“Now tell them to bring me my money,” a smiling Sinisa Mihajlovic shouted at Sampdoria goalkeeper Vincenzo Fiorillo. Two of his senior players, captain Angelo Palombo and Enzo Maresca had challenged their coach to a free-kick contest after training. “If you miss, you owe us €50 each, Mister,” they said.
It was a bet Palombo and Maresca were never going to win even after scoring from their first attempts. Both their next efforts flew over the bar. Mihajlovic would make no such mistake. Before applying the coup de grace, he took off his tracksuit top, threw his stopwatch to the ground just to show he meant business, and then curled another net-rippling shot beyond Fiorillo.
Grazie mille. It was easy money. Mihajlovic makes a compelling case to be considered, along with Juninho Pernambucano, the best free-kick taker of all-time. “You should update the scoreboard before I take them,” Mihajlovic used to joke. He claims to have scored one from “around 70 yards” when playing for Vojvodina in Novi Sad. Later while at Red Star, the University of Belgrade sent a group of scientists to study his technique for a few days. Men in white coats interviewed him, observed him and measured a variety of things with “strange instruments.” Afterwards, they were still no closer to understanding how he did what he did.
At Lazio, he struck a hat-trick of free-kicks against Samp in a 5-2 win and by the time he retired at Inter Milan he had scored 28 of them, a Serie A record. Andrea Pirlo is on 24. This was brought up a week after Palombo and Maresca found themselves €50 out of pocket when Samp travelled to Turin to face Juventus. “Sportingly I hope he doesn’t manage to overtake me,” Mihajlovic told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He’s very good, but if we count the ones I scored in Yugoslavia too, Andrea would have to be born again to catch me.”
Asked if they should organise a challenge to decide who’s best, he replied: “I’m up for it. Ten free-kicks each. We’ll see who scores the most. Like pistoleri, gunslingers. I’ll let him choose the ball and the goalkeeper.”
“I’m up for it. Ten free-kicks each. We’ll see who scores the most. Like pistoleri, gunslingers. I’ll let him choose the ball and the goalkeeper.”
For now, it’ll have to wait. Appointed by Samp back in the middle of November, Mihajlovic was given the brief of rescuing the club from relegation. He could have stayed on as coach of Serbia. Their FA had offered Mihajlovic a two and a half year extension even though he had failed to qualify his country for the 2014 World Cup. To turn it down for a seven-month contract at Samp spoke of how much the club means to him.
“When I arrived here as a player in 1994, I was going through a very difficult time on a professional level,” Mihajlovic explained. “If I am where I am today, I owe it to the four years I spent with the blucerchiata shirt. So when the president Edoardo Garrone called me, the only question I asked was how I could help Samp.”
His unveiling came shortly before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. Throughout his press conference Mihajlovic referenced the charismatic former US president. He adapted JFK’s 1961 inaugural address to: “Ask not what your club can do for you, but what you can do for your club.” For Ich bin ein Berliner, he said: “Io sono Sampdoriano.” I am Sampdorian. Then added: “Winners find a way. Losers find excuses.”
The Samp team he inherited were losers. They’d suffered three straight defeats in Serie A and were in the relegation zone.
Mihajlovic was a popular choice, the man to turn it around. Just ask an early visitor to Samp’s leafy Bogliasco training ground soon after his return, Claudio Bosotin, the founder of the Ultra Blucerchiati, Samp’s former kitman and personal chauffeur to their mutual friend Roberto Mancini during the years of the Sampd’oro or Golden Samp. “He’s what we need,” Bosotin told local paper Il Secolo XIX. “A leader who’ll make himself felt and give a shock to those youngsters and tearaways who I don’t know who [at the club] bought.”
Memories of Mihajlovic’s last job in Italy at Fiorentina, however, tempered the optimism. It had ended in failure. Unlike at Samp where he had a history and was once an idol, he’d never been accepted by the fans in Florence. Replacing Cesare Prandelli with him was a curious choice by Fiorentina as you perhaps couldn’t have found two more different personalities. One was considered on the light side of the force, a Jedi knight. The other on the dark side, a Sith. One was a paternalistic, arm around the shoulder kind of coach the other a combustible, kick arse, take no prisoners type. But it had worked out for his old mucker Mancini there.
Still the atmosphere around Fiorentina was poisonous at the time of Mihajlovic’s tenure. The owners were disillusioned that Prandelli had left them and that the council had not green-lit their plans to refurbish the ground. They had withdrawn and scaled back their investment leading to protests by the fans. The team was a mix of players who’d either lost their hunger or been spoilt. Steven Jovetic was out for a year. And Mihajlovic was sacked after 18 months. He made mistakes but it wasn’t all his fault. He was the wrong fit for Fiorentina, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be the right fit for someone else. Like he had been at Catania before, for instance.
If you recall they were in a situation not too dissimilar to Samp - second from bottom and troubled by relegation - when he arrived in Sicily in the winter four years ago. Not only did Mihajlovic save Catania he led them to 13th and to what at the time was their highest points total ever in Serie A. If it’s a backs against the wall, do or die job, he’s your man. And so it has proved at Samp too.
