Serbia’s coach Mladen Krstajic gives a press conference at the Samara Arena in Samara on June 16, 2018 on the eve of the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Costa Rica and Serbia. / AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND
Mladen Krstajic’s footballing career was shaped by wars in the Balkans. In retirement, he has switched focus from making brandy to coaching Serbia at the World Cup.
The 44-year-old knows he has another challenge on his hands in leading the sport-mad nation’s inexperienced team in Russia.
Yugoslavia was a footballing power before its violent breakup in the 1990s, with World Cup qualifiers Serbia and Croatia picking up most of the pieces.
Arguments over how Serbia should rebuild led to last year’s dismissal of Slavo Muslin, despite him securing the team’s first qualification since 2010.
Muslin was refusing to play youngsters such as Lazio forward Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, in whom the nation of seven million is placing its hopes.
Krstajic’s approach has been more diplomatic.
“I will continue in the same vein (as Muslin) and add some of my own ideas,” he told AFP, promising to mix youth with experience.
Milinkovic-Savic, 23, has made the squad.
– Fruity passion –
Krstajic himself was born in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina, who just missed out on making this year’s tournament.
The rump states are sworn foes on the pitch, just as they were during ethnic conflicts that claimed more than 100,000 lives in southern Europe as Cold War-era order fell apart.
But early on, the bridge-building Krstajic developed a special bond with Croatia international Ivan Rakitic, the future Barcelona star.
“He is part of my family,” Rakitic told Croatia’s Vecernji List daily.
Krstajic’s whirlwind life as a footballer began with a local team before fighting forced him to flee to Serbia, where he eventually joined Partizan Belgrade.
The defender truly made his mark in Germany, becoming captain of Schalke 04 after initially joining Werder Bremen.
He retired in 2011. But even before then, Krstajic had decided to start bottling rakia, a fruit brandy popular all across the Balkans.
His distillery — formed in 2007 and using pears, apples, apricots, plums and quines from his own orchard — is called Hubert, which is another name built on ties between nations in dire straits.
“Before 1945, it was inhabited by Germans and the French,” Krstajic’s told Serbia’s Vecernje Novosti newspaper.
“I like this type of work,” he said of distilling.
Whether his team will be toasting rakia in celebration or downing it to drown out the tears will be determined by a Group E campaign that begins Sunday against Costa Rica.
Krstajic will hope for a fast start. Serbia play a crucial game against Switzerland on June 22 before wrapping things up on June 27 against five-time champions Brazil.