30 May ~ Even by Sinisa Mihajlovic's high standards of controversy, this latest episode takes some beating. Barely a week into the job as Serbia's new coach and he has already embroiled himself in a dispute that has stoked the tinderbox of ethnic divisions within the country. "The players will have to sign a code of conduct, binding each and every one who represents Serbia to learn the national anthem, behave at international and club level and put their hearts on their sleeves," the former Lazio defender stated at the press conference announcing his appointment in Belgrade last week.

"Football should be entertainment for all fans who love the game, including women and children, while commitment, passion and patriotism must go hand in hand with a player's talent."

Unfortunately for Adem Ljajic, the fitful but talented Fiorentina attacker, Mihajlovic's words were not the hollow declarations of a coach trying to impress on his debut in front of the media. Whether intentional or not, Ljajic was last out of the tunnel for Saturday's friendly with Spain in St Gallen. As the team shuffled into a line he glanced sheepishly down it towards his team-mates, a TV camera lingering in his face as it waited for the music to start. As the national anthem played, he bowed his head and pursed his lips shut.

Monday brought the announcement from the Serbian football association that Ljajic had been sent home for violating "Mihajlovic's rulebook stipulating a code of conduct". The manager met with Ljajic and decided he should leave the squad: "After hearing Ljajic did not sing the anthem due to personal reasons and that that stance would not change, Sinisa Mihajlovic told the player to return home. The door has not been closed forever on the national team but he needs to change his attitude and officially notify Mihajlovic that he has done so. Then, when his form merits it, he can return."

The player originates from the Sandzak region in the south of the country, an area that has one of the highest proportions of Bosniaks (Slav Muslims) in Serbia. Like many parts of the region, it has suffered decades of underdevelopment and exists in a state of fragile diplomatic equilibrium. "Tense but peaceful," was the verdict of the International Crisis Group in 2005.

Given Ljajic's background, Monday's announcement was quickly interpreted by many in the Bosniak community as a clear mark of disrespect. "This act of discrimination by coach Sinisa Mihajlovic confirmed that the Bosniaks do not have a place in the national team without giving up their identity," read a statement from the Bosniak Cultural Association. "It has become clear that in the Serbian team there is no room for anyone except members of the Serbian people."

The incident will not have surprised the many people who see Mihajlovic, rightly or wrongly, as a Serb nationalist. To label the issue as being simply about ethnicity, however, would be incorrect.

If Mihajlovic's actions were driven by ethnic discrimination, why did he select Ljajic in the first place? To call a player up simply to make an example of him verges on the outrageous, especially from a coach who demands such high levels of discipline from his players. It also seems unlikely that such discrimination would be displayed by a man who spent much of his upbringing and subsequent football career facing opposition because of his gypsy heritage.

More likely, Mihajlovic saw the singing of the anthem as a mechanism for visibly bringing together a squad that disintegrated so catastrophically during qualification for Euro 2012. However, given that the anthem, Righteous God, has already caused controversy for not properly recognising the ethnic plurality of the region, it would seem misguided of the coach to make it such a cornerstone of his manifesto.

Whether deliberate or not, in a country where regional and ethnic divisions have so visibly shaped the last two decades, the episode represents nothing short of a diplomatic disaster. Marcus Haydon

Comments (8)
Comment by geobra 2012-05-30 13:49:33

Michel Platini, no less, reacted by stating that while he was proud to represent France, he never sang the Marseillaise because of its militaristic nature which he thought had no place in a sporting context. Ljajic is probably no Platini in the making, but think what we would have missed if MP's coaches had treated him like this.

Mihajlovic is totally out of order. National anthems are dodgy things at the best of times, and whether one sings them or not must always be a personal choice and respected as such. And not singing should not be seen as showing a lack of respect either for one's country or its national team.

Comment by Barnstoneworth 2012-05-30 15:09:21

Why is the idea that Mihailovic selected Ljajic in order to make an example of him so far-fetched? In the wider context it seems perfectly plausible. The writer uses the word "outrageous" but this is about the mildest adjective that deserves to be applied to Mihailovic's insistence on a code of conduct and his expulsion of Ljajic for not complying with it. And was it mere coincidence that the TV camera remained trained on the player from the Sandzak region during the national anthem? Unlikely I'd suggest.

Comment by geobra 2012-05-30 16:00:55

Could this also have something to do with the fact that during the season Mihajlovic was sacked by Fiorentina? And that, reportedly, one of the players who gave him most problems was Ljajic? Could Mihajlovic simply be getting his own back on a player he considers one of the prime reasons for his dismissal?

Comment by StephL 2012-05-30 22:05:07

Wasn't Ljajic the player that the Fiorentina coach (Dellio Rossi?) punched a few weeks ago while badly reacting at being subsituted?

Comment by geobra 2012-05-31 07:16:39

Yes, he was. So he has form. But so does Mihajlovic. We can perhaps use his youth as mitigation for Ljajic, but Mihajlovic should know better by now.

