Sinisa Mihajlovic: Exploring the conflicted past of a dark moon

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Mark Twain

Far be it from me to disagree with such a literary great as Mark Twain, but sometimes the moon does show its dark side. And one such “dark moon” is the former SS Lazio player Sinisa Mihajlovic.

When mentioned, his name generates instant opinion, with admiration and contempt in equal measure. Incidents such as spitting at opponents, racial abuse, and numerous physical altercations on the pitch all overshadow the fact Mihajlovic was an immensely talented footballer.

As with most people who create such a wide range of opinion, the story is never simple. The complexities of the human personality are highlighted as you look through Mihajlovic’s childhood. The polarisation of opinion is as expansive as the contrasts in Sinisa’s personality.

Mihajlovic grew up in Borovo Naselje, Croatia, to a working-class family of a Serbian father and a Croatian mother. From an early age, the contradictions in his character were evident. During school time he was exemplary, described by a former teacher as an “excellent student.” But out of school and on a football pitch, he was the complete opposite.

On the pitch he would foul, abuse and spit at players, a total contrast to his respectful mild manner off the pitch. These physical confrontations often continued after the final whistle, as the young and stubborn Mihajlovic was always prepared to back himself in any fight.

Despite the obvious flaws, he was signed by his local team NK Borovo. And after two productive seasons he grabbed the attentions of bigger clubs. A flirtation with Dinamo Zagreb in 1987 came to nothing due to outside interference — the coach of the Yugoslav under-20 national team Mirko Jozic had told Mihajlovic that he wouldn’t be picked for the forthcoming youth World Cup if he didn’t sign for Zagreb. In typical Mihajlovic style he rebelled and chose a move to Novi Sad, joining Vojvodina. Unsurprisingly, Jozic left him out of his squad and Mihajlovic watched the under-20 World Cup.

Nonetheless, he immediately made an impression in Novi Sad, earning a midfield spot and appearing in 31 league matches, scoring four goals as Vojvodina won an improbable league title. By December 1990, the 21-year-old Mihajlovic had earned a high profile move to Red Star Belgrade. This started a period of huge change and upheaval, not just for his life but also his family.

Against a backdrop of increasing ethnic tensions and impending war within the Balkan region, Red Star were enjoying one of the most successful periods in their history. They were backed by a vociferous and nationalist group of Ultras called the ‘Delije’ (the word is a derivative of a Serbian word meaning ‘brave’ or ‘hero’). The leader of this group was a man called Željko Ražnatović, better known to his followers and foes as ‘Arkan the Tiger’. As leader of the Delije, Arkan had regular access to the players and coach and he would give his views on the type of commitment required in typically robust fashion.

Eventually, Arkan met Mihajlovic and took the young player under his wing. “I met him through football, during a short period we spent a lot of time together,” Mihajlovic later said when speaking of his relationship with Arkan.

Arkan was not an ordinary Red Star fan. Not only was he leader of their Ultras, but he also had paramilitary links. This was evidenced in his highly militarised organisation of the Delije. “They are noisy and they like to joke about,” Arkan was alleged to have said, “I stopped all that in one go. I made them cut their hair, shave regularly, not drink. The way it should be.”

He made himself indispensable to the Delije too, organising ticket distribution as well as accommodation and travel to away games. Arkan and the Delije were also protagoanists in an incident that some have described as the starting point of the Croatian War of Independence: the infamous Maksimir riot of 1990, which culminated in violent clashes between the Delije and Dinamo Zagreb’s Ultras, the Bad Blue Boys.

As the Yugoslav wars exploded, Arkan and his Ultras had now become Arkan and his Tigers. Some of his soldiers wore the Red Star badge sown onto their uniforms and they developed a formidable reputation, a reputation only enhanced by their role in the infamous incident that became known as the ‘Hospital Massacre’, a macabre chapter in the Yugoslav conflict.

