WAR AND PEACE – The controversial career of Sinisa Mihajlovic

Updated: October 7, 2013
Sinisa Mihajlovic
Sinisa Mihajlovic

Photo: Getty Images

As one of the most divisive footballers of the last twenty years, the name Sinisa Mihajlovic usually draws an opinion from football fans. He was an exceptional footballer whose defensive capabilities along with his devastating free kicks made him one of the most feared footballers in recent times. He was a man who made no apology for who he was or what he believed in, though for many he was a racist who kept company with indicted war criminals. Mihajlovic is now retired and has coached in Serie A and is presently the coach of the Serbian national team. Therefore, is it time for a reassessment of a man around who journalist Gabriele Marcotti said that there was little black and white but ‘plenty of grey, the grey the media do not like’?

As with any human being, the experiences of childhood make the adult that they grow into and Mihajlovic is no different from anyone else in that respect. He was born to a Croat mother and a Serb father in an ethnically mixed village near to Vukovar, a city in Eastern Croatia which lies near the border with Serbia and his footballing talent was obvious from an early age – his father had to replace the garage door several times due to young Sinisa practising his free kicks against it. By his own admission he was in trouble out of school, always prepared to stand up for himself physically but was never lacking academically either, a former teacher noting that he was “an excellent student, always sat at the front of the class.

Mihajlovic from an early age was a person of contrasts and this may have led to significant misunderstandings of him later in life as a footballer and there could be many reasons for this. A childhood friend, Sinisa Lazic believes that Mihajlavic’s natural competitiveness on the pitch as a youngster was massively different from his off pitch persona. On this pitch he would foul, abuse and spit at players, a total contrast to his respectful mild manner off the pitch. The Serb nationalism that he has been accused of later in life could have been very different too.

He nearly joined Dinamo Zagreb in 1987 but refused to when his Croatian coach of the Yugoslav under 20 team told Mihajlovic he wouldn’t be picked for the forthcoming youth World Cup if he didn’t sign for them. Instead Mihajlovic signed for Novi Sad and then Red Star Belgrade. The refusal to join a Croat team was not one made out of nationalism according to Michael Yokhin writing in 442, “the national aspect was pretty much irrelevant to Mihajlovic” and that refusing to join Dinamo probably had more to do with not wanting to cut his hair (the coach was a notorious disciplinarian) than any nationalism. If he had signed for Dinamo then his politics could have been so much different, he could have been a Croatian hero rather than a Serb one.

When the Croatian War of Independence ignited in 1991, it did so near to Mihajlavic’s home village, indeed a gunfight close to the Mihajlovic home saw twelve Croatian police and three Serb militia killed. The Serb dominated Yugoslav National Army (JNA) occupied the area until it was retaken by Croatian forces. Prior to leaving however, JNA forces committed one of the more infamous massacres of the Balkan wars as Vukovar hospital was evacuated and patients were transported to a remote farm and killed. With vengeance high on Croat priorities and lines of communication cut, Mihajlovic had no idea as to his parents welfare or even if they were still alive. It also seems apparent that his parent’s home was also destroyed during this period too.

Against this backdrop Red Star Belgrade met Hadjuk Split in the Yugoslav Cup Final. Prior to kick off the usual pre match rituals were observed between captains, in this case Mihajlovic and Igor Stimac. Both had known each other since they were children and Stimac was an ethnic Croat. The two had often gotten on well together despite their peer groups not wishing the two to mix; they both had their passion for football in common and spent a lot of time together. This time was different however, the war had changed everything and as the two captains greeted each other, Stimac leaned towards Mihajlovic and hissed “I hope our guys kill your entire family in Borovo”. Outraged, Mihajlovic spent the match chasing Stimac trying to wreak revenge. Eventually the pair got sent off and when the two teams met at a later date, Mihajlovic was again sent off.

There are significant parallels between Stimac and Mihajlovic, yet it’s the latter who receives the harsher treatment. Maybe this is because Stimac played in the Premier League and Mihajlovic did not, thus becoming less understandable in his actions to those within this country than Stimac. An incident of racial abuse by Mihajlovic in the Champions League was against Patrick Vieira who at the time was playing for an English club. Perhaps also, with Serbia seen as the natural aggressor within the region, people naturally sided with Stimac the plucky underdog Croat, yet his character can be equally seen as controversial. Journalist Runar Nordvik believes this and states that with Serbs being seen as the greater aggressors, “Stimac’s everyday nationalistic/populist rhetoric goes unnoticed by the huge audience. The same statements made by Mihajlovic would reach the front pages world wide”, Nordvik writes.

In 1991 whilst returning from a European tie with Tottenham Hotspur, Stimac was arrested for possession of a machine gun and spent four days in prison, despite Stimac’s assertion that the guns were for self defence citing the fact that the team bus had driven through the front line to get home. He was also rearrested for his association with Croatian nationalists who were involved with acts of arson against Serb property and cars. Stimac didn’t deny any association (his cousin was one member of the gang) but he denied that he himself had committed any acts of violence. “My friends are part of an anti-terrorist group within the Croatian army. They’re always talking about how they will chase out the Serbs from Split.” Once, when appearing on a Croatian chat show, Stimac was showed a pre recorded message from Mihajlovic where he suggested that their feud be put behind them and they should settle their differences over a bottle of wine. Stimac was indignant, “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… I can forgive him but I’ll never embrace him or drink wine with him.”

