Sinisa Mihajlovic, Serbian Pride In an Italian Heart

The last thing Sinisa Mihajlovic would want in a situation like this is to be commiserated. That’s exactly what the Bologna manager said during Saturday’s press conference where he announced he was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia: “I am not here to get your sympathy.”

It would be easy to fall into rhetoric, going along the line that the disease picked a tough one to mess with. That Sinisa Mihajlovic, the Serbian Sergeant, an almost-unstoppable free-kick shooter as a player, feared and respected as a football coach, will fight and win this terrible battle. He said that himself, and we trust him. So, we won’t be talking about it.

But there was one really touching moment in his meeting with the press, even more of those few tears that he let out, promptly adding that “Those are not due to fear.” (No doubt, Sinisa) It was when Mihajlovic reflected on realizing that this was really happening to him: “Everybody would think I couldn’t catch anything, big and strong as I am. But nobody should ever think of being indestructible.”

Then he elaborated on how, at that very moment, his world suddenly stopped, and everything changed in a split second. He locked himself at home for two days, thinking, crying. Then he came out and, as expected, decided to fight. His own way, the way he learned in a 30-year-spanning career, from the lower level football grounds in war-torn Yugoslavia, to the top Serie A club benches.

Sinisa Mihajlovic: Nobody could take a free-kick like him. During his career, the Serbian defender buried the spot 28 times – a Serie A best he shares with Andrea Pirlo (Photo: Getty Images)

Sinisa Mihajlovic was born to a Serbian father and a Croatian mother in  Vukovar, a time bomb town where the Croatian War of Independence escalated. He has always been extremely proud of his roots, including his gypsy heritage. He takes this sense of national belonging terribly seriously – up to the point of kicking Adem Ljiajc out of the Serbia squad roster when he was the head coach of the selection, because he had refused to sing the National Anthem.

His personality is a blend of pride, honor, and rugged integrity, where an old-school sense of manliness jumbles up with divisive and borderline nationalistic positions – many of which were forged during the Balkan Wars in the early ‘90s.

A good part of his heart, however, is undoubtedly Italian. Mihajlovic spent most of his professional career, both as a player and as a coach, in the land of calcio, and is perfectly fluent in Italian. In the Belpaese he found love and raised five beautiful kids.

But before landing in Italy, he did witness the horror of war at home, when he was 21 years old, and already a professional player. Mihajlovic had left his hometown very young to make a career in football, and as much as that could be an example of “growing up fast,” it was in no way comparable to what the term would mean for many of his fellow countrymen during the Yugoslav Wars.

Mihajlovic once recalled coming back to his hometown, escorted by soldiers, only to find his old house destroyed. What he did see, however, was an image that would stick in his mind forever: “Two kids, standing there, holding assault rifles. They must have been 10 or 11 years old. What really stroke me, were their eyes. The eyes of an adult, but still in a kid. The sad eyes of some kids who didn’t live their childhood.”

The luxury of traveling back to his war-torn birthplace as a visitor, and not as a victim, was allowed to him by his status: Mihajlovic had made his way up to Red Star Belgrade, the top Yugoslav club, and was part of a golden generation which took Crvena Zvezda to the top of Europe, winning on penalties an all-but-memorable European Cup 1991 Final against Olympique Marseille.

Mihajlovic lived his moment of glory in the second leg of the Semifinal when with an improbable brace he helped his side pushing out Bayern Munich. One of his goals came from a free-kick, of course.

The time in Belgrade helped him forge influential, yet controversial friendships with some of the key figures in the Balkan conflict, including Red Star ultras chief turned paramilitary force leader Zeljko Raznatovic. Mihajlovic would never recant his ties with the ill-famed war criminal Arkan, who once spared one of his uncle’s life in view of their friendship.

Sinisa Mihajlovic during his Red Star Belgrade days, here battling against Chilean side Colo Colo in the Intercontinental Cup 1991 (Photo: Masahide Tomikoshi)

When the Yugoslav football movement fell apart, the then 22-year-old defender crossed the Adriatic Sea to join Roma on an initiative by his compatriot coach Vujadin Boskov. He ended up being one of the very few players to play on both banks of the Tiber river, even if he spent much more time at Lazio, and once claimed that “My heart is definitely Biancoceleste.”

Sinisa doesn’t actually have many good memories of his first two Serie A seasons with the Giallorossi. But he did have some remarkable moments even with Roma, being the one who, on March 28, 1993, prompted trainer Boskov to make Francesco Totti debut. “Coach, put the boy in!” he suggested when his team was leading 2-0 in Brescia, hinting at that 16-year-old youth club striker who had impressed Boskov so much, to push him to aggregate him to the first team for the occasion.

As a player, Sinisa Mihajlovic was probably one of the best free-kick scorer ever seen in Serie A. His left foot was absolutely devastating. He didn’t have the grace of Alessandro Del Piero or Andrea Pirlo, no. Mihajlovic was pure power. It was during his subsequent stints, four years with Sampdoria, and then six more with Lazio, that his fame as a lethal free-kick taker arose, along with the echo of his strong and pretty short temper. “People say you should count to 10 before doing something. In the beginning, I didn’t count at all,” he once remarked. “Then I started to count to 2 or 3, and I manage to reach 5 or 6 now. But I don’t think I will ever come to 10.”

Whenever Lazio were awarded a free kick, Sinisa’s smirk as he positioned the ball was enough to intimidate even the most seasoned goalkeepers. His secret, as he would eventually recall, was staring the opponent goalies in their eyes and take a short run-up always in the same way, to avoid giving them any point of reference. Then, just one second before shooting, Mihajlovic would decide where exactly to fire the ball – which generally meant somewhere in the back of the net.

