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Offsides, Part 2

January 24, 2013 | by

Jelena Tomašević, Joy of Life, 2006, mixed media, 22.3 in. x 33.2 in. © conrads duesseldorf.

This is the second installment of a multiple-part post. Read part 1 here.

Like Savićević, the Croatian Zlatko Kranjčar, fifty-six, had been a successful, offensive-minded player in his day, and one who understood the importance of international soccer. Nearing the end of his career in 1990 at the age of thirty-four, Kranjčar captained Croatia’s first national game of its post-Yugoslavia era. As a coach he led the Croatian national team into the 2006 World Cup. He had experience, and a lot of it. When Savićević hired him in 2010 as Montenegro’s new manager, it was Kranjcar’s eighteenth year of coaching and his twentieth job.

Also like Savićević, Kranjčar had historically favored an attacking style of play, one that resembled the Yugoslavian teams of Montenegro’s past. “The former Yugoslav players have the reputation as the Brazilians of Europe,” said soccer journalist and Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper. At first glance, the Montenegro team appeared to be no different. Its two star players were strikers: Vučinić, the team captain, and Stevan Jovetić, who also plays in Italy, for Fiorentina.

“Montenegro seems to produce very technical players, and if you look at the players in the national side they follow that similar pattern,” said Jonathan Wilson, the author of Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football. “Savićević would be the great Montenegrin player. Vučinić and Jovetić are not exactly the same player, but they’re in that mold.”

I reached Kranjčar by phone, after he had just finished eating lunch in Isfahan, Iran, where he currently coaches the defending Iran Premier League champion, Sepahan. He spoke through a translator, and, in keeping with the style of an outspoken, fiery manager, his voice at times reached such high decibels that he sounded in the foreground of our connection rather than the background. I asked him how he approached the game strategically with the Montenegro team he had inherited.

“We had to become more organized,” he said. “But it didn’t mean that was sufficient. We had to attack, too. Our style of play was to try to surprise the opponent. You see that they’re in an offensive formation, you let them set up that way, and then you respond with an offensive counterattack.”

“The temptation is just to play to their strengths,” Wilson said. “What Kranjčar did was to create that defensive base first. Which was exactly what they needed.”

Under Kranjčar, Montenegro won its first three matches of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, against Wales, Bulgaria, and Switzerland (when Vucinic removed his shorts), by the score of 1-0, and then it drew 0-0 with England at Wembley Stadium, where the attendance was one-eighth of Montenegro’s population. A team never known for its defense had produced four shutouts in a row and, as it has done in this year’s qualification, leaped ahead of England in the group standings.

As one local journalist told me, after the England match “Zlatko Kranjčar was the most popular person in Montenegro. He convinced a group of common players that they are stars. Now no one can convince them they’re not.”

In its next two matches, though, Montenegro suffered a frustrating draw against Bulgaria in Podgorica and then an unexpected defeat to Wales. Savićević’s response was as swift and severe as it was surprising. He fired Kranjčar and promoted assistant coach Branko Brnović, a friend of Savićević’s and another star Montenegrin player in his day.

Criticism rained down on Savićević. Claims were made that he didn’t like the shift in attention from himself to Kranjčar. “Kranjčar's departure was a shocking decision for fans,” Montenegrin journalist Aleksandar Radović told the BBC at the time. “He received almost unanimous support, and there were calls for a fan boycott.”

“It’s an awkward distinction,” Wilson said. “As a player Savićević was a god and as an administrator he’s a disaster.”

In Montenegro’s first qualifying match after Kranjčar’s firing, the team drew with England once again to advance to the Euro 2012 playoff match, where it lost to the Czech Republic and was eliminated from qualification. Three days after that loss and one month after Kranjčar’s dismissal, Savićević went on television and explained why he had fired the coach. Not surprisingly, it didn’t defuse the situation. “[Kranjčar] had a problem which we tried to hide, the alcohol problem,” Savićević said.

“If you want to know the real reality, you can hear it from me, not from anyone else,” Kranjčar said from Iran, becoming so animated that the translator couldn’t stop laughing. “The real truth is that I had a conflict with Savićević. I didn’t accept some of his critiques about the players, and I told him he was more successful as a player than as the president and that he needed to be more indispensable to the national team. Probably it wasn’t appropriate for him. After this confrontation, for sure the president will ask me to leave. And I didn’t want to continue anymore.”

When I asked Savićević how involved in team decision-making he is, he started laughing. “I’m surprised by the question,” he said. “I’m the president and not the coach, and I am not involved in that matter at all. How can I ever fire one coach if I am the one who is making the decisions?”

