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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.
That was brilliant, PPV. Thanks.
I'll second that. Great post.
The thing I took most from that is that nationalism absolutely fucking sucks/I].
Brilliant stuff PPV.
Who have UEFA appointed ref for this one? They're going to need balls like coconuts.
According to AB2 on the other thread it's our old friend Cuneyt Cekir
Rogin the Armchair Fan wrote:
Hopefully Cakir manages to avoid the xenophobia he was treated to in the English media no matter what happens.
I imagine that as far as nationalist Serbs and Croatians are concerned, Turkey is basically the father of the Bosniaks.
Amazing, that, Z. Cheers.
Yeah, going to jump on the praise bandwagon here - thanks for that PPV, really, thanks.
Was about to say I'm tempted to fuck off my usual habit of watching England with one eye whilst doing something interesting in favour of this game, but it looks like I should be able to do both.
Superb stuff PPV. Thank you.
Excellent, PPV. WSC should publish it.
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
Thanks from me too, PPV, for an excellent piece.
Are there any clues of how this will play out in the stadium - do you know what the local media coverage has been like other than the interviews with IS and SM?
Fascinating stuff, Ganja, thanks very much.
Truly excellent PPV. I second the minute-by-minute article, perhaps with this as a separate introduction.
I clicked on this expecting a paragraph I could skim, and was hooked. What a story. I'm with NS and N2 in suggesting this should be published.
Sure it's come up for discussion before, but is there any belief in/motivation towards a footballing equivalent of the Adriatic League in basketball?
I understand that UEFA have put the kibosh on similar proposals (the Atlantic League, for example), but would there be popular support for it?
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