Ranko Popovic, the FC Pune City head coach, had to almost give up his football career owing to the violence in Pec, his home-town, during the Yugoslav Wars. His family was forced to flee the war-torn region, and the Serbian says that it was “one of the most difficult moments of my life.”
Ranko is in India not only as a mentor and coach, but to also give his players a more holistic picture on how to approach life and how to make the most of it, even in the toughest of circumstances.
What were your initial thoughts on the Indian players when you joined the Indian Super League?
I was shocked at first, but things are getting better now. When I came here, most Indian players did not even look like professional footballers. They need to realise that they are professionals and make money from football, and that they must care about their appearance. This was what I was disappointed with. Many players came with too much fat and looked like they were in the ISL for recreation. This gives the League a poor image. Even those who play recreational football in Europe look fitter!
Now, after two months, it’s completely different. We have made changes and groomed the players. The quality of players, though, is average but that’s okay because many of them are coming back from a long break. They don’t play for 3-4 months because they’re on a break, and as a coach, if you’re aware of this, then their appearance doesn’t seem so appalling. But, I must say, when you see them for the first time in your first season, it is quite a shock.
How do you see the Indian Super League’s progress over the years?
The change is evident if you compare the videos from the first season with the current season. The first season looked like some pop stars and Bollywood stars were playing against one another, but now you see something different. The League, in honesty, is fantastically organised. We may not have the highest quality of football but we are the organisation, and the functioning of the League is top notch. The Indian players are very talented and the ISL is a strong platform for them. The advantage for Indian football is that it has a big space to develop and we (coaches) must show the way. We must not just do our job as coaches here, we must extend a lot more to the players. We must show them the right way and give them something that they can use for years to come. I know how difficult it is to achieve something and I can tell you that these boys are hungry.
Given that India is such a vast country with so many different languages, how do you think this affects the team?
How many balls do we have on the pitch? One. There is only one language on the football pitch — the football language. It is a unique language and without any words you can understand your team-mate. This is what we have to learn. Your expressions on the pitch are your language. Take any top club, like Manchester City for example. Don’t they function despite having players from so many different countries? When I was in Sturm Graz (in the Austrian League), we were the champions and we played in the UEFA Champions League. We had 17 different nationals in our team of 30 players and we all spoke one language: the football language. This is the first step towards winning and reaching your goals. Everyone had the same idea but may have thought differently, but at the end of the day, we all wanted to reach the same goal.
What drew you to football?
I think my first toy as a child was a ball, and I have been playing football for as far as I can remember. I have it in my blood and honestly, football is my life. My uncle, Milosh Popovic, was a football player and he was my idol. He made a strong impression on me; he made my love for football stronger. I remember how he first taught me in the foyer of our house. I was sitting on the floor and he took a small ball and taught me how to head. I picked up the skill very quickly and heading remained one of the strong points of my game throughout.
Growing up, if there was a day when I could not play football outside, I cannot tell you how many lights I broke in my house because I would play indoors! My friends and I used the garage door as the goalpost and guess what? The door was made of glass! We broke it so many times. (laughs) My father tried his best to protect the glass and made a metal shield to protect it but we would shoot so hard that the shield would vibrate and the glass would still break!
What were the kind of facilities you had access to while growing up?
Growing up, we didn’t have a football field, we would play wherever we saw a patch of grass. We’d put two large stones or our school bags as goalposts and that was it. It was not a nice field, it was not a turf and neither did it have any grass on it. The surface was very uneven but nobody got injured. This experience helped me in my career as I never had injuries because I’d played on all kinds of surfaces.
We didn’t need to have great facilities, as back then we played with whatever we had. It goes on to show that if you have the desire and passion, and if you want to reach something, nothing can stop you.
How tough was it growing up in a country torn by violence?
I was born in Yugoslavia and spent all of my childhood there. There was no conflict during my childhood. If I could choose, I would choose the same childhood. Nobody could imagine that something like the war would happen. There were many ethnic groups and religions, but nobody asked anyone his religion. People only cared if you were a good person, nobody cared about your colour or religion.
The conflict began when I was around 25. I was not there, I was playing in Austria, but my family was there. There were terrible moments for everyone and I hope it never happens again. I must also point out that if one-third of the money used in the war was used to develop the economy of Yugoslavia before the bombing (March 1999), we would have been one of the most successful countries in the world.
What kind of an impact did the conflict have on you?
It most certainly made me stronger. I played the best football of my career when I didn’t know if my family was alive. When the NATO bombed Yugoslavia, I could not even talk to them over the phone. There was something in me, like a rebel, to show that we (Serbians) are strong and that we have the power. Football was a platform for me to vent out my feelings and get rid of the negative energy and frustration in me. When I was on the field, I was able to show the true qualities of a Serbian. I wanted to show that we are proud and strong and that you cannot defeat us. I was not in a position to pick up guns and fight against the NATO; this was my fight.
