Todays Date
March 5, 2021


By Aleksandar Krzhalovski


After several weeks and articles on political issues, primarily related to the Prespa Agreement and the procedures regarding it, in particular the adoption of constitutional changes in our country and the ratification of the agreement in Greece, it is time to take a little break and turn, for example, to sports themes (again).

In one of the previous articles (Football and Democracy) I tried to compare sports and politics, discussing how the more democratic distribution of funds in the English Premier League leads to greater competitiveness, which in turn increases the interest of viewers (or in the comparison – the voters for the elections), resulting in better quality and inevitably (closing the circle) – success (among other things, with more funds for distribution among the clubs…and in the case of elections, this would correspond with better candidates and then solutions for citizens’ better standard of living).

This time, I wanted to discuss, or rather, ask myself and your readers about the sporting phenomenon “the best of all time (or the world)” (in any sport) and why such individuals (or teams) appear more in some countries, not in others? Unfortunately we as a country are most often in these others, so that is why I am asking this question!

The immediate occasion is certainly the victory of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic the day before yesterday at the Australian Open in Melbourne, which for him was seventh in this Grand Slam tournament (one of the four most prestigious in tennis, along with London Wimbledon, Paris Roland-Garros and the New York US Open), setting the record for the tournament (until now he shared it with Roger Federer and Roy Emerson with 6 titles). He reached his 15th grand slam title and reopened the debate on the “Greatest of All Time” (GOAT), which just a year ago he seemed to be closing in when Federer won his 20th title (Novak was then at 12). Of course, there are many aspects that have to be considered when talking about choosing the best ever, but in tennis, it most often binds to prestigious Grand Slams. But even here it is not so simple. While the total number is the first and clear criterion (and Djokovic, 6 years younger than Federer, if in good health, will have time to reach those 20 titles, and maybe the record of all time, of the girl Margaret Court, who has 24), we can talk about other aspects. For example, have they won all 4 Grand Slams in their career? Only eight tennis players have done it in male competition: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as current, including Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi. The legendary players like Sampras, Borg, Connors, Lendl or McCann did not do that. And of these eight, only two did it in the same calendar year (Budge and Laver). Djokovic is just the third behind them, who at the same time had the titles of all 4 Grand Slams. In the analysis of the choice of the best, some import artistic elements (style of play, uniqueness of moves, etc.), popularity among the audience, or behavior outside the field (if an example for others).

This debate may be eternal, i.e. depending on the achievements throughout the career, there may never be a consensus (full agreement) on who is the best of all time, inter alia, because of our personal opinions and affiliations towards one or another tennis player (or athlete in general…in football, for example, the debates are over Pele or Maradona, or in the last decade over Messi or Ronaldo).

But there is something else I was thinking of in this occasion – that is, how has a country like Serbia produced such a top and world-class athlete? Our neighbors might look great to us (with their little under 8 million inhabitants, not counting Kosovo, they are 4 times bigger than us), but in the world it is a small country. And it is not just Djokovic…two of their tennis players (Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic) were the first on the world WTA rankings, and it is not just tennis – they have world champions in other sports – rowing, wrestling, even athletics. And in collective sports – even more: water polo players have been “ruling” for over a decade, and the female volleyball players have also been champions since last month. In 2005, basketball players became world champions in the midst of the basketball cradle – the United States, through their sixth “Dream Team”, and in 2015, their juniors (up to 20 years old) became world champions in football.

We do not have to stick to the example of Serbia only. Croats are twice less in population than Serbs (and twice bigger than us), and are multiple winners in all major handball matches. Their basketball players reached the final of the Barcelona 1992 Olympics (immediately after the declaration of independence), and football players reached the final last summer. Their captain Luka Modric won the “best of the world” award for 2018. Even smaller (and according to inhabitants same us as) Kosovo, in the character of Majlinda Kelmendi, has the Olympic champion in Rio de Janeiro.

In this context, I am especially impressed with the story of Slovenia, which is just like us regarding both the area of the country and the population. A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend the celebration of the 20th anniversary of their independence at one of the hotels in Skopje. In the brief presentation, the then Ambassador Alain Bergant made interesting parallels – political with the sporting successes. So, every significant event in the country (admission to the United Nations, NATO, then the EU, etc.) was compared with similar sporting success – above all in the Olympics (winter) and championships in winter disciplines (ski jumps, skiing, but also other). Since then Slovenia has made significant progress in collective sports, so in the most popular (at least for us) sports, such as football, basketball and handball, their teams have reached the most important manifestations – the world championships.

The question is, how come almost all of our neighbors and former fellow citizens from the time of Yugoslavia (which by the way was a sports super power itself) are more successful than us in sports? Our most important achievements as a country are in collective sports, 4th in basketball (Lithuania, 2011) and 5th place in handball (Serbia, 2012), both at European championships (not at world championships, where we reach the handball only, but with the placements from the 9th place down.) Of course, in club plan, these are the championship titles in handball at the European level, Kometal Gjorce Petrov in women’s and Vardar in men’s competition, associated with dedication and mid-term period of several years funding of the clubs by Trifun Kostovski and Sergej Samsonenko, respectively.

The size (population) of the country probably matters, but it is obviously not crucial. Slovenia is the same as us, and Croatia and Serbia are twice or three times more numerous, but they are all small in the world, however competitive on the global stage and get the most important trophies.

Some say that it is up to the system, that is, care for sports from the earliest age and enabling conditions for school sports, and then actively involving all interested young people in clubs with due attention to their growth and development. Furthermore, targeted and continuous funding of clubs in certain sports for the sake of stability in providing enough and new (generations) top athletes. In that sense, money is obviously becoming an important factor (and our two club stars confirm this), but if we recall the time in Yugoslavia – it was not a factor, let alone important.

Others will say – it is up to the mentality! Some have a winning spirit, and some (referring to us) – have not any. And maybe it is like that – for example, when Porta Macedