Wednesday, 30 May 2012

'Serbian Sinisa' Sets Example for Sport

To say Serbian football has experienced an eventful past two weeks is an understatement to say the least.

First came the signing of former Serbian International and Serie A record-holder, Sinisa Mihajlovic to a two-year contract as head coach of the Serbian national team.

Less than one week later the team had to take on the defending World and European Cup champions Spain, in a pre-Euro 2012 friendly played in St Galen, Switzerland.

However, perhaps the most dramatic event came on Monday when Mihajlovic asked current Serbia player, Adem Ljajic, to return home after failing to join his teammates in singing the national anthem prior to their clash with Spain.


A statement from the Serbian Football Federation expressed support for Mihajlovic’s move and announced that by not singing the anthem, Ljajic had “breached the team’s code of conduct.”

This is not the first time Ljajic has landed himself in hot-water for his conduct on the football field.  The Fiorentina star found himself at the centre of another storm earlier this month when he was attacked by then Viola boss, Delio Rossi.

Ljajic was hauled off by Rossi in the 2-2 draw with Novara, a decision he greeted with a sarcastic gesture.  Rossi then went for the 20-year-old, throwing punches as he sat on the bench.


In spite of this, Mihajlovic’s move has been labelled by some as dangerously heavy-handed and rather questionable.  A vast majority however have rushed to applaud his actions and see this as a possible turning point for this Serbian team, yet to live-up to their undeniably great potential.

Questionable it may be, but a drastically novel idea it is not.

Following the ‘French Fiasco’ of World Cup 2010 when players staged a mutiny after Coach Raymond Domenech sent Nicolas Anelka packing for misconduct, the French team quickly fell apart and was eliminated from competition.

In a sentence; their attempt to assert their authority over the coach ‘Le Bleu-up’ in their faces.

Laurent Blanc, like Mihajlovic, a former international star of the game was appointed in the lead-up to Euro 2012 qualifiers and left to pick-up the remains of a team left in tatters.


Like Mihajlovic, one of Blanc’s first motions as new coach of the French national side was to pass the words of the French national anthem onto his players and demand they sing it before their first qualifying game with Belarus.

“They perfectly know what I think.  I’ve passed the lyrics on to them,” Blanc said.

“Everybody is free to do what he wants but when you know La Marseillaise, you sing it,” he added.

Much like in Serbia’s case, the changes extend far beyond simply having to sing the national anthem and are about instituting a strict code of conduct through a number of responsibilities.

“When you’re a coach, you can try to ask your players to behave on the pitch in a way which can inspire them for their day-to-day living,” Blanc said.

Blanc now asks his players to do simple things like collecting their empty water bottles at the end of each training session, something they rarely did under Domenech.

Therefore the rule is not exclusive to Serbia and to say it is, or to say players should simply “do as they please”, whether na├»ve or simply stupid, is in no way productive to Serbia’s rehabilitation as a powerhouse of world football.

“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,” Mihajlovic said.

A member of the Red Star Belgrade side that claimed a historic UEFA Champion’s League title in May of 1991, since accepting the top-job, Mihajlovic has made no secrets of his intentions to overhaul both the reputation and fortunes of Serbian football.

Following an arrival at World Cup 2010 as the ‘dark horse’ of the tournament and a historic 1-0 defeat of Germany at group stage (the first time ‘Die Mannschaft’ had lost at group stage in 24 years), the ‘White Eagles’ failed to progress past group stage, finishing in bottom place.


Then came a disastrous Euro 2012 campaign, which saw Serbia’s side going into it with no coach, after Radomir Antic was suspended for several games following an altercation with a FIFA official and shortly after sacked.

Under the hastily appointed Vladimir Petrovic as coach, the team conceded more goals, seemed generally out of sorts and even had to forfeit a match in Genoa against Italy due to crowd violence and hooligan behaviour from some of their fans, robbing them of a vital three-points.

Clearly there was something deeply wrong here.  Something deeper than tactical changes and player formation that needed to be addressed.

Renowned for being a hard-man and no stranger to controversy in his time playing at the highest level, Mihajlovic certainly seems to have the strength of his convictions and has made clear his plans to deal with this.

“I will ask the FSS to make sure we play only in venues where fans will behave in order to stop tarnishing Serbia’s reputation which is already blotted by a plethora of incidents,” Mihajlovic said.


“The players, on the other hand, 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 the sleeve,” he added.

Why then is it that a coach who is demanding his players adhere to a strict code of conduct, teamwork and behaviour befitting professional athletes, being so hastily questioned about his actions?

As the profile, involvement and financial value of the world game grows, have we lost respect for the people who officiate it?

According to some experts, the type of behaviour demonstrated by Ljajic is essentially what has dogged the Serbian National Team for years, and indeed many professional football teams in recent times.