Comment by trickydicky 2012-05-31 12:12:51

We don't know what fully went on, Ljajic has form for being a petulent knob, and it is likely that Mihajlovic dislikes him from their time together at Fiorentina, but banishing someone for not singing the national anthem seems a bit extreme. If we applied that rule Wayne Rooney would have 1 cap. Serbia is probably the most nationalist country in the most intensely nationalist part of Europe, where national anthems are new and will carry greater meaning than here. But they don't have any relevance in modern life really and assigning so much importance to it, as Mihajlovic has done, is foolish. Its a shame he attracts so much controversy because he's one of my all time favourite players.

Comment by FCKarl 2012-06-01 08:47:04

To offer any thoughts to this I would have to evaluate not just the words but the music, context of the Serbian hymn (composer, why written, when written, etc.) So I'll assign that to myself as homework.

Please, if I may, I think there is a broader context which needs to be addressed. After all, it is now very, very common during national team matches for the cameras to pan down the line (TV cameraman walking along with mobile camera, so we see the McDonald's kids standing in front of the players and a perfect view of the players) and to not just see a several players not singing but also see multiple players seemingly very disinterested in the anthem (sometimes jostling all about in disrespect to their own and the opponents' anthem). I understand that they are athletes and don't want to cramp up or get caught getting cold on a very cool, rainy night. There's nervous energy pent up inside. But sometimes the movements and antics are a bit too much. Or, worse, the almost disinterested sneers on some players' faces.

Worst is that they don't seem to know the words or care that they don't know them. Nevermind the act of opening mouth and choosing to sing the lyrics. Switzerland now always features more players born outside Helvetia and without a mother tongue in Italian, French, or German. One wonders if some can even do better than schoolboy interviews in any of these 3 languages. It is not so different with Belgium. It is frankly odd to see Brazilians line up for Turkey, Greece, Poland (where it is very obvious they don't just not know the words to these little hymns, they haven't spent any time learning about this moment, a very rare moment for any athlete) just as it was odd to see Spain needing Marco Senna. The French and Portuguese certainly have this problem. The French anthem has been loudly booed (whistled / jeered) by Tunesians, Algerians, Moroccans and others when playing at home in France. Does Mario Balotelli sing the Italian hymn? If not, why not? And, even if this does not bother you personally, how might it be perceived by an ur-Italian who does love his homeland and wishes to see his Azzurri do well? I can tell you that to many of my relatives such displays come across at times as disdain. Or a more important word: Ingratitude.

Not my country, but view Mesut Oezil during the German anthem. It will be interesting to see how Ilkay Gungogan does in this moment if he gets a start for the Germans. Watch Khedeira and Boateng, too. Mark my words - if this planet is still in orbit and footballs are still rolling in stadiums 14 years from now, Germany will field a national team where no player knows the words, the composer, or the slightest thing about the anthem. It will be the same for the Netherlands, Norway, and nearly all the northern European countries.

Not in all cases, but it mostly comes down to a bit of authenticity and caring. Or are too many of the modern players just mercenaries using this forum (national team fixtures) to further enhance their careers, shoe contracts, endorsements, media image, and as a stage for the next level, a more lucrative contract?

Now obviously these players did not select themselves. Grown men at the federation level (w/ lawyers doing all the legal work) and the coaching staff select them. So they are perhaps very complicit in what seems to sometimes be an anything-goes fielding with the aim of "just win baby."

Maybe fans just don't care anymore. Or care less. I still do care. I prefer players that can give a very competent interview in the native tongue of the land they represent, who can speak to normal fans from the country of the shirt they wear, and who have ties to it. It matters when some proud junior club in the country can say, "Hey, he was one of us 14 years ago! He grew up right here! We are his first club!" And they have the team pictures of a cherubic faced boy in the U10 squad to prove it. It surely helps when they also have an affinity / strong appreciation for their land, after all, it is their land, right? Nobody forced them to accept a national team call up. Affinity, appreciation, and sense of the moment -- these do not mean militaristic, chauvinistic.

Please keep an eye out at Euro 2012. I think we'll see more such players. Maybe 20 year old Adem Ljajic will take comfort watching Euro 2012. After all, my estimation is that about half the players do not even mimic moving their lips during their anthems. This is not new; it is the trend. Sweden will also feature several who won't move a muscle, I think. And then watch even more so at the London Summer Olympics. I think that, if we pay attention, lots of eyebrows will be raised at who marches in representing the respective nations of the world.

Comment by Craig van Fostinho 2012-06-03 10:22:46

I don't think that a person's ability to sing what is usually a militaristic, marching call to war, or a droning dirge, is that important. And I really don't think it's a sign of a person's attachment to a country, a region, a nation or whatever.

There are a few tattooed fist pumpers out there in most teams. But football has always tended to have more than a few people who play because they love it, they're good at it, they like to play well, and they're not so fussed about the flag-waving.

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