Rich States Poach Former Yugoslavia’s Sporting Talent

Milorad Ivanović Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb and London

Governments in the region are waking up late to the need for action to halt the flight of their future champions.

Tens of thousands of Belgraders gave a heroes’ welcome to Serbia’s tennis prodigies, Ana Ivanović, Jelena Janković and Novak Đoković, following their stunning performances at the French Open in June 2007.

Little did many know that their sporting idols might just as easily have brought joy to fans in Britain, Australia, or some other country, as all three have received lucrative offers to change citizenship. Ivanović’s father, Miroslav, says his daughter has turned down many, including one from Australia.

“Australian, American and European Union passports increase an athlete’s market value by 10 or 20 times, meaning sportspeople from these countries get incomparably more money from sponsors,” Ivanović explains. More practically, they also do away with the chore of obtaining travel visas, something not even those playing in top tournaments have been able to avoid, although a new EU regime should make things easier from next year.

“When she was young and full of ideas, she thought about taking up the citizenship of another country,” Ivanović says. “There were many offers and some too good to be true [but] she stopped thinking about changing her nationality the moment she started making a handsome living from tennis.”

In 2007, the British Lawn Tennis Association approached Novak Đoković’s parents, saying he would be able to get much more lucrative sponsorship and support playing for Britain. Đoković rejected the offer amid media frenzy in Serbia, Britain and elsewhere over the issue.

But, faced with limited chances for professional development, many other Balkan athletes have given in. Marko Pešić, son of the prominent basketball coach, Svetislav Pešić, who guided Yugoslavia to gold medals in the 2001 European and 2002 World Championship, took up German citizenship.

“Initially, I declined the offer of a German passport for patriotic reasons but I was out of the Yugoslav team’s sight and wanted to play in major international events,” he reveals. “I took my parents’ advice and fulfilled my dream by playing for Germany.”

Should I stay or should I go?

In a country still recovering from more than a decade of war and international isolation under Slobodan Milošević, plenty of Serbia’s top athletes are pondering whether to follow suit.

A straw poll of 100 athletes conducted for this report showed 54 per cent would consider it, given the chance. Thirty per cent of them said their principal motive was financial, while 18 per cent were unhappy with government policy on sports. Some 16 per cent cited visa problems, while 8 per cent believed they could achieve better results in other countries. None stated politics as a motive. The poll showed 54 per cent were neutral over whether there was a moral aspect to the question of changing nationality. Twenty-six per cent saw it as a positive move, while 20 per cent believed it was wrong.

Turning to destinations, 54 per cent said they would go to any country that offered them a good deal, 12 per cent named Italy and 5 per cent, the United States. Smaller percentages named France, Switzerland, Germany and other countries.

Jasna Bajraktarević, a psychology professor at Sarajevo University, says the poll results are hardly surprising, adding that the same level of interest in emigration among athletes is reflected in all the countries that have emerged from the former Yugoslavia. She insists that athletes who change their nationality “should under no circumstances be judged as unpatriotic”.

“Any country unable to provide its athletes with the basic prerequisites to compete is bound to face such a crisis,” she notes. The novelty of recent political arrangements in the region is another important factor in this ambivalence, she maintains: “The states that succeeded Yugoslavia are younger than most of their current athletes, so it is far from clear how much they all identify with their newly-emerged countries.”

They want to travel, for a start

One reason for changing nationality is the current rigour of visa rules, a legacy of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Though a sporting star in Serbia, Ana Ivanović still queues in front of embassies to get a visa when she travels. “She was often pressed for time and had to wait outside an embassy for her visa literally hours before the flight,” her father, Miroslav, recalls.

Hopefully, most athletes won’t face that dilemma much longer. On September 18, the EU signed visa agreements with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia that will allow certain categories of citizens easier travel arrangements. The deal, expected to come into force in January 2008, will mainly benefit athletes, students, business people and journalists. They will find it easier to get visas, and will pay only 35 euros for each one, almost half the standard cost.

