More than football

This is the first piece I published on In Bed With Maradona


Dreaming with others is the beginning of reality, according to Dom Helder Camara. Who knows if the power of collective dreaming will be enough, for Palestine, to continue and hope to reach a berth in the 2014 World Cup. To accomplish this mission, they’ll have to come back after an away 1-0 loss to Thailand, in their first official match under the new coach, Winfried Schaafers.

It will be a deja vu for Palestine. On March 9, in fact, the clash against Thailand represented more than the first step for two minnows on the road to the qualification for the London Olympics. Forty-nine years after the Palestinian FA’s formation and 13 after its formal recognition by FIFA, that game was the first competitive international match ever played on Palestinian soil.

As it happened on Saturday, Thailand had won 1-0 at home in the first leg. As it will happen next Thursday, that match had been played at the pompously called Faisal al-Husseini stadium in Ram, named after the founder of the General Union of Palestinian students died in 2001.

The stadium is in a populated Arab suburb, north of Jerusalem, just 100m away from the West Bank barrier, used four years ago as a parking lot for Israeli tanks during its incursion to the Gaza strip. It’s a very symbolical location, given that travel restrictions for players living outside the West Bank are the main problem the team has to face. When qualification for the 2006 World Cup began, for example, only nine players had the chance to travel to Doha to face Uzbekistan. It’s emblematic of the remaining difficulties the case of the midfielder Suleiman Obied, 29, born in Gaza who hasn’t seen his family since three years.

For that historical first home clash to Thailand, Israel denied eight Gaza-based players to make the short travel to Ramallah. However, four were permitted to pass: their approval came directly from General Eitan Dagot, the highest Israeli military authority in the Palestinian territories. One of them, Abdulhamid Abuhabib scored the only goal of the match that drove Palestine to the penalty shots: in the end, Thailand won 6-5.

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What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger – Part III

The Golden age

When we were Yugoslavs, we had one of the best passports in the world, we were welcomed everywhere. Suddenly everything changed and people looked at us as if we were crazy assassins. In such moments you realize that television doesn’t always tell the truth”.

Then Zinonjic, one of the best doubles-specialist in the world, had to take upon himself a six-hour travel by van to Budapest hoping to gain a visa to go and play abroad but with no guarantee to catch it. The practice to obtain the visa to travel outside the national boarders was abolished in Serbia on December 18th 2009. “If really difficulties shape your character” Gencic said, “that period helped us a lot”.

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The first brick in the (Berlin) Wall

What happened when you feel like split in two watching the tv? It happened when Germany faced Germany” wrote Gunther Grass in 1974. He spoke about the Bruder Duell between East Germany and West Germany at the 1974 World Cup. The match that transformed Jurgen Sparwasser in a living legend.

At the 1974 World Cup, West Germany were the host nation and the main favourite for the title. The frame of the Nationalmannschaft came from Bayern Munich, recent European champions: Franz Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, the stopper Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Paul Breitner, the box-to-box midfielder Uli Hoeness, the main scorer Gerd Muller. On the other side of the Berlin Wall, stars of that level could be seen only on tv screens. In the Oberliga, the East Germany first division, the few transfers were decided by the Ministry of Sport. Officially, players were amateur, although they were secretly recognized bonuses, particularly in case of a positive results against Dinamo Berlino, the Stasi team.

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Italian football on the verge of a revolution

You say you want a revolution, you tell me that it’s evolution. Beatles weren’t thinking to Thomas Di Benedetto but their words fit him and his hope to change the world of Italian football. The 61 years-old tycoon, president of the Boston International Group and partner partner in New England Sports Ventures, who own the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool, became the 21st president of the AS Roma. With his partners, Di Benedetto bought the 67% shares, investing € 70m (60 for the club, 6 for the “Fulvio Bernardini sports centre where the club trains and 4 for the brand).