The team’s internal drama didn’t win over the public. “People are unhappy with the way Zlatko Kranjčar was sacked,” the Vijesti reporter Mitrović said. “It was something not about the pitch, not about football.”

***

“You can freely call Milo Đukanović ‘the Duke,’” said Balša Brković of the prime minister of Montenegro and the country’s most influential political figure of the last twenty years. “It is also a linguistic joke, because Đukanović—‘Duke’—at the same time he is also the duke of Montenegro. His governing methods are pretty near and familiar with feudalism. So this ‘Duke’ name is perfect for him.”

Brković and I were sitting over coffee at a restaurant around the corner from the Vijesti offices in a neighborhood called Kruševac, the more modern area of Podgorica, with glass-walled high-rise hotels, a Max Mara, and elegant dining establishments mixed in among the communist-era concrete Lego blocks you see everywhere in the city. Brković writes a column for Vijesti called “More Than a Word,” and in it he critiques the politics and culture of Montenegro. It is the most read column of any in the country—as are his books. His 2010 novel, Paranoia in Podgorica, was a bestseller, confirming his place as Montenegro’s leading literary figure. Brković chain-smoked cigarettes as we talked, and his voice left no doubt that he’d been doing so for years. It sounded like it was coming through an incinerator. He is tall and thin with a shaved head, gray stubble, and a set of teeth that look like they could be used for a dental-school final exam.

“The first premise you must keep in mind,” Brković said through a translator, “is that the Duke and this establishment do nothing out of ideals. Everything is done pragmatically to keep themselves governing.”

Đukanović has been either prime minister or president of Montenegro for all but three years since 1991. He severed ties with Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in the late nineties, only when, Brković said, “each sparrow on the tree could see that Milošević was heading to an end.”

“Đukanović realized that the future of Montenegro is as an E.U. aspiring member,” Brković continued. “Only then did he join the circus of the independence. Now the people who were pro-independence since 1991, like me, have an issue because those ideals are not the same as the current ideals of independence, which is pretty much [to maintain] the private state of the Duke.”

Đukanović resigned as prime minister in 2010, but he remained the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro, of which the next prime minister was a member. When I spoke to Brković last fall, he said, “The Duke has partly already descended, but it’s all like false action.” As if to prove Brković’s point, in December parliament elected Đukanović to a seventh term as prime minister.

“Nothing can happen in [the political] sphere in our society without his approval,” Brković said. “That’s why I mentioned the feudalism. You can literally imagine Đukanović with his own subrulers, who are all submissive. Everybody has a part of the land and follows his orders.”

Savićević, the head of Montenegro soccer, is friendly with Đukanović. They appeared together at independence rallies. “He really was an excellent player,” Brković said of Savićević. “But here he joined the omnipresent system, and now he is the chief of soccer. And none of that could have been possible if the Duke hadn’t decided so.” (Officially, the Montenegro parliament elects the head of the soccer association every four years. In 2009, Savićević was the only candidate for the job, and he received 44 of 45 votes.)

I mention that some of Savićević’s decisions seemed to resemble what he’d described with Đukanović. “Small feudal rulers always copy big feudal rulers,” Brković said. “The Duke says to Savićević, ‘You are the duke of football,’ and then he acts as if it’s his private business. So there is not an awareness of a common or a joint responsibility.”

Brković paused, straightened his back, and then leaned in across the table. “Savićević and I are of the same school generation,” he said. “We even attended the same classes. My mother taught him the mother tongue in elementary school.” There is a joke I’m told by the locals about Podgorica. The city is so small that if you are given only five phone numbers, from one of them you are guaranteed to get the number of the prime minister.

“A couple of months ago,” Brković continued, “Savićević met me on the street. We hugged each other, kissed each other, and he says, ‘Excellent work, my boy. You have an excellent column on Saturdays. How you kick them.’ Although he’s part of the same system! But he says this only for our ears, only so the two of us can hear that compliment. Publicly, there’s not a chance that he can say that.”

The dangers of speaking out in Montenegro, it seems, are many, and not only for the national team soccer coach. As the South East Europe Media Organisation has reported, and as Brković detailed to me, there have been repeated attacks against journalists in the country. To name a few: In 2007, the director of Vijesti was attacked by three unidentified assailants. Later that year, a radio journalist was severely beaten by men with baseball bats. In 2009, the mayor of Podgorica and his son allegedly threatened the editor of Vijesti and a photographer—“caressed my chief editor with the gun,” was how Brković said it as he turned his hand into a pistol and raked it across his cheek. In 2010, Brković and four other Vijesti journalists received letters that read, “It is over, you are next.” In 2011, Vijesti had four of its cars set on fire. Last March, one of its journalists who reports regularly on crime and corruption was beaten outside of her home.

