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 [The Prospect of a Serbian Jackie's Army]
 by Luke Ginnell

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In the 1990s, Jack Charlton’s Irish national team made waves with a team of players largely drawn from the island’s diaspora. Two decades later, a similar process of recruitment is underway in Serbia. What, then, of the prospect of a Serbian Jackie’s Army?
[This article originally appeared in Pickles Magazine, Issue Six, August 2013. You can buy the magazine here.]

Over the years, the Irish have left Ireland in their millions. Many went west to what for them was a stars’n’striped home-from-home. Others, however, chose an eastward path to that neighbourly island which still bears the standard of Saint Patrick upon its flag. As a consequence, the passing of the centuries brought about the development of a vast and enduring Irish diaspora in Great Britain. During the 1980s and 1990s, this fact was catapulted to the forefront of footballing life by Jack Charlton and an Irish national team containing the likes of Mick McCarthy, Ray Houghton et al. Yet, in that same decade, and seemingly in a parallel universe, war-torn Serbia witnessed an equally widespread scattering of its people. Now, through the recruitment of players such as Zdravko Kuzmanović, Neven Subotić, and others, Serbian football is reclaiming some of its exiles, leading to the very real possibility of the emergence of a Serbian ‘Jackie’s Army.’

For a decade or so, beginning in the mid-eighties, the Republic of Ireland blazed a trail across the world of international football. The team purveyed a brand of football rooted deeply in the traditional, nuts’n’bolts game of the past, led as they were by the living manifestation of sporting Luddism, Jack Charlton. Fuelled by the mineshaft pragmatism of their Northumbrian foreman, Jackie’s boys played ugly, but were undeniably efficient.  Their relative successes at Euro ’88, Italia ’90, and USA ’94 seemed to reflect Ireland’s cultural and economic resurfacing from the murky waters that were the seventies and eighties. At the team’s core was, in fact, the Irish expatriate community in the UK. Players like McCarthy, Houghton, Babb, Phelan, Lawrenson, Townsend, Hughton, Sheridan, Cascarino, McAteer, and Aldridge were born and raised in Britain, but chose to represent Ireland on the back of their [often tenuous] links to the latter. Literally dozens of footballers were brought into the Irish setup as a direct result of the decision taken by Charlton – and others – to exploit the sizable Irish presence in Britain.

At the same time as Ireland was enjoying its dual economic and sporting prosperity, civil war was tearing apart the Yugoslavian federation. The Yugoslav wars dispersed thousands of refugees across the world, adding to already-established expatriate communities in places such as Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Australia, and North America. Large Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian diasporas now exist in these countries and elsewhere. So, when a talented footballer emerges from one of these groups, with which nation does he or she choose to side: the adopted home, or the ‘mother country’?

Society is rapidly becoming globalised and, accordingly, perceptions of nationhood are changing. A significant factor in this is the diaspora, which is a driving force behind an emerging redefinition of citizenship. Diasporas are increasingly incorporated into government policies – particularly when it comes to Balkan nations – and a new form of ‘ethnic’ nationalism is emerging. This is based around the idea that ‘nationality’ is a concept transcending mere territorial borders. For example, the descendant of an Irishman or Serbian from London or Berlin is as much part of ‘Ireland’ or ‘Serbia’ as someone born on Irish or Serbian soil.

In the past year or so, numerous players of Serbian heritage born outside ‘territorial’ Serbia have declared themselves available for the Beli orlovi, including Miloš Degenek, Matija Spoljarić, Richairo Živković, Maksim Stojanac, Denis Jovanović, and Dragiša Gudelj. Although these names may not mean much to you right now, that’s probably because they’re all still teenagers. Each of them received their primary footballing education outside Serbia. It’s hard to shake the idea that the Serbian FA will be tempted more and more by the prospect of cherry-picking talent produced by other countries, given that even the Serbian government has made provision for the recruitment of sportsmen in its 2009 Law on the Diaspora and Serbs of the Region.  

‘Some diaspora people relate to their country more than others,’ says Igor Mladenović, a Franco-Serbian writer and the vice-president of the Organisation of Serbian Students Abroad. ‘But it's also down to the Serbian FA to attract them. Players like Marko Arnautović and Marko Marin were said to be interested, but no one called them up.

‘The Serbian FA started a programme two years ago in order for diaspora youngsters to play for the Serbian national team. However, it is important to keep a sort of coherence rather than lashing out at every prospect like the Poland coach did before Euro 2012.’

It seems clear then that the Serbian FA is buying into the concept of the expanded Serbian nation. According to Francesco Ragazzi, a Lecturer in International Relations at Leiden University, this is unsurprising.

‘I would say that this is becoming the case for many countries around the world. Algerians, for example, have always been proud of their emigrant players in France. Those who don’t make it to the French national team try their luck with their country of origin, even if they never lived there.

‘To the extent that players are able to play for Bosnia or Croatia or Serbia because they hold dual citizenship, these teams certainly represent more than the territorial entity of their respective states. For some diaspora players the decision to play for Bosnia or Croatia or Serbia is sentimental, for others it’s a second choice – because they are not good enough for the other country.’

As is so often the case, football evidences shifts and changing trends within society. When it comes to diaspora, the game lends itself to an expression of national identification. Charlton’s Irish reflected this fact. And so, whether through Jackie’s Army, France’s superb squad of 1998 and beyond, or even Italy and the ‘Angels with Dirty Faces,’ diaspora has made a significant impact on international football. Thus, considering the huge numbers that the foreign-born population could add to Serbia’s playing pool, it seems probable that the country’s FA will continue to seek talent outside its borders. With that in mind, the prospect of a Serbian Jackie’s Army taking the field at an international competition near you looks increasingly possible.
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thft | 2013