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What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger – Part II

Pride (in the name of hate)
The war exploded on June 25, 1991 when Slovenia declared its independence but there had already been different sign of the forthcoming violence and war. In 1990, in the first multi-party elections since more than 50 years, in Croatia Franjo Tudjman triumphed. An year before he had founded the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a nationalist movement affirming Croatian values based on Catholicism blended with historical and cultural traditions. Its aim was to gain national independence and to establish a Croatian nation-state. His party got around 60% seats in the Croatian Parliament.  So, Croatia started along with Slovenia to promote the transformation of Yugoslavia into a confederation, a reform strongly opposed by Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian nationalistic leader.

A week later, on May 13, at the Maksimir Stadium Dinamo Zagabria faced Red Star Belgrade. Dinamo’s fans, called the Bad Blue Boys from the 1983 Seam Penn movie Bad Boys, agreed to build a statue outside of the stadium representing a group of soldiers. On its plith is written: “To the fans of this club who started the war with Serbia at this ground on 13 May 1990”. Founded in 1986, they soon developed a reputation as violent hooligans. “Numerous blows were given and taken; to prove one’s love for the club, they didn’t mind. Dinamo was and still is something sacred” they wrote on their website.

BBB, strongly supportive of the new president, fought against 3,000 Red Star hooligans, the Delije, a nationalistic group guided by Zeljko Raznatovic, Arkan, who later picked many of these fans to form the paramilitary group of the Tigers, involved in more than one operation of ethnic cleansing.

Violence was unavoidable

Police, largely Serbian, attacked the Dinamo fans with truncheons and tear gas. Ultras reacted and the riot passed from the stand onto the pitch. Zvonimir Boban kicked a policeman and immediately became a national hero despite the Yugoslavian federation suspended him for 9 months (then reduced to 4) and forced him not to play the 1990 World Cup, the last football event where a Yugoslavian national team was present.

In 1990 the fraternal friendship between the basketball stars Vlade Divac, playing as a center for the Los Angeles Lakers and adored by Magic Johnson, and Drazen Petrovic, the Mozart of basketball who played for the New Jersey Nets. Serbian the former, Croat the latter, the two almost come to blows after the 1990 World Championships final won by Yugoslavia. During the celebrations, a supporter with a Croatian flag entered onto the pitch but Divac took it and threw it away because, he said, we’re Yugoslavia, not Serbia or Croatia.

While some people understood and agreed with him, many in Croazia started to hate Divac, like Toni Kukoc, Croatian star shining at the Chicago Bulls. In 1995, in Athens, Yugoslavia (reduced to Serbia and Montenegro) won the gold medal at the World Championships; Croatia, without Petrovic, dead in a car accident two years earlier, arrived third and abandoned the prize ceremony.

Sport and politics have always had an indissoluble tie in Yugoslavia, the more during those years of war. In August 1991, after beating his Croatian friend Goran Prpic at the Us Open second round, Goran Ivanisevic announced he’s not going to play for the Yugoslavian national team in the Davis Cup semifinal against France. “There’s no reason to play for a country that doesn’t exist” he said.

So, against the new Muskateers, he left alone the old Zivojinovic and the 19-years-old debutant Srdjan Muskatirovic: France easily won 5-0. As Gencic said, after that defeat, and for a decade at least, young Serbians had just gangsters and drug traffickers as role models. But Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic, Nenad Zimonjic and Jelena Jankovic overturned that hierarchy along with Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki.

Troicki, the unexpected hero during the 2010 Davis Cup final, has Russian grandparents; his father was a lawyer, his mother worked at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade. It was thanks to her job that Troicki could have the chance to follow his dreams and fulfil his potential. In 1999, in the middle of the bloody civil war, he and his mother escaped in Hungary and from there to the United States. His father remained in Serbia to take care of his ill mother. Troicki hadn’t met his father for three years.