They have lost just twice since Mihajlovic assumed control. Had the season started when he took charge Samp would be joint fifth - level with Roma and Napoli. As it turns out, they’re up to 12th and have put 11 points between themselves and the drop. Unbeaten in their last three games,the filling in that panino was a tasty win in the Derby della Lanterna against Genoa. Maxi Lopez, the January signing who scored 11 goals in 17 games to keep Mihajlovic’s Catania up in the second half of the 2009-10 season, got the winner following his reunion with his old boss.
“We’ve rebuilt the village church,” Mihajlovic said. “Genoa burnt it to the ground in the reverse fixture.” It was a special moment for him. As a player Mihajlovic had played in 15 derbies in Serie A. Nine with Lazio. Four with Roma. And two with Inter. Remarkably he had never won one until now as coach of Samp. “I have worked a lot on their heads,” Mihajlovic told Il Secolo XIX. “There was a need to pick them up a bit, give them their confidence back and help them find peace of mind again.”
He has been in their shoes. “I was a player at a high level for 20 years,” he explained to La Gazzetta dello Sport, “It’s an advantage because I know what a player can think or feel in certain moments. Almost anyone is good at coaching today, the most difficult thing is the management of the group. As coach of Serbia I visited most of Europe’s top coaches: from Mourinho to Guardiola, from Klopp to Wenger, from Ferguson to Mancini. I studied their training methods, their tactics, their use of technology. But for all of them the secret is the same: man management, getting into their players’ heads, getting the best out of them. Setting the rules and ensuring they’re respected.”
Mihajlovic considers Roma's Francesco Totti as one of the top three Italian players of all time (Getty)
Unlike his predecessor Delio Rossi who had his lunch brought up to his office and liked to dine separately from the team, Mihajlovic sits at the players’ table and takes them out to Quinto, the restaurant frequented by the Sampd’oro to foster camaraderie. He wants there to be dialogue between coach and players but still remains a disciplinarian. “I grew up in the Eastern European school. In those times, Communist times, footballers were a little like soldiers, they obeyed and that was it. When I came here, I realised that players instead spoke with the manager. Today I understand if a footballer asks for an explanation, but he has to do what I ask him. Without discipline you won’t get anywhere.”
Mihajlovic’s skill is at focusing the mind, instilling a little fear and that’s what he’ll be doing ahead of Sunday night’s visit to Roma, a game you can see live on BT Sport 1 as part of the European Football Show. So strongly associated with Lazio, Mihajlovic’s time with the Giallorossi is often forgotten. Played out of position he flopped at Roma. It was only when Sven Goran Eriksson deployed him as a libero for Samp in a Coppa Italia game against Cagliari that we began to see the very best of him in Italy.
Arguably Mihajlovic’s best game for Roma was a 2-0 win at Brescia on March 28, 1993. He set up Claudio Canniggia and scored a trademark free-kick. I mention it because with a couple of minutes to go that day, Roma’s coach, the legendary Vujadin Boskov, who led Samp to the Scudetto in 1991, gave a young kid his debut. That kid was Francesco Totti. Believe it or not, considering how symbolic they are of Roma and Lazio’s rivalry, there’s a great respect between the two.
Totti invited Mihajlovic to his wedding. And when Mihajlovic was asked to name the best Italian player, he gave the following answer without hesitation: “Totti. He’s one of the top three Italian players of all-time and the best No 10s ever: better than Baggio, Del Piero and my friend Mancini.” It just so happens that one of Totti’s greatest goals, a cross-goal volley from an acute angle came against Samp. Emilio de Leo, Mihajlovic’s precocious tactics coach, will have to find a way to stop him. “A game of football is like a game of chess,” he says. “You protect the king, attack the queen, and move the pawns.”
Will the King of Rome be checked? The last time Samp won away to Roma in April 2010, they all but ended their opponents’ title hopes. Do so again and the Laziale in Mihajlovic would take some satisfaction. As for Samp, they could also catch rivals Genoa and move into the top half of the table. Why don’t you join us for it? Coverage starts from 6:30pm.
Serie A Talking points
“O mamma mamma mamma” Diego Maradona stepped foot inside the San Paolo for the first time in nine years on Wednesday night. His presence charged the atmosphere as Napoli overwhelmed Roma 3-0 and booked their place in the Coppa Italia final 5-3 on aggregate.
They’ll play Fiorentina who also overturned a first leg deficit against Udinese, triumphing 2-0 at the Artemio Franchi. Juan Cuadrado, whose thunderous striker clinched the win, will miss his team’s first final since 2001 after picking up a silly yellow card in the 92nd minute which brought a suspension.
After announcing his intention to leave Manchester United once his contract expires at the end of the season, Nemanja Vidic is said to be close to agreeing to join Inter. La Gazzetta understand a three-year deal worth €2.6m a season is on the table. So much for investing in youth.
Lazio have threatened legal action against those who have questioned the age of their 17-year-old midfielder Joseph Minala. The player, from Cameroon, also issued his own statement denying he told an African website he was 41.
An 18m mural of Francesco Totti was painted onto the side of the Pascoli middle school in Rome’s San Giovanni district by the street artist Lucamaleonte. In case you’re wondering that’s where Roma’s captain and No.10 was educated before he became a footballer. Some believe the mural bears a closer resemblance to Bear Grylls, though.