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