What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

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What doesn’t kill you, make you stronger – Part I

Novak Djokovic became the first Serbian to reach the top of the ranking after his Wimbledon triumph. He started to make the breakthough last year. He was the driveforce for the Serbian national team that won the Davis Cup. He, along with his friend Troicki, to Monica Seles and “Bobo” Zivojinovic, is the symbol of a generation of athletes capable to pass through years of war and result stronger. This is the story of the Serbian tennis. A story of pride and wars, of blood and rebirths, a struggle to make dreams come true

Serbian author Zoran T. Popovic wrote: “Serbians dreamt a Great Serbia, Croats a big Croatia, people from Macedonia dreamt a Big Macedonia. Yugoslavia was the country of dreams”. Serbian dream, to tell the truth, started with a defeat, in the Kosovo Polje battle in 1389. Prince Lazar, who commanded the Yugoslavian army and perished in the battlefield, is venerated as a saint in the Serbian Orthodox Church and a hero in Serbian epic poetry.

Sports made the Serbian dream come true. Since the first Balkan war, Serbia (until 2006 joined with Montenegro) won two basketball World Championships (in 1995 and 2002) and an European Championships (in 2001). They won the volley continental title in 2001 and two World Championships bronze medals in 2005 and 2007. But the national sport, although without any international success apart from two European Championship finals lost to USSR in 1960 and Italy in 1968, remains football. But tennis, thanks mostly to Novak Djokovic who drove Serbia to their first Davis Cup triumph in 2010 and won Wimbledon becoming the first Serbian capable to reach the top of the world ranking, is contesting the record.

Origins of tennis in Serbia

Despite they could be considered no more than privileged parvenues in the tennis élite, people of Serbia play tennis at least since 1893. After the I World War, Sumadija Clubs, BOB and Belgrade tennis club were born. Tennis was also played at the Central Bank, in the Novi Sad club, founded in 1922 and at Vrsac, where the local club opened in 1924.

Yugoslavian team played his first Davis Cup tie in 1927, against India, and in Belgrade they clinched their first victory ever: 5-0 to Sweden in 1930. In 1939 Yugoslavia won the Europe Zone tournament but lost to Australia in the Inter-Zonal final. That side, however, was formed only by Croatian players. Against Germany, in the European Zone final, Yugoslavia lined Dragutin Mitic, Franko Puncec and Franjo Kukuljevic. They’re all from Croatia and Mitic and Puncec are, respectively, the second and third more present player behind another Croat, the legendary Josip Palada. In the period 1927-1992, before the independence, the first Serbian player in this special ranking is the actual Serbia Federation president Slobodan “Bobo” Zivojinovic.

For many decades, under Tito, in the Third-worldist Yugoslavia, tennis was considered a sport for wealthy people and many tennis players had more than a problem. It was Zivojinovic to bring Serbia to the peak of tennis. In 1985 he defeated Mats Wilander at the Wimbledon first round and John McEnroe at the Australian Open quarter-finals, conquering his first ever Grand Slam semifinal. He won 6-0 in the fifth set and McEnroe, after the match, shouted at him: “You are going to pay for this. I mean it”.

He defeated also Pat Cash in the Davis Cup and in 1986, in Belgrade, he added to his tally the sculps of Henri Leconte and Yannick Noah. That year he reached the Wimbledon semis after victories over Youl, Wostenholme, Flach, Van Rensburg and Krishan before surrendering to Ivan Lendl 62 67 63 67 64. Against Germany, in Davis Cup, Zivojinovic is the partner, in the doubles, of the debutant Croat Goran Ivanisevic. His father, Srdjan, presented Goran to “Bobo”.

The two went two sets ahead, wasted a match point at 8-7 in the fourth but lost 9-7 in the fifth set.

