Interview with Stefan Pantović about Crvena, Serbian National Football Team and young players

  • Redakcja

What brings you to Warsaw this week? Is your visit by any means connected with the meeting of the European Club Association?

European Club Association meeting is one of the reasons I came to Warsaw. Since March 2018 I’ve been elected as the representative to the Board of the third subdivision of the European Club Association. I had the first meeting of the Board in Rome and this one follows it. Currently we are undergoing a process of becoming more transparent as the new statute requires us. What is more, the new statute requires each of the membership subdivisions not only to have a representative in the Board, but also to have an additional representative – that’s my mission here in Warsaw – to represent the clubs that voted for me and to report back about all the dealings within the ECA Executive Board. Although this is the first meeting of the Board here in Warsaw since I got elected, it’s not the first time that I’m here in the beautiful capital of Poland. I’m looking forward to the meeting as well as spending some time with my colleagues from other clubs.

Your Red Star Belgrade has recently regained the championship in Serbia after an annual break. What is the Red Star’s goal for the coming years in the Serbian SuperLiga (Super Liga Srbije) and in Europe? For example, is the promotion to the Champions League attainable? Or, maybe, the Red Star aspires to play in the play-off round of the Champions League in the years to come?

Our strategic goal it to grow sustainably in the coming years. Nevertheless, the whole point is that in order for someone to grow and to have plans, he or she needs to know their own position at a given moment. I think that our [Red Star Belgrade] situation from the past is a good illustration of that dependency. Five years ago, we were a bit lost in terms of our strategy. We were not sure exactly what do we want to do and how to pursue, but then, after a thorough analysis, we concluded that we are thrown into the business of producing and selling players. Why? Because more than 70 percent of our budget comes from selling players. The fact is that the big clubs today, if not in the business of selling the players, they are in entertainment one. That is why, in order for us to know where we want to be in the future we had to reevaluate our current state at the time and make plans for the future.

Consequently, currently we’re coming through the phase one of our modernization which is creating players and selling until the point in time when are going to fully cope with our liabilities and also have sufficient cash reserves for medium term club operations . If you look at it from the historical standpoint, if you analyze it deeply, we have only managed to sell with a decent profit the youngest players who had the best years still coming. It’s all because we were not in the position to guarantee the youngest players a better level of development they could potentially achieve in the western clubs. But gradually we have made some improvements at the level of our football academy and also at the level of attention we are giving to our youngest players and I think that it is slowly paying off.

As a result, I think we’re going to bear the fruits of that move in the coming years. I suppose that in 3 to 5 years our plan is to diversify our revenue streams by having specialized football academy; by having many additional revenue streams including even some sort of amusement parks alongside real estate development.

To sum it up, in 3 to 5 years we plan to grow even stronger and then, I would say, within 5 years we’re going to be in the appropriate position to be capable, of let’s say, to join the upper echelon of the European clubs.

In Serbia and also in Poland we have serious problems with hooligans. What idea of solving this problem do you have? Partizan – Red Star derby is particularly famous because of hooligans, isn’t it?

Well, up to a certain point, we need to educate them [the fans], to talk with them. Recently a colleague of mine who works in a Belgian club he said that with regards the relationship between the fans and the club, it needs to be regarded as being one family, so even when they do a lot of things which cannot be considered particularly positive, i.e. pyrotechnics at the stadium – tomorrow you will still need to sit with them at the same table for breakfast. So, the fact is that nobody can run out of their skin. We need to talk with each other in order to do a lot of things together, but, on the other hand, the issue is not entirely up to the club. The police officers who supervise the game/the stadium – they need to do more. That’s the whole point – something needs to be done with regard to certain activities. Those things [hooligans at the stadiums] happen, but it is not entirely the club’s responsibility to mitigate them.

I also heard that you are one of the founders of the Red Star’s eSport organization. What future do you generally see for eSports?

Well, the eSport is in its initial phase. The whole point is that according to almost all of the research, the new generation – the millennials – that are coming on board for our club have a lower span of attention, so the fact is that studies of e-sport show that it is becoming more and more popular.

That’s why, in order to capture that part of the fandom, we had to do something. It was partially my initiative, but we also have other people in the club whichn are involved in the realization. The founders did a lot to help during the first phase of the initiative, but we aim, at least, to get the interest from the fans in general; not only in e-sport, but in every kind of sport. If they are into e-sport, they may be also into football or basketball. The whole idea was to simply grow the base of the youngest ones.

What do you think about VAR (Video Assistant Referee)? Will it make football fairer?