Did you ever think of going back to your country to fight the war?
There was a time when I could not reach my family for days and considered dropping my football career and returning home. I decided that if they did not leave, I would go there. I had told my family that if the situation worsens, I would come back and they took it seriously. They left our family home in Pec with whatever they could hold on to with their two hands. They didn’t even take our family photos or pictures of my grandparents and my father because they never thought that they were leaving forever. They always thought that they would go back! This was, undoubtedly, one of the most difficult moments of my life.
What was the mood within your team, Sturm Graz, at the time?
What was interesting was that there were four players from the erstwhile Yugoslavia in the team. Besides me, there were two Croats and one Slovenian. These three guys were and are my best friends. We were all from different nationalities and religions but they were all I had during those moments. We lived together and shared everything, but people similar to us were fighting and killing each other a couple of 100 kilometres away.
When I was young, I used to think that the most you can do for your country was to die for it, but now I think it is to live for your country. This is a more exciting mission than others. Yes, you can go and die, but what do you achieve? If you’re alive you can fight, you can do a lot more. By fight, I don’t mean everyone has to pick up a weapon, I’m against that. I feel it’s better to negotiate for a 1000 years than to fight a war for a year.
What kept you going through those tumultuous times?
My family was my motivation in life. My father died when I was 15, and I was the eldest child and I had to care for my family. I had to make money and take care of my mother and my brothers. When life puts you down, you have to stand up and go on. Without my father, I had to learn life on my own, and I learned it the hard way. I saw what was happening around me and that’s what shaped my character.
Many famous sportspersons have emerged from the war-ravaged region — people like Nemanja Vidic and tennis superstars Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic. What do you think made them the stars they are?
When I say to you Ana Ivanovic, what’s the first thought that comes to your mind? Her big smile. She always sports a big smile! Can you believe the stories behind her smile? This smile is symbolic, it reflects where she comes from. This is what makes them who they are.
Ivanovic used to train in an abandoned swimming pool early in the morning to escape the NATO bombings. What do you make of that?
The NATO is the most powerful organisation in the world and revolting against it makes you stronger. This was Ana’s way of saying that you cannot kill me with your bombs, that you cannot kill my spirit.
There were alarms that used to tell people to go underground during the bombings. Can you imagine what kind of adults the children who were exposed to this grew up to become? It’s things like these that made us stronger. The NATO made us stronger and made us united.
Novak, Ana and Vidic are the ones that made it big and are planetary stars today. However, there are many others who didn’t reach this level and they are also heroes. They provide inspiration and motivation to others.
I’ve told people in Serbia to not display photos of politicians in schools but to put up pictures of Novak instead. I think sports is more important than politics. Novak is a perfect example and everyone should say ‘I want to be like him’.
Do you think the current generation of Serbians have the same hunger as Novak and Ana in them?
I’m afraid not. Everything’s changing for the worse. We are living in the most technologically developed era, but we have never had such bad communication between us. Everyone is looking into their phones, and this makes me crazy. In the era of the mobile phone, we stop communicating with each other. This is what destroyed the world. Earlier, we all used to be in groups. We used to be outside and playing and regardless of how many people there were, we always played together and everyone had his place in the group. Now people stay isolated and are glued to their phone screens. This is why I am not on any social media platforms. I want to have my friends here (points to his heart). I don’t like to text. There was one instance when my sister sent me a text message and I simply replied with an “Okay”. She chided me for my reply and I said, ‘If you want something from me, then you call me and hear my voice. I don’t want to spend twice the time texting you.’ I don’t want to be enslaved by technology. I’d rather see smiles than smileys on my phone screen.
From a population of a mere 8 million, there are so many top sportspersons from Serbia. Do you think India can achieve the same?
Why is this not possible with India? You must start to educate the guys and tell them that they must not be satisfied if they score one goal, make one assist or sign one contract. That is just the beginning. The easy thing to do is to reach a certain point and say I leave now. That is cowardly. This is the time when you must start to fight and prove yourself.
Can sport help people come out of political conflicts?
Most certainly! Sport doesn’t care about religion or colour, it unites people. Not only sport, but education is a powerful tool as well. You are taught in your physical education class in school to give and take. You’re taught to give the ball when you have it and to ask for the ball when you don’t have it. This is simple and maybe the most primitive way to explain life, but it’s a very nice way.
Do you reckon sport can be used as a means to combat terrorism?
Education is everything. Violence is always aggressive and gets more attention. The best example is here, in India, with Bapu Gandhi. He said every human being is obligated to protest but not to be violent. We must speak out against the wrongdoings, but without violence and sport is one of the ways of doing that. Sport has phenomenal reach, it’s a very easy way of sending the right message. We must do this to fight together. Sport has the power to make the world a better place.
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