But 1987 is, above all, the year of Superbrat’s revenge against Zivojinovic. It all happened on September 5th, 1987. It was one of the  100 greatest days in New York sports, to quote the title of a book by Stuart Miller. In the US Open third round, McEnroe won the first set 6-4 and served for the second at 5-3. He was broken and quarreled with the umpire, Richard Ings for a “fine job of officiating” and harshly asked: “What match are you watching?”. Ings gave him a warning for unsportsmanship, McEnroe cursed him, and the chair umpire punished him with a point penalty for verbal abuse, giving Zivojinovic a 15-0 lead in the 10th game. Zivojinovic held for 5-5, then newly broke to go leading 6-5. At the next change of ends McEnroe again swore at the umpire, cursed out a CBS cameraman and his microphone, then asked Ings, “What are you going to do now, give me a game penalty and default me?”. That’s exactly what Ings did awarding the set, 7-5, to Zivojinovic. McEnroe lost the set following his outburst in a tiebreaker. But He had history on his side (he was 9-0 in five-setters at the Us Open) and five times he had come back from a 1-2 deficit. At the end of the day. McEnroe won 6-3 in the fifth.

During the years between the end of the Eighties and the beginning of the Nineties, a Novi-Sad born child-prodigy with Hungarian parents dominated the WTA Tour. The first “responsible” for her success was Jelena Gencic, a living sports institution in Serbia. A former handball international, she was the keeper of the Yugoslavian team at the 1984 Olympics, she decided to teach tennis in Belgrade. Even nowadays she works with an old Prince Sinergy and the bag she received in Los Angeles more than 25 years ago.

She’s not used to talk in vain. Just twice in her career she has said “You’ve something, you’re special” to a kid. The last time she was talking about Novak Djokovic: it’s due to her the shift that defined his career, the passage from a one-handed to a double-handed backhand. The first time ever she was referring to that Serbian child born to Hungarian parents: Monica Seles.

She dominated the Tour for six years. Seles won her first Grand Slam title in 1990, at the Roland Garros: she defeated Steffi Graf 7-6 6-4 in the title match saving four set points in the first set tiebreak and become, at the age of 16 years and 6 months, the youngest French Open titlist. She finished he year ranked World n.2 after her success at the Virginia Slam Championships. She outpowered Gabriela Sabatini 6-4 5-7 3-6 6-4 6-2 in the first women’s singles match played on the best-of-five distance since the 1901 United States Nationals.

In 1991 she won three majors (Australian Open, winning agains Jana Novotna, Roland Garros, defeating Arantxa Sanchez and Us Open beating Martina Navratilova) and withdraw from Wimbledon because of an injury. She then triumphed at the Championships and closed the year at the top of the ranking.

In 1992 she successfully defended the three Grand Slam titles but lost to Steffi Graf (6-2 6-1) in the Wimbledon final. From January 1991 to April 1993, when she was stabbed, she played 34 tournaments reaching 33 finals with 22 victories. She had an astonishing 55-1 record in Grand Slam events. In her first four years as a pro, her record was 231-25.

But something was changing in Yugoslavia. National pride was bursting, peoples were entrapped in the bloodiest European conflict since the Second World War. As it often happened, sports dropped a hint of what would have happened before rifles and bombs. 

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Agassi: image was everything

“There is no comparing anyone to Andre Agassi, at least not with his permission. He is very much his own invention and amalgamation” wrote Robin Finn on the New York Times the day before the 1990 Roland Garros Final. For the last time, Andre Agassi showed the blond hairdo he kind of shared with Dweezil Zappa. It was the last masquerade of a rebel apparently without any other cause than finding a way to deal with his own contraddictions.

Reaction is the keyword to define Agassi’s career. His father, Mike, considered him his last chance, his last hope. Immigrated from Iran after competing in the 1948 ans 1952 Olympics for the Iranian boxing team, Mike tied a ball to a string over Andre’s crib and, when his son managed to sit in a high chair, he taped half a ping-pong paddle to his wrist and threw balloons to him. A few years later, he led Andre training in the hardcourt he had built in the backyard against a combination of machines Andre was used to call “the Dragon”.

Mike Agassi believed in maths, as Andre explains in his well-known and discussed autobiography, Open: “he said if I hit 2500 balls a day, I’ll hit 17,500 a week and almost a million a year. And a kid who hits 1 million balls a year is unbeatable”.

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