The link between Spanish football and the territories of the former Yugoslavia was born and culminated in a story about the war. It was inaugurated in the 1930s by Boško Petrović, a Serbian footballer who was recruited not by a team but by a side, the Republican, during the Civil War under the pseudonym Fernández García. His fall in combat aboard a Soviet fighter in the defense of Madrid, one spring afternoon in 1937, marked the beginning of a relationship that would lead to its culmination another protagonist impacted by an armed conflict. In the same city, but some eighty years later, Real Madrid Croatian Luka Modrić was crowned the best player in the world with the 2018 Ballon d’Or, leaving behind a childhood in which the Balkan war forced him to run away from home at age 6.
Between one episode and another, and also afterwards, a fruitful sporting relationship was established. In the current edition of LaLiga Santander there are 23 Bosnian, Croatian, Slovenian, Montenegrin, North Macedonian or Serbian players, the nationalities born of the socialist republic – in addition to the Kosovar, recognized by nearly a hundred countries. They are more than those that contribute powers such as Brazil or France and only behind Argentina. The figure participates in the record of production of soccer players from Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia, three of the five countries in the world that export the most professionals in relation to their number of inhabitants, according to a recent report by the International Center for Sports Studies (CIES, for its acronym in English). This is how one of the great talent factories on the planet works.
The great exodus of the nineties: from strangers to idols
Between 1990 and 1999, more than 80 players born as Yugoslavs came to LaLiga. Triple that of the previous and subsequent decade. The exodus is explained by the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the beginning of an armed conflict that lasted beyond the 1990s, but also for sporting reasons, says Álvaro González, author of several articles and interviews on the issue in magazines such as JotDown and Panenka. The disappearance of the norm that prohibited cracks locals to sign for foreign clubs before their 28th birthday and the approval of the Bosman Law in 1995 –that is, the end of the restriction on the number of players with a European passport in the squads– were equally decisive for the surnames Janković or Đukić to be made famous in Spain, says the journalist.
At first, many of them did not seem predestined to make history. Except for the million-dollar sale of Croatian midfielder Robert Prosinečki to Real Madrid in 1991, the landing of other teammates from a generation that lifted the U-20 World Cup in 1987 did not lead to big headlines. Montenegrin Petja Mijatović, a Real Madrid legend thanks to his decisive goal in the 1997 European Cup final, landed in an empty airport, with no press or fans, and was even asked at a press conference what he was playing.
Others such as Milinko Pantić, who did not play for the Yugoslav national team and arrived in Spain after passing through Greece, heard that Atlético de Madrid had brought him through an alleged kinship with the coach, his Serbian compatriot Radomir Antić. Although everything changed little that the ball began to roll. “At that time there were no social networks or videos, and coming from a minor league and at the age of 29 was not easy. At first I was a little scared, but it passed quickly, when I joined the group. I saw that he was no worse than anyone else and that he could do it very well ”, says Pantić by phone.
Said and done: the first official game and the now LaLiga ambassador debuted with a chicharro of lack, his great specialty. Hand in hand with Antić ―one of the first Yugoslavs to land in Spanish football, back in the seventies, at Real Zaragoza, and the only one who later managed Madrid, Barça and Atlético―, Pantić became the second league champion of Balkan origin, after Milan Janković in 1988, and in a myth of such magnitude that they made a bust of a Roman emperor in the mattress stadium.
He was not the only one. With a lot of character and with some touches of refined technique, according to Pantić’s definition, most of his former compatriots went from unknown to idols throughout the geography of Spanish football. From San Sebastián or Seville, where they still long for the goals of Darko Kovačević and Davor Šuker, to Vigo, where they took such affection for Vladimir Gudelj Or bosnian tank that they made him delegate of RC Celta until today after leaving fifty so many in the Galician team.
The journalist Álvaro González lived for two years in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and has interviewed several of the named protagonists. Among this group of professionals who lived with the anguish of being in danger, from a distance, the lives of family and friends recognize a common trait. “They were all of exceptional human stature, with great values. Despite the war, there were no confrontations between them and they remained friends ”.
“Defeat is never an option”
After the armed conflict, the region previously united by the flag of Yugoslavia continues to amaze the world with the number of players it produces and their enormous capacity to adapt abroad. In this regard, there are several indications and theories. Looking back, scholars Dario Brentin and Dejan Zec, authors of Sport in Socialist Yugoslavia (2019, still without a Spanish translation), highlight the role of a political system that gave physical activity ―the so-called fizkultura– a central role in schools, where a multitude of disciplines were practiced. Likewise, a large network of clubs, coaches and high-level training competitions was created, which in part is still alive today.
For their part, coaches, agents and former footballers have highlighted other factors such as resistance to adversity, education in a culture that prioritized the group over the individual, the ease of learning languages and an innate ambition for success.
Interestingly, Pantić fits each of the arguments. He defines himself as “multipurpose” and he believes that he could have devoted himself professionally to other sports such as handball, he feels nostalgia for the “solid values” that a country that no longer exists gave him, he speaks Spanish, Russian, a little English and French and keep your winning spirit intact. “Defeat is never an option. You have to fight to the last drop of blood. My classmates laughed, but we were born that way. We are very competitive ”, he says.
They are also qualities that his heirs, those who were still children when hostilities began between neighboring regions, display every weekend in LaLiga Santander. In a football that increasingly demands immediate performance, they continue to find success: from the Slovenian Jan Oblak, on his way to becoming the goalkeeper with the most Zamora trophies in history, passing through the Croatian Iván Rakitić, creator of the Cup of the UEFA that Sevilla FC won in 2014 and a collector of more than a dozen titles with FC Barcelona, up to Luka Modrić.
The 10 white, the Cruyff from the Balkans, as he was nicknamed in his youth, he is the last link in a line of fighters. Able to heal the murder of his grandfather or his four-month stay in a refugee camp, perfecting a unique style of play that was born among ruins and ashes. “It might sound weird, but I got used to the sirens pretty quickly and running to the shelter. Fear was always floating around in the environment, but we learned to live with it. […] Perhaps the most important thing is that, despite the obstacles, I had the perseverance and patience to overcome them all ”, he said in My partie, his autobiography published in 2020. Who will pick up his witness?