We’ve already lived through the real war. It was damn bloody and dirty and we still carry wounds and scars from it. But if I who lived through it can let it go and move on, lads who weren’t even born then should be able to.
Lots of things have changed since 1991. It is without doubt the biggest game in Croatian history so far. It’s big in many ways. The rivalry will always remain. If games like Betis-Seville, Schalke-Dortmund or Fener-Galatasary will always be big, you can imagine this one. In terms of rivalries between national sides I can’t come to think of one to match it, not at this level. Argentina-Brazil? Germany-Holland? Scotland-England? Ireland-England? Greece-Turkey? I still think this one is bigger.
It’s big because it’s the first time ever we will meet? Think of all the times you’ve read about the big rivalries around the world, how they started, and the stories behind them. This is the time you will actually be able to say that you saw it that day, you witnessed the moment that very first game was played.
It’s big because.... it can be massive. It’s enough with a few troublemakers to turn this into a terrible something. Pitch invasion, flares, anything is possible.
Or it can be massive the other way around. A very good game with none or few to talk of incidents, outside the stadium or in it. A massive win for the process of continuing to build bridges between the Croats and our neighbours the Serbs.
Yes, a lot of things have changed since 1991. Back then I kept a sort of distance to the people I knew who were Serb. We all did, both side. I was never much into the whole nationalism bullshit with hate towards Serbs, but times were confusing, sensitive. It was easier to stay away from one another, those of us he grew up here in Sweden.
Tomorrow, I will be watching the game together with some Serbian friends. They’ve insisted we must watch it together.
Last Edit: 21 Mar 2013 07:07 by Pietro Paolo Virdis.
21 Mar 2013 08:39 - 21 Mar 2013 08:44#777529by Nefertiti2
Yes excellent piece telling a mindblowing story. In my view far better researched and written than most WSC articles. Someone should commission your
Minute by minute report of watching with your Serbian friends