“I respect the illness. I cannot wait to go to hospital and start the fight. I have no doubts I will win this battle.”
These were the words from Sinisa Mihajlovic as he revealed to the Press that he had been diagnosed with leukaemia. The news was shocking, not just for followers of Serie A, but for followers of football. Images of him scoring free kicks for Sampdoria and Lazio in particular live long in the memory. He was a tough, powerful and determined player, he is the same as a Coach and it will be these characteristics that mean he will do as he says, and fight this illness head on.
We often use the word ‘tough’ when referring to footballers, when they don’t shy from a tackle. When it comes to Mihajlovic however, he is the real deal. A product of the Balkan wars in the early 90s, his hometown of Borovo Naseljie saw the full horrors of the conflict and he has taken much of this into later life, as would be expected. With a Serbian Father and a Croatian mother, things were complicated, but he ended up playing for Red Star Belgrade with Crvena Zvezda, winning the European Cup in his first season.
This mental and physical toughness and his opinions have often stirred up debate. From his battle with Igor Stimac in the Yugoslav Cup Final (both were sent off) and his bitter rivalry ever since, to his friendship with ‘Arkan the Tiger’, he has never been far from controversy. In some respect this has caused him problems in his career, but it has also been the mould for one of the most tenacious players to have graced Serie A.
Mihajlovic arrived in Italy in 1992 and played for Roma, Sampdoria, Lazio and Inter. The choice of clubs says a lot in itself, as throughout all his time in Italy you could see the combative Sinisa involved in the Derby Della Capitale, The Derby Della Lanterna and The Derby Della Madonnina. This was a man born for the big occasion and who, when things were not going well, would rally the troops, being the man everyone wanted to play with and not against.
This was not to say that there was no element of finesse from him. His range of passing was superb and he has gone down in Serie A history for being a free kick specialist. Back in Borovo, he has recalled how his father continually had to replace the barn gate as little Sinisa has again broken it practicing his free kicks. He holds (with Andrea Pirlo) the Serie A record for the most free kicks, 28, and is also (alongside Beppe Signori) one of only two to have scored a hat-trick of set plays.
His managerial career has been embraced with as much enthusiasm and as much determination as anything else in his life and spells at Catania, Fiorentina, Sampdoria, Milan, Torino and now Bologna have brought a mixture of rugged and yet effective football. Even with his illness, Bologna have said that he will continue to coach.
By his own admission, when Mihajlovic was still a player, he felt the need to treat the opposition as the enemy, to make everything a warzone on the field and that meant sometimes overstepping the mark. In later years, he has managed to shake off that negativity and unnecessary aggression. Now he has a real enemy to fight and will have to call on all that old battling spirit, but he won’t be alone.
The outpouring of emotion and the tributes placed have overwhelmed Mihajlovic and by his own admission he is moved. It is a fitting show of support for a man who, whilst controversial, has given so much to football and so much to Italy. As many have said, leukaemia picked a fight with the wrong man.
Perhaps the last words on this salute to a great fighter and a great professional should come from him.
“I hope that after I've won this battle, I will be able to talk it over with all of you and look back on this period. Unfortunately, nothing was given to me in life. I had to fight for everything. I'll fight this too.”