When President is the key player

By Zoran Pavić

Not even 20 days ago, the president of a certain country, on a public broadcaster he dislikes and appears at only due to the nature of his duties, publicly asked a basketball player to play for the national team in the Olympic Games in Paris.

“I love him very much, I respect him and his family a lot. My request to him is to respond to the coach’s call (to be in the national team). Let’s hope for the best. The Canadians, with Jamal Murray and Shai Alexander, are strong players and it will be very difficult to play against the Canadians and Americans, but if anyone can beat them, it’s us,” the president said.

“I don’t know. I have to think about it,” was all the basketball player had said so far about playing for the national team this summer. Whether he will or won’t play has been a hot topic every summer for almost ten years now. He has participated in three major competitions and has declined four times. The first “no” he gave to the coach was in 2015 for the European Championship, the summer he entered the NBA. The most recent was last year before the World Cup.

Jokić’s Tacit Agreement

Five days after an appeal from a president, a basketball player found himself in the Serbian national team heading for Paris, without making any statement. This happened after being the main topic of conversation in the country for several weeks, alongside the Srebrenica Resolution.

The day after the basketball player’s tacit “yes,” the president of a certain country saw off the national football team to the European Championship by boarding the plane to take a photo with them for Instagram. It’s somewhat unusual to see someone off in a plane; legend has it that until 1981, when a Yugoslav Air Transport (JAT) plane was hijacked in the then Titograd (today’s Podgorica), relatives were allowed to say goodbye to their loved ones in the aircraft before takeoff. This same president did it for the first time in November 2021 on a plane to Lisbon, where the same team travelled for a decisive match with the host for a place in the World Cup in Qatar.

Two days later, the president of a certain country recorded a video for his TikTok account where he was sticking pictures in a Euro 2024 album, which he said belonged to his younger son, and incidentally, he hoped for victories over the English, then the Slovenians and Danes, and later the Croats.

Of course, everybody guessed that this story was about the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and the best NBA player this season, Nikola Jokić, who was previously a signatory of a letter of support for Vučić and an important guest at his inauguration before he became MVP. And, of course, the Serbian footballers are led by coach Dragan Stojković, whom Vučić, by his own account, “personally begged to come to Serbia and take over the national team.” Naturally, no-one doubted that Stojković would agree because such things don’t happen to presidents anywhere in the world, nor to athletes.

Love and Other Demons

Aleksandar Vučić, a man who loves sports but just enough for his love to be returned multiple times over, from the start of his ascent to power in Serbia, whether as the first Deputy Prime Minister, Prime Minister, or President, has always made it clear to everyone that he is the key player, no matter the “game plan”: without him, failure is certain and the title of world champions is unreachable, as is playing in the Champions League. Wrestling moves, taekwondo kicks and heated pools for water polo players all depend on him.

From the beginning, he has been solving problems in Serbian sports, one by one, over and over again. Over ten years, his people, those he chose or approved, have been in all the important, less important, and potential positions in Serbian federations and clubs. It might have started when he stopped the decline of FC Red Star, at midnight when such declines usually occur. He temporarily appointed management, of course, all according to the Constitution, laws, and Articles of Association, and years later, the club experienced a renaissance, winning a trophy after trophy. Then he fixed FC Partizan, putting everyone in their rightful positions, but also putting them in shorter leashes. Later, he continued fixing things in the background, all according to his presidential “powers,” showing that he is omnipresent, at service to everyone, at all times. Not just ceremonially, but “truly.” That’s how we got to know the “institution” of the SNS-appointed coach in some sports.

Rewards – From Taxpayers’ Money

For over a decade, the “state” in Serbia, which has a specific name, has been arbitrarily deciding how much money to give to whom and when, tolerating tax debts or endlessly postponing their payment, forgiving debts after the bankruptcy of banks in which it had a greater or lesser stake, and giving away electricity and utilities. Back when he first sent off the team on the plane to Lisbon, Vučić, “in agreement with the Government of Serbia,” promised a victory bonus of one million dollars to those present, who together were worth around half a billion. At one time, in the Presidency of Serbia, without mentioning the Government, he promised 10 million to the footballers if they became world champions in Russia. He has been deciding on bonuses for medal winners “approximately” and “spontaneously,” with remarks like “Siniša (or Ana), make sure that is arranged (paid).” He said he would “try” to raise the bonus for each gold medal won at the Olympic Games in Paris to 100,000 euros, and if there is enough money in the state budget, he will “do his best to make it 200,000 euros.” And he knows the budget well when he gives his all. By the way, the United States, which has the highest number of Olympic medals in history, rewards gold medalists with 37,500 dollars.

Sharing Success

In one of his “sports” speeches, where he did not express an inability to combat hooliganism nor to implement the privatization of clubs, he explained why the fact that he holds the key to the treasury, from the local budgets to the National Bank, translates to such power in sports. According to an unknown survey, he claimed that 91 percent of citizens in Serbia support either FC Red Star or FC Partizan, whether it’s 52:39 or something like that, it doesn’t matter. He didn’t say it, but it was evident on his face that his dream is for those 91 percent of citizens to vote for him.

At least that percentage supports the national team and athletes in major competitions, and Vučić wants to share in the fruits of their (past) labour, in terms of popularity, “incorruptibility,” and uniqueness. Not only does he want to “take pictures” with medal winners, but he also wants to preemptively make clear how significant his (if necessary, the state’s) role in this is. At the same time, he declares that he has not attended matches and mass celebrations because he never wanted “to bask in others’ glory.” As in other public spheres, in sports, the medals bury all the misery that comes with the collapse of the foundation in many trophy-winning sports, and the lack of state presence where it is most needed—in school and mass sports.

Sports Fairy Tale

Vučić has initiated the National Stadium project at least five times so far, even visiting a sandy location in Surčin before local elections. The stadium was supposed to be an advantage that would win Serbia the bid to host the 2030 World Cup, together with Romania, Greece, and Bulgaria, which agreed in principle to that back in 2018 at some meeting in Varna. Of course, there was no bid, and there’s still no sign of the stadium, but based on what has been seen so far, Vučić’s sports fairy tale goes something like this…

In 2030, Serbia, like the co-organizers of the 2020 World Cup, will be in the EU, Belgrade Waterfront will be completed, the Kosovo issue will be resolved in favour of Serbia, and our Arab friends from Qatar will, if necessary, bring over their mobile stadiums. The citizens of Serbia only need to ensure, by voting or not voting, that Vučić is still the president of Serbia at that time, because, as with all other sports stories, that is the goal and the only thing that matters.

(Radar, 25.06.2024)


This post is also available in: Italiano

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