“I’m pretty much assured that only these facts can show you a vivid picture of what the situation is for people who are criticizing this government,” Brković said.

I asked him why he was threatened. “Because of the writings,” he said. “Because of the texts. There’s no other sphere. Because of the beliefs, the thoughts, the ideas.”

***

Over the last two decades, a new wave of artists has emerged in Montenegro and helped create a new image of Montenegrin culture. The artist Jelena Tomašević was one of the first of this group to receive international recognition. In 2006, in the months leading up to the independence referendum, she had her first solo show in New York City. Her works are both playful and violent, amusing and disturbing. In one, a giant pair of pliers grips the head of a bearded man, drawing blood. Behind him, a woman takes a photograph. The yellow handle of the pliers and the red of the blood and of the photographer’s fingernails are the only colors other than black and white in the work. Svetlana Racanovic, the curator of the Serbia and Montenegro pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale, wrote that Tomašević’s images are “of the order of ‘modest trespasses’ … that penetrate unexpected places.” It is a comment that would have suited Kranjčar’s Montenegro soccer team just as well.

“In addition to the artists that had major impacts in the region,” Brković said, “sports is another feature of the booming variety of the country’s culture.” During my stay much of the talk centered around the silver medal Montenegro’s women’s handball team had won at the Olympics a month earlier and the success of the men’s basketball team, which had just beaten Serbia twice in European competition. But no sport gets more attention than soccer.

As David Winner points out in his history of Dutch soccer, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, the Netherlands—another country with a population that pales beside the European soccer giants such as Germany and Italy—first began to emerge as a success at the sport during the cultural upheaval that took place there in the sixties.

“After twenty years of peace, there were unparalleled opportunities for international cross-pollination via the new mediums of television and pop music,” Winner wrote. It extended to the soccer field as well. Forty years later, the Dutch remain one of the best teams in the world.

“That’s what the Dutch are very good at,” said the FT journalist Kuper, who is also the co-author of Soccernomics, a book which breaks down why one country succeeds in the sport where another fails. “They understand what the neighbors are doing, and they’re always learning, absorbing new knowledge from them. And that’s crucial.”

Speaking about Montenegrin society at large, Brković echoed this thought. “I want to see culture that is open, meaning one that communicates with Albanians, Serbs, everybody—in the sense that it catches the most important global influences,” he said. “Some critics frown upon me, stating that I’m much more influenced by American literature than our own. To me it’s only normal, because culture is an evolving point of communication and [that’s] the only way for it to make sense. No tradition can be given mechanically.”

“And,” he added matter-of-factly, “I am the creator of that tradition.” For all of Brković’s differences with Montenegro’s governing authorities, it struck me that Savićević could make the very same claim about the nation’s soccer team, that Đukanović could about its politics.

***

Montenegro’s biggest victory so far in this World Cup qualifying campaign came in October in Kiev against Ukraine. The team followed a wide open 2-2 draw with Poland in its opening match by employing a tactical return to Kranjčar’s style of play. It organized a defensive base, forced Ukraine to be the aggressor, and then relied on its own successful and surprising counterattacks to win the game by the Kranjčar-sanctioned scoreline 1-0.

The team received great attention locally afterward, but it didn’t overreact to the victory. “We are not celebrating that much,” said Ivan Radovic, the team’s media officer. “There are still many games to go in this campaign, and we are trying to keep our feet on the ground.”

What happens over the next several months will determine whether or not Montenegro advances to the World Cup, and what happens over the next several years will determine whether or not this squad is an anomaly or if the team is leaving behind the initial footprints that will come to mark one aspect of a national character. Either way, it’s a sport and an endeavor that is not taken lightly.

Earlier in Podgorica, at the press conference before Montenegro’s match against Poland, Vučinić, the team captain, made this clear. Montenegro didn’t need to play well, he said. It only needed to win. “I’ve spent twelve years in Italy, and I’ve learned from the Italians that it’s most important to bring home three points.” (In soccer, a win is worth three points in the standings.)

Vučinić might have learned something else, too—that the team didn’t need the distraction of his mustache with its melancholic undertones. He showed up to the press conference without it. When asked what happened to it, he smirked and said, “I shaved it.” But he’d demonstrated another important feature of an open culture: the necessity of deciding what is and isn’t worth importing.

David Gendelman is deputy research editor at Vanity Fair.

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