Between August and November of 1991, Serbian forces attacked Vukovar, close to the town of Borovo, Mihajlovic’s birthplace. An artillery bombardment preceded an invasion of forces including Arkan’s Tigers, forcing the Croatian occupiers to surrender. Following the town’s fall, the Serbs took control of the local hospital and the personnel inside, which included wounded Croatian soldiers as well as hospital staff and civilian patients. Promises of safe evacuation to the Croatian government and the Red Cross were broken. The occupants of the hospital were forced out of a rear entrance onto buses as officials were barred from entering the hospital via the front entrance. They were taken to a farm outside Vukovar and some 300 people were executed and dumped in a mass grave.

Once Serbian forces had taken Vukovar they went from house to house seeking non-Serbs to carry out acts of retribution. But Arkan reverted back to his Red Star fan persona once in Vukovar. His fondness for Mihajlovic had not diminished and Arkan intervened to ensure that the footballer’s parents were kept safe and then smuggled them over the border into Serbia and on to Belgrade for their safety. Arkan also saved Mihajlovic’s uncle — who was an officer in the Croatian army — from certain death after ensuring he was not executed despite his capture. An unbreakable bond between footballer and war criminal had been formed.

Against this background of unrest, the greatest moment in Red Star’s history arrived in 1991 in southern Italy. Playing French side Marseille in the European Cup final in Bari’s Stadio San Nicola, Mihajlovic and his team-mates won on penalties to become the first Yugoslavian club to win the competition. Following up this success, they beat Chilean side Colo Colo 3-0 in the intercontinental Cup final.

Mihajlovic and his team-mates’ success had drawn attention from some of the biggest clubs in Europe, and in 1992 he signed for Roma. There, he had his first experience playing as a defender. Operating at left-back for the capital club was an experience Sinisa later described as “the two worst seasons of my entire career.” Despite having no European football to distract them, Roma flopped in Serie A.

In the summer of 1994, a fresh challenge arrived in the form of Sampdoria under the tutelage of Sven-Goran Eriksson. In Liguria, Sinisa was reunited with former Red Star teammate Vladimir Jugović.  Despite this, he endured a trophy-less four seasons before the move that would reunite him with Eriksson and begin a winning cycle.

Eriksson had left Sampdoria to coach at Lazio and brought Mihajlovic back to the Italian capital. The club and player seemed perfectly matched; the Lazio Ultras with their renowned right-wing political sympathies, and Mihajlovic with his association with nationalist militarism. This connection was enhanced in January 2000, when Arkan the Tiger was assassinated in Belgrade.

At the time, Mihajlovic was embroiled in a controversy surrounding alleged racial abuse against Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira during a Champions League match. The Lazio man claimed he had only reacted to Vieira’s own discriminatory slur, after the Frenchman had called him a ‘gypsy shit’ referring to Mihaljovic’s Romani origins.

Shortly after, the Yugoslav international’s affiliation with Arkan landed him in hot water once again. When asked about the death of Arkan, Sinisa replied: “I will always be grateful [to him] for saving my uncles life. It’s easy to point a finger from the outside, but he defended 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.” Two weeks later, during a match against Bari at the Stadio Olimpico, the Curva Nord displayed a banner reading, “Honour to Arkan the fallen Tiger”.

The fact that Mihajlovic’s Roma past is largely ignored by the Lazio fans is testament to the impact he had at the club. Seven trophies in six seasons for the Biancocelesti, including one Scudetto and a European Cup Winners’ Cup, meant he was prevalent during the most successful period in their history. And of course, his penchant for spectacular freekicks gave the Laziali plenty to shout about.

Mihajlovic is no doubt a complex character. You could argue that he is often misunderstood, a man of certain convictions and principles, an association with war criminals and Serbian nationalism. But these actions or reactions come from a complicated background weaving an intricate story. Sometimes, his unstable behaviour could simply reflect unstable events in his past.

But all of this cannot detract from the fact that Mihajlovic was a great footballer. Regularly he is mentioned among the best exponents of a dead ball situation in the modern game, one who on his day, could use that magical left foot to outshine any bright star, let alone a dark moon.

Words by Mark Neale: @neale_mark

Mark is an Italian and Dutch football enthusiast. He writes for @GentlemanUltra and created @sempre_bari, the account for all thing FC Bari in English.