It isn’t in 100 percent ready to be implemented, but everything is going in a good direction. There is some nostalgia in me when it comes to VAR. The nostalgia pertains to the old times when I was debating for 4 days after the game whether the referee made a right decision. I’m going to miss it, but I think that there’s a big pressure… because the owners of the clubs at the end of the day are risking their money so it’s understandable from a rational point of view that there is a need for a fair game at the end of the day.

I also have a question about the Serbian National Football Team. At the World Cup you play in group F with Costa Rica, Brazil, and Switzerland. What are the expectations of the fans before the tournament?

The thing is that the expectations are always at the highest level. I don’t know about all the fans because you need to divide the fans that actually work in football, from the other fans who, let’s say, just watch football. That’s why I think that there are expectations that we can do a lot, but historically speaking Serbia plays much better with the teams that are favorites, than with the teams that are not, so I really don’t know what to tell you. I hope for the best and I cheer for them definitely.

But do you think that the realistic scenario is to play in the group or to advance to playoffs? … ahhm

Everything depends on the first match.

Ok, so the same is in case of Poland. We play with Senegal…

I think we have a chance … it depends, I don’t know. We [Red Star] actually have two players in the [national] team. We expect to see them, at least, at some point, in the World Cup matches.

Serbian National Football Team last time played at the big football tournament 8 years ago in South Africa. Why did it take so long?

Yeah…

I ask because I’ve heard that today you have lots of good players, but not so good…

It is very hard to create a homogenic team, so I think it boils down to that in the end. Consequently, if I knew the the right answer, I would probably so far have applied to become the coach of the national team.

In your national team you have two players from the Red Star Belgrade: Milan Rodić and Nemanja Radonjić. Are you proud of them?

Of course. I mean, we’re sorry that we don’t have more players called up sincewe really had a fantastic season. I think one of the best seasons since we have won the European Championship back in 1991. Basically, by having all of it on the table I think that maybe we deserve to have one more player in the National team but it’s not up to us, it’s up to the national team coach who choses who goes to the World Cup and who stays at home.

One of the Serbian footballers who will go to Russia is Aleksandar Prijović. Prijović played in Legia Warsaw. Currently, Miroslav Radović from Serbia is playing in Legia Warsaw, too. Have you heard about these players?

I’m not in contact with them but I have obviously heard about them. Radovic used to play in our rivals team and I know for a fact that he’s a very kind person; that’s also what I’ve heard from people at Legia. They simply adore him. On the other hand, I’ve never had a chance to meet Alkeksanadar Prijovic but the thing is that he is in a good form and I wish him all the best.

In your opinion, among the current young Serbian players, who will be the biggest star in the next few years?

Well, the thing is that the youngest Serbian players, among the ones with top potential, they leave pretty early, so the Rad Star, for example, …

Too early, you think?

It depends on the situation because at some points in the past  Red Star had financial difficulties so if we didn’t sell some of the players, we would have most probably failed dramatically to get the UEFA license to play. What’s more, if they didn’t leave we would have most probably been in a very particular state but given that some players were scouted by foreign clubs, we used to be in a situation, for example last year, in which we had to sell two young players to Man City. We feel that there are still aspects of the player development where we will need to grow further in the upcoming period, especially from psychological and IT perspective.

I think that we in Poland have the very same issue. Many young players, for example from Legia Warsaw, go to western leagues to play for bigger and better teams and after some time they return…

It differs from player to player, but the thing is that some of them are really mentally strong and they can do a lot very young. Others, unfortunately, are less prone mentally, but at the end of the day everybody chooses his own path at the given moment.

In Poland one of the best career’s patterns is the one of Robert Lewandowski. He started his career in a small club, then was transferred to a bigger one [Lech Poznań] and now he is in Bayern München.

Yes, but every story is different. There is no universal scenario. I reckon that it will be very ungrateful to put it like that because I think that everybody in the end chooses his own path.

I see. And the last question: I heard that in 2012 you became the youngest secretary general in the history of the Red Star Belgrade. How did you achieve it?

Well, I’ve worked a lot [chuckles]. That’s the bottom line, but the thing is that it happened partially due to the fact that we had an ongoing crisis at that time and the fact that the things were not very stable. I was lucky as well to be in the right place at the right time although not the best time for the club, but still I also worked a lot in order to be there. So most certainly, things happened and it’s something that I will most certainly treasure until the end of my life – having been a fan of the Red Star as far as I remember.

Dominik Senkowski