Mirko Vučinić showed up to the first day of soccer season this summer with a mustache. It was a thin one, and it made him look like a character out of an Italian neorealist homage to the dignity of the working class—handsome and proud, and heroic because ultimately he is up against forces that are far too great for him to succeed. Vučinić is the starting striker for Juventus, Italy’s Serie A defending champion. To date, though, he may be most famous for dropping his shorts, placing them on his head, and running around the pitch in his underwear after he scored a goal in an international match against Switzerland in 2010. You likely wouldn’t see that in an Italian neorealist film. But that’s all right, because Vučinić isn’t Italian. He’s Montenegrin, and Montenegro has a story of its own.
The country, once a part of the former Yugoslavia, is one of the tiniest in all of Europe. Incredibly, its population of 657,000—about the size of Baltimore’s—is the same as the number of registered soccer players in Poland, Montenegro’s first opponent in its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, which began in September. In order to automatically qualify for the World Cup, Montenegro has to finish first in its group of six, or make it to a playoff match and finish second. The team’s other opponents in the group include Ukraine, whose population of forty-five million is a mere seventy times larger than Montenegro’s, and England, whose team is ranked sixth in the world and is the group favorite.
In addition to its undersized population, Montenegro is also short on experience. It’s been in existence as an independent nation for less than seven years and taken part in only two other qualifying campaigns. In its first, for the 2010 World Cup, it won one match out of ten and finished fifth in a group of six. Yet when Montenegro takes the field in March for its next pair of games, against Moldova and England, it will be at the top of the standings. If it can qualify for the World Cup, it will be a historic achievement, and one of particular importance for a soccer team faced with the same daunting task as the nation: to try to define exactly who it is. Perhaps not surprising in a country so small and with stakes so large, the team’s attempts so far have featured contradiction and controversy—and have come to mirror those made by the country itself.
Every national team soccer match in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, begins the same way, with the fans on the upper deck of the stadium flying a giant green flag bearing the face of the Montenegrin war hero Krsto Zrnov Popović. Popović led an uprising against Serbian control in 1919 and fought against invading fascist forces during World War II. Yet, like most every popular figure in Montenegro, his story isn’t as simple as it first appears. For a time in between those two struggles, Popović was allied with the region’s occupying forces.
The image of the resilient warrior, though, is not a new one for Montenegro. Its people have had it for centuries. In 1877, Alfred, Lord Tennyson even wrote a poem about the region that celebrated just that: “O smallest among peoples! / rough rock-throne / Of Freedom! warriors beating back the swarm / Of Turkish Islam for five hundred years, / Great Tsernogora!” (“Tsernogora” is the phonetic pronunciation of the country’s name in Montenegrin.)
To learn more about this national character trait, I spoke with the president of the Montenegro soccer association, Dejan Savićević, a man well known for having been involved in his fair share of scrapes. Savićević, forty-six, is a soccer legend, and not only in Montenegro. In 1991, he was second in voting for the Ballon d’Or, the award given to Europe’s best soccer player, and he was a favorite of Silvio Berlusconi’s at AC Milan in the midnineties. “He is like Michael Jordan for the United States,” said Danilo Mitrović, a soccer reporter for Vijesti, one of Montenegro’s daily newspapers. He added, “He is really the boss of Montenegro football. He decides everything.”
This, it turns out, would be mentioned to me again and again during the week I spent in Podgorica, and Savićević is happy to remind you of it, too. He once provocatively claimed to know of match-fixing in his country’s soccer league but refused to name anyone involved because, he said, he didn’t want to end up like Bula Bulatović, a soccer official who was shot and killed in 2004 allegedly because of his attempts to outlaw the practice. Ever since Savićević declared support for Montenegrin independence, he has exchanged bitter back-and-forths with the pro-Serbian newspaper Dan, the discourse reaching heights the New York Post could only dream of. After Dan once called him a cocaine fiend, Savićević went on television and challenged the paper to a wager of millions of euros that he would pass any drug test. In 2011 he twice refused the paper press credentials for national team matches.
When it came time for me to interview the self-anointed “first man of Montenegrin football,” I had to wait around the team’s training facility for close to an hour, but I learned that’s what everyone does with Savićević. When you speak to him, you do it on his clock, not yours. The two of us met at dusk on a narrow stretch of parking lot pavement. Savićević wore a short-sleeved polo shirt and plaid shorts and had a head of curly, graying hair and an end-of-summer tan. The temperature had fallen below ninety degrees for the first time all day, and the sun had an unnatural pink glow to it that the team’s media officer described as looking like “a bad Photoshop job.” It hadn’t rained in Podgorica in something like 140 days, and fires had been burning in the area all week. They created a smoky haze that you could see spread across the sky during the day. That morning the weather app on my phone had described the conditions as “dreary.”
When I asked Savićević, through a translator, how he accounted for the marked improvement of the team from the 2010 World Cup qualification process to the current squad, he paused, took a deep breath, and then began to detail all the soccer injustices the team had suffered over the course of that first qualifying campaign. “We had a one goal lead against Bulgaria in the very first game until the third minute of injury time, and Bulgaria managed to get an equalizer in the very last second of the game from a foul that didn’t really exist,” he said. “We had six draws in that qualifying campaign, and from those six draws in at least half of the games we were closer to winning them than our opponents. In Georgia we played a zero-zero draw…”
He rattled off excuses like a man used to success who is yet to come to terms with his disappointment. You got the sense that deep down he had a simpler answer. He spoke with the passion, confidence, and authority of someone who knew that whatever good qualities Montenegro’s opponents brought to the pitch, perhaps none was greater than good timing. If they had to face Montenegro with him when he was at the peak of his career, his demeanor suggested, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
National soccer teams don’t materialize out of thin air, and countries don’t, either. Montenegro was one of the six republics of Yugoslavia before the latter violently split apart in 1991, the year civil war broke out and led to the deaths of more than two hundred thousand people and the displacement of millions more from their homes. Over the next two years, four of those republics declared independence: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzogovina, and Macedonia. Montenegro’s prime minister (then and now), Milo Đukanović, was an ally of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, who at the time of his death in 2006 was standing trial at The Hague on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. When Yugoslavia collapsed in 1992, Montenegro formed a new country with Serbia, renamed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 2003, as a consequence of the continued movement toward Montenegrin independence, the name was changed to Serbia and Montenegro. And on May 21, 2006, the republic of Montenegro voted, by the narrowest of margins, for Montenegrin independence. Montenegro and Serbia separated peacefully, yet there remains a large pro-Serbian population in Montenegro.
The road since independence hasn’t been without its share of challenges. In December 2008, Montenegro applied for membership to the European Union. In last year’s progress report on EU accession negotiations, the European Commission said that Montenegro needed “to further develop a track record … in particular with respect to [combating] high-level corruption and organised crime.” That would have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Montenegrin politics. In 2009, during Milo Đukanović’s sixth term as prime minister, an Italian court charged that for nine years bookending the turn of the century, Đukanović ran a highly profitable tobacco smuggling business. Due to diplomatic immunity as prime minister, he was eventually dropped from the indictment.
The Montenegro soccer bureaucracy has had its own set of controversies. As its boss, Savićević seems to have a knack for generating headline-making news, but no story gained more attention than one that came near the end of the team’s second qualifying campaign.
“The best decision Savićević has made was to hire Zlatko Kranjčar,” said the Vijesti reporter Mitrović of the man who would come to be largely credited with Montenegro’s soccer success. “The worst decision he made was to sack Kranjčar.”
David Gendelman is deputy research editor at Vanity Fair.