Serbia’s top tennis player, Jelena Janković, has gone through similar ordeals to those of Ana Ivanović. In a recent interview with the Serbian weekly, Ilustrovana Politika, she said whenever she travelled she took no less than four Serbian passports, all bonded to one another.

“All four are full of visas, which often confuses the passport control officers who ask me how many people are travelling with me,” she recalled. “When they realise all four belong to me, they kindly ask me to find the visa for their country, as it would take them a lot of time to do so.”

Miroslav Ivanović, whose family moved to Switzerland several years ago, while retaining their Serbian citizenship, says the EU’s recent changes are not enough for the nation’s sportsmen and women. He wants Serbia’s top athletes to get diplomatic passports “as persons vastly improving the country’s international reputation”.

Sports as a family affair

Many families of sports stars in Serbia say they have had to do all the work that the state would have taken care of in a more developed country.

Tennis coach Jelena Genčić, 71, who discovered Novak Đoković, Monika Seleš and other talents, says families have had to compensate for the absence of institutional help. “If Novak’s persistent father hadn’t made so many personal sacrifices, the boy would have never become the player he is today,” Genčić claims.

The pre-eminent role taken by sporting stars’ families in Serbia brings its own problems, Genčić goes on. Some parents “can be a problem, because they see their children’s talent mainly as an opportunity to make money”, she says. “They think, ‘If my kid becomes rich, I will, too.’ Some see changing the citizenship of their kids as part of a lucrative trading deal.”

Genčić praises Đoković’s father, Srđan, for launching a campaign to build a tennis academy for Serbia – a project that is still in the planning phase. Novak Đoković explains the thinking behind it: “Jelena Janković went to the United States, Ana Ivanović went to Switzerland, while I trained in Germany and Italy... Serbia is rife with young talents and we need to build the academy to keep them here.”

He adds: “I can barely explain how we became a force to be reckoned with in tennis because there were no foundations in the country for our success. I know what Ana, Jelena and I have been through, and we all had to go abroad to make progress.”

However, matters may be changing for the better for sporting stars in Serbia, reducing their need to depend on parents, or emigrate and take up foreign citizenship.

In July, Verano Motors, one of the country’s biggest car dealers, signed a three-year sponsorship contract with Ana Ivanović, for example. The terms of the deal have remained under wraps but the company director, Jovan Šijan, describes it as the biggest sponsorship contract in Serbia’s history, saying it is aimed at keeping young talent in the country.

“Serbian companies should give young athletes an incentive to stay here,” Šijan continues. “We believe our course of action will encourage other talents to follow in Ana Ivanović’s footsteps.”

The government has joined in the campaign, and the new sports minister, Snežana Samardžić Marković, has said stemming the exodus of sporting talent is a priority.

Ana Marković, from the ministry, says the government has taken the first step by issuing a decree that obliges the state to provide successful athletes with decent remuneration. “We want to provide the best conditions for our athletes and make sure those who won honours for the country in the past are compensated,” Marković asserts. A wider bill on sports is currently being drafted, and should be debated in parliament soon.

Genčić agrees that the adoption of new legislation on sports is vital. “Working in a club is very difficult when you’ve got five or six talented players and you only have enough money to support two of them,” she says. Conditions are better today than they were, but “we lost a whole generation of 10 to 15 players over the last couple of years”.

One of those lost talents is Alex Bogdanović, the third best-ranked British player on the men’s ATP tour who moved from Belgrade to Britain aged eight and has subsequently taken out British citizenship. He pulled out of the Davis Cup in June 2007 after being asked to play against Serbia, saying it was hard to compete against his birthplace.

Genčić says wealthier countries earlier granted citizenship to raw talents but now prefer poaching established players, in whom they do not need to invest, or train. “That’s why Novak [Đoković] was offered British citizenship last year,” she explains.