Both men are now managers of their respective national teams and their attitudes to each other appeared to have mellowed. At a meeting of European national team managers in November 2012, the two sat and drank coffee together for an hour before amicably parting. The two have also faced each other directly as Croatia and Serbia were drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group. They embraced each other at the match in full view at the dug out and were both at pains to try and quell the obvious atmosphere between the two sides. They acknowledged the short fuse of their youth and Mihajlovic encouraged his players to applaud the Croatian national anthem and stated he could refuse to pick any player in future international matches if they got sent off in this fixture.

Yugoslavia also played Croatia in a fixture in 1999, Mihajlovic played though Stimac was banned. In an act that could be at best described as poor judgement, Mihajlovic walked over to a banner in front of the Croatian fans which read “Vukovar 91”, knelt in front of it and made the sign of the cross in his words to “remember all the Serbs who had fallen there”. Nordvik believes it was incidents like this that Mihajlovic “lived for as a player”, though journalist Jonathan Wilson believes the gesture was “understandable” though “hugely provocative”

Mihajlavic’s relationship with indicted and feared war criminal Arkan also needs analysing when it comes to an assessment of his personality. Arkan’s name was notorious across the whole of the former Yugoslavia and his Tigers paramilitary group was accused of many massacres and acts of violence. If Mihajlovic was looking to play down any nationalist sentiment then why would he seen to be associated with someone with the reputation of Arkan? His explanation is simple. Arkan formed his Tigers from the terraces of the Red Star Belgrade Ultras known as the Delije. He was also director of the supporters group and as such would have had access to players as Mihajlovic later stated; “I met him through football. During a short period we spent a lot of time together”.

Their relationship grew stronger during the days when Vukovar was part of the front line in the war. After Mihajlavic’s parents had fled to Belgrade, his uncle who was a general in the Croatian army called Mihajlavic’s mother asking “Why have you fled? We wanted to kill your husband, the Serbian swine.” The same uncle was captured by JNA forces as Vukovar was retaken and was hours away from execution when it became known who the uncle’s famous nephew was. Arkan then called Mihajlovic and arranged to have his uncle spared. There were also suggestions that as Serb forces went house to house looking for victims, Arkan personally intervened to ensure that Mihajlavic’s parents were secretly smuggled away from the town and into Serbia.

Mihajlovic is obviously grateful for any intervention by Arkan in saving the lives of members of his families as anybody would be. Arkan was gunned down in a Belgrade hotel in 2000. Mihajlovic was playing for Lazio at the time and their fans in the Curva Nord unveiled a tribute to him at their next home fixture. He refused to join in the condemnation made by so many appalled throughout Europe and on face value it appears that Mihajlovic the nationalist Serb was in mourning for his friend whom had butchered so many innocents. Yet little was known at the time about Arkan’s efforts in saving the Mihajlovic family. Mihajlovic has since said of Arkan “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.”

The incident with Patrick Vieira in which Mihajlovic called him a “black Monkey” may also need looking at in context too. Mihajlovic justified the comment (prior to apologising for it) by stating that Vieira called him a gypsy, yet Vieira wasn’t banned by UEFA or condemned by the media for his name calling. Does this indicate that abusing someone for their skin colour is more important than their cultural heritage or that UEFA and the Western European median feel that being called a monkey is worse than being called a gypsy? Either way, despite Mihajlovic obviously being wrong in his choice of language, was Vieira much better with his, yet whose reputation suffered the most? Another incident in front of British cameras was him being seen to spit at Chelsea’s Adrian Mutu in a Champions League tie, though there were suggestions that Mutu had elbowed him earlier on in the match. These two incidents only served to worsen Mihajlavic’s reputation within this country

Mihajlovic is now the coach of the Serbian national team and Nordvik believes that he is suffering somewhat now for his actions as a player, though he may have found a new found maturity given the responsibility of being a manager. At his first press conference Mihajlovic was asked about Arkan, Vukovar and the war, but he managed to dodge those questions with eloquent ease. He did make the headlines again however when he refused to pick Adam Ljajic for refusing to sing the Serb national anthem. This was an instruction set out by Mihajlovic as part of a code of conduct to be issued to players when on national team duty.

Ljajic, a Serb of Bosnian Muslim extraction, refused to sing the anthem as he found some of the lyrics, which mention “Serbian Kin” unacceptable. Ljajic’s expulsion has been seen by some as an act of nationalism by Mihajlovic, though he himself defends it by stating that he wants a spirit of togetherness throughout the squad and the fans too and one of the ways to achieve that is for everyone to sing the anthem. Ultimately though, Nordvik believes that any failings as national team coach will be due to Mihajlavic’s lack of ability rather than any nationalism masking his decision making process as despite some poor man management Mihajlavic’s intentions are good

Sinisa Mihajlovic is no doubt a divisive figure. On the one hand a man who represented and was a very public face of all that was wrong with the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s – rampant Serb nationalism, associations with war criminals and racism. Yet there is no doubt too that for every action and comment he made, there was a back-story and reasoning to it. He has acknowledged that he made mistakes in the past and is trying to put some of those right and as coach of his national team he now has responsibility and the story is no longer just about him but about the greater good of the Serb national team. As he embarks on a coaching career we are only just about to see the real Sinisa Mihajlovic

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