Marko Savkovic, a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, agrees a firm approach like Mihajlovic’s is also a very necessary one.

“It’s imperative to tackle discipline both and off the field, as well as in the stands because of the flow-down effect they can have on one another,” Mr Savkovic said.

“Discipline and a strict hierarchy have already been mentioned [in the past] as characteristics of ‘hooliganism’ and football in Serbia.  Finally we see someone, doing something about it, and with the support of the Football Federation,” he added.


Unfortunately, much of Mihajlovic’s criticism seems to have been generated by people as unwilling to read between the lines as they are to look beyond the headlines.  Ljajic was not “permanently banished from the team” as some reports have suggested.

A statement from the Serbian Football Federation in fact read: “The door has not been closed forever on the national team but [Ljajic] needs to change his attitude and officially notify Mihajlovic that he has done so.

“Then when his form merits it, he can return.”

It also seems important to clarify; Ljajic (along with every other player named by Mihajlovic in the Serbian national side) signed a code of conduct promising, among other things, to “sing the national anthem of Serbia at every match.”

He signed an agreement, didn’t adhere to it and was duly dumped as a result.  Therefore, he wasn’t simply “dumped for not singing the national anthem” but rather for breach of contract through violation of the team code of conduct.

At the heart of it, what Ljajic has done is make an individual choice in a team sport and it seems disappointing that Mihajlovic’s critics should have to be reminded about the importance of “No ‘I’ in TEAM” philosophy.

Given the nickname, the ‘Bomber of Borovo’ due to his lethal left boot, Mihajlovic was a member of the Yugoslavia team of the 90s and early 2000s that played amidst the backdrop of the bloody Balkan wars.


He therefore knows a thing or two about the importance of standing as a member of a strong team and presenting a united front.  When speaking at his first press conference as the newly appointed coach of Serbia, his words echoed this sentiment.

“You all know as I do that as a footballer, I made many mistakes, both on and off the field,” Mihajlovic said.

“So when I decided to accept the role as coach of the Serbian national side, my main motivation was to in some way educate the younger players, the players who have chosen a career in professional football, not to repeat the same mistakes I have made,” he added.

Mihajlovic’s commitment, even if some may not realise it, is a pivotal step in the right direction for Serbian football and Serbian sport as a whole.  An example many sporting federations could do well to follow.

Yes, outside in the ‘real world’ one can wear what they like, sing if they please or do as they will.  However, for those 90+ minutes, this is not the ‘real world’.  Do not forget, this is a job.  It is these players’ workplace.  In the same way that when you go to work, you adhere to a dress code, follow a code of behaviour and behave in accordance with that work culture.  So should they.


Quite simply, Ljajic was sent home, not by Sinisa Mihajlovic the ‘son of a Croatian mother’ or by Sinisa Mihajlovic the ‘husband of an Italian wife’.  He was sent home by ‘Mihajlovic the coach’.  Whether or not you like the man, you must respect the position.

Melbourne Victory FC ‘Blue & White Brigade’ member and ‘Footy Fans Down Under’ award recipient, Peter Lukic, says it’s a very principled step by Mihajlovic and any criticism levelled at him is unwarranted.

“The talk about rights is sadly thrown around with little knowledge of their actual place, role or application.  There’s a difference between disrespecting and disciplining,” Mr. Lukic said.

“Honestly it’s disappointing to have the same people who complain about changes coming about too little too late then also complaining about things being done too fast too soon!  Shut-up, sit back and let the man do the job he has been courted for over 4 months and signed to a two-year contract to do,” he added.

No, footballers are not singers.  But by that definition, they are not paid to be national ambassadors or role models either but these are responsibilities and expectations that accompany the job title.  Singing the anthem demonstrates a level of respect, unity and a willingness to follow the orders of the coach, without question but rather complete trust and faith in his or her motives.

New Zealand rugby players are not dancers but it is understood that they will perform the Haka before each match.  Like the anthem, it is a tribute and way of paying respect to the culture and to the nation you are representing.  To defy that and choose not too sing it with your teammates is a spit in the face of any citizen or supporter not lucky enough to wear the same colours.

Like it or not, these are the rules.  Just like wearing the correct uniform, demonstrating sportsmanship and attending training.

Whatever the case may be, a lack of respect for the coach, country or team can have devastating repercussions.  Whether that be the French team’s troubles of 2010 or John Terry’s attempt to instigate a mutiny against former England boss, Fabio Cappello, it is clear the institution of discipline by a coach early on is vital to a team’s success and cohesion.

In the meantime, sing the anthem loud and proud, respect the selector and 'Hajl' to the chief!

*Serbia meets France tomorrow and Sweden on June 5 for the remainder of their scheduled friendlies.

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