The offer to Đoković was greeted with mixed feelings in Britain itself, where some asserted that making Canadian-born Greg Rusedski a British citizen had not been right. But others urged the British Tennis Association to do everything in its power to lure Đoković, a cry taken up in the US media, too. The Sun Sentinel of Florida in summer 2006 urged the British “to do whatever it takes to make Đoković one of them”.

“Give him the royal treatment: The keys to the United Kingdom. A Spice Girl. A day of ski jumping with Eddie the Eagle. A stack of books signed by JK Rowling. Whatever Đokovic desires,” it exclaimed.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye

Milan Jajčinović, a Zagreb-based analyst, says the departure of top athletes has proved a traumatic experience for their home countries in the former Yugoslavia, where athletes have gained high-profile roles as national representatives.

“They are our best diplomats,” he opines. “The basketball player Dražen Petrović and the tennis player Goran Ivanišević did more for Croatia than any amount of diplomacy. Hence the public outcry when top athletes from countries going through a painstaking period change nationality.”

Some are frightened into reversing their action by the outcry. Croatia’s Duje Draganja, a top-level swimmer and silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics, took out additional citizenship of Qatar in 2005 for frankly financial reasons, at the same time as remaining a citizen of Croatia.

“Qatar came up with terms that a professional swimmer can only dream about,” he said, defending the move in an open letter to the Croatian media in August 2005. Draganja soon changed his mind. “You can’t buy happiness with money,” he noted in a more recent press release, announcing he had cancelled the deal with Qatar.

Milan Jajčinović says Draganja probably caved in to “the pressure brought to bear on him by an outcry that he had betrayed Croatia’s national interests, and branding him as a traitor.”

Former tennis prodigy Monika Seleš experienced that kind of public wrath a decade ago. Born in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad, she took up US citizenship at the pinnacle of her career in 1994, triggering an outburst of scorn in her home country.

Đoković has since defended her move. “Monika Seleš had no choice but to leave Novi Sad for the United States due to a complete lack of professional training capacity in her hometown,” he recalled recently during the June French Open. “People were stunned when she did it but what we need to do is build a tennis academy in Serbia, so that we don’t have to become foreign nationals.”

One reason for the strength of public indignation in former Yugoslavia over athletes who take up foreign nationality is that the phenomenon is new in the region. In other countries, this is not the case, with some athletes changing their nationality as far back as the 1920s, according to Swiss expert Rafael Poli from the Neuchatel University in Switzerland. Italy lured South Americans in the 1930s, for example, some of whom helped it win World Cup soccer titles in 1934 and 1938.

The phenomenon increased after the Second World War, when France hauled in soccer players and athletes from its former colonies to boost its sporting prowess. However, the idea of athletes swapping nationality for financial reasons remained unknown in the countries of the former Communist bloc, including Yugoslavia.

“If you had asked athletes in the former Yugoslavia 30 years ago whether they considered a nationality change, they would have been utterly astounded,” Bajraktarević, of the University of Sarajevo, says. “Back in those days, players went abroad in the twilight of their careers when their country no longer needed them.”

The trend only reached the Balkans a few years ago, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, when Serbia in particular lost dozens of top-level athletes.

There is no official data on the number of Serbian athletes who have become foreign citizens, but research carried out for this report has established that at least 30 have done so since the late 1990s. The country even lost sportsmen to former Communist neighbours like Bulgaria and Hungary. Nataša Janjić won canoeing gold medals for Hungary at the Athens Olympics, for example, while Nenad Puljezović, Nikola Eklemović and Bojana Radulović joined Hungarian handball teams. Zoran Janković plays for the Bulgarian national soccer team.

In basketball, Vladimir Bogojević chose to play for Germany along with Marko Pešić, while Dušan Šakota, son of the former Serbia coach, Dragan Šakota, joined Greece’s under-21 squad.