On December 13, 1998, he became the second player in the history of the top Italian flight to score a hat-trick all via free kicks in Lazio’s 5-2 win over Sampdoria. Poor goalie Fabrizio Ferron’s face as he caught the ball in the net for the third time was priceless. In that 1998-99 season, the Serbian scored eight goals from a defender position.

The Lazio ones were his most successful days, which included winning the last edition of the Cup Winners Cup in 1999, and the Biancocelesti’s second and so-far-last Scudetto the following season. Those were also the days of his fiercest battles on the pitch, a place where Sinisa never backed up, as one would easily imagine. A slugfest with young compatriot Mateja Kezman, when Lazio faced his old crosstown rivals Patrizan Belgrade in a Cup Winners Cup game, was among the most remarkable ones.

Much less memorable was a clash with Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira in a Champions League group stage match, which ended in a regrettable exchange of insults between the two. Vieira accused the Serbian of racial abuse. Mihajlovic eventually apologized, but remarked that his insults were a retaliation for having been called a “gypsy piece of s***” by the Frenchman.

The “gypsy piece of s***” is indeed a painful constant in the history of Sinisa Mihajlovic, an insult his detractors always made use of whenever they wanted to push his most important buttons – those related to his origins. It happened again only a few months ago, when it was a police officer to allegedly address him like that from afar.

Mihajlovic commented with pride that the derogatory part of the insult lied in the “s***” line, surely not in the “gypsy.” He also noted how nobody had ever dared to call him like that while facing him – which says a great deal about Sinisa’s personal “code of conduct,” according to which it doesn’t necessarily matter what you say, if you have the courage to say it face to face.

When he eventually moved to the other side of the fence and became a trainer, he could not but make himself a name as an “Iron Sergeant.” His short temper, together with his dedication and work ethic, made him the coaching nemesis for those millennial starlets of these times with much talent but little dedication or grit. The likes of Mario Balotelli, to name one, whom Mihajlovic didn’t hesitate to leave out of the squad when he was coaching Milan, and Super Mario was not showing the right attitude.

Of Mario Balotelli, Sinisa Mihajlovic once said: “He does what I ask him to do only one out of five times.” Nah, those two surely could not get along well…

Another good example was Stefano Okaka Chuka, a Nigerian-Italian striker who never fully delivered what his talent promised. Mihajlovic had him for one year and a half while training Sampdoria. Initially, it went great, with Okaka scoring five times in his first 13 appearances with the Blucerchiati jersey. But their relationship gradually deteriorated, and it ended with Okaka leaving Sampdoria following a violent altercation with the coach.

Defender Daniele Gastaldello recently recalled the episode, reporting how Mihajlovic literally lifted Okaka and pushed him out of the locker room. “It was something I had never seen. When Mihajlovic loses it, you better stay away from him.” Okaka denied Gastaldello’s version, but only the part where he was allegedly lifted and taken away.

When he was training Torino, Mihajlovic once exploded against midfielder Joel Obi, who asked to be substituted for cramps after 60 minutes in a 1-2 loss to Inter. Sinisa, who had already made two changes, didn’t like it for a bit and made it clear to press: “He’s young, he’s a Serie A player, he can’t have only 60 minutes in his legs. If my midfielders cannot play for more than 60 minutes, then they’d rather work in accounting, or play futsal with their friends.”

With his teammate Daniele Baselli he was even more concise, after substituting him – this time by his own initiative – in a game against Pescara: “I pulled him out because he wasn’t giving me anything. I have been telling him for three months that he needs to grow some balls if he can.”

When a journalist once praised Marco Benassi, noting how it was not easy to be the captain of Torino at only 22, Mihajlovic’s answer was exemplary: “To wake up at 4.00 AM to start working at 6.00, and still struggle to make ends meet – this is what is not easy. To be the captain of Torino at 22 is a pleasure and an honor, and Benassi must be happy about that (…) because he’s a lucky person like all of us who do this job.” 

Mihajlovic also had a coaching experience at Milan, which ended with his sacking after less than one season, but during which he had the merit of making a 16-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma debut, turning him into the Rossoneri starting goalkeeper. Once again, he had had the courage of believing in a promising young kid – just like 23 years earlier at Roma.

Sinisa Mihajlovic’s press conference during his stint as Torino’s manager were among the most memorable: From Daniele Baselli to Marco Benassi, the Serbian coach wouldn’t go easy on any of his players… (Photo: Fabio Ferrari / LaPresse)

The rest is a recent story. Sinisa Mihajlovic was called at Bologna’s deathbed in January 2019, with the club struggling under the tenure of Filippo Inzaghi, and second to last in Serie A with only 14 points. He managed to save the Rossoblu collecting an impressive 30 points in the remaining 17 games and was obviously confirmed for the upcoming season.

As of now, he is still the coach of Bologna. He decided to keep command of the ship despite the therapy he will need to undergo. The history of football features many cases of managers who kept doing their job despite being hit by a disease. Think of Oscar Washington Tabarez, El Maestro with a crutch, who led Uruguay during World Cup 2018 in defiance of the Guillain-Barre syndrome.

I can’t wait to go to the hospital,” Sinisa Mihajlovic said at the end of the press conference on Saturday. ”The sooner I start treatment, the sooner I finish it.”

The look he had in his eyes was the same as whenever he prepared to take a free-kick, knowing in advance what the outcome was going to be.

Leave a Reply