Soccer player Danijel Bogdanović chose Malta and several other Serbian players have applied for Maltese citizenship. Handball player Arpad Šterbik now plays for Spain. Even more ironic is the case of Branimir Subašić, who has played for Azerbaijan against Serbia. Scores of players now have dual nationalities.

While rich Gulf states such as Qatar and Bahrain hand out large sums of money to foreign world-class athletes in a bid to become major sporting powers, some African countries have resorted to desperate measures to prevent the outflow of talent. In April 2005, Kenya said it would expel athletes who took up Qatari citizenship and continued to live at home.

Rafael Poli argues that while sport has traditionally been a key instrument in the building and strengthening of national identity, this concept is fast breaking down. “The staggering rise in the migration of athletes has led to a situation where the composition of a country’s national teams scarcely reflects its traditional image,” he says.

To reduce the growing confusion, FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body, ruled in March 2004 that players who change nationality may only represent their new country after two years of residence. The International Association of Athletics Federations, IAAF, in 2005 set a comparable standard of three years.

European experts argue that reform in this area is overdue. Referring to a recent European Commission White Paper on sport, Michal Krejza, head of the Commission’s Sports Unit, says: “There is a growing demand to put some order in this field. Freedom of movement is a basic human right guaranteed and supported by the Commission but some restrictions are necessary when it comes to sport”.

Washington-based migration expert Joanne van Selm argues that athletes have been over-privileged when it comes to changing nationality. “It takes 10 years or more for an average immigrant to gain [a new] citizenship in Europe and applicants are required to actually live in their adopted country,” she says. “On the other hand an athlete who has never lived in Belgium, for instance, can become a Belgian national instantly; a Moroccan immigrant can’t after working and paying tax in Belgium for many years.”

Marko Pešić acknowledges that his status as a basketball player enabled him to become a German national only two months after applying. The standard procedure takes several years. “There was a mutual interest and that was crucial,” he agrees.

It’s hard on athletes, too

Uroš Mladenović, a psychology professor at Novi Sad University, says changing nationalities can be a traumatic experience for the athletes, too.

While Marko Pešić found it easy to gain fast-track German citizenship, he claims he has missed playing for his native country. “I always resented not having the passion of Vlade Divac, Dejan Bodiroga, Predrag Danilović and other Serbian stars who played for their country,” he recalls.

“I never felt the urge to put my hand on my heart when the German national anthem was played. I am grateful for everything Germany has done for me as I’ve had a good career and made my money there but I regret never playing for my native country.”

Some athletes pay a penalty when they appear to forget where their new loyalties should lie. Croatian swimmer Mirna Jukić, who took out Austrian citizenship in 2000, fell foul of the golden rule after being spotted cheering for Croatia during a tennis match between her native country and Austria. The irate local media commented that her heart was clearly “beating for the wrong country” and some sponsors even threatened to cancel their contracts with her.

“I supported my native country but I wasn’t against Austria,” an embarrassed Jukić explains. “Those who think I came to Austria just for the money, as television images might have suggested, are entirely wrong.”

While more money, better facilities and new sporting academies can all help to slow, if not reverse, the outflow of sporting talent, Uroš Mladenović says a rebirth of national confidence is another factor that needs to be taken into account.

Serbian athletes and national teams have improved their performances, he maintains, since the recent break-up of Serbia’s uneasy “State Union” with Montenegro, because it had finally allowed them to identify themselves with their real country.

The loose confederation, the last relic of the former six-republic Yugoslavia, had failed to spark national passion, seen as a makeshift state that had passed its sell-by date.

“Every individual, especially an athlete, needs to be a part of a group,” Mladenović asserts. “The basic premise is that if my country is strong, I want to identify myself with it and my personal self-esteem motive is satisfied. Hence athletes from Germany, Britain, France and other strong countries rarely change their nationality.”

Fellow Bio


Milorad Ivanovic

Milorad Ivanovic from Belgrade, Serbia, is the deputy editor in chief of national daily Blic, for which he previously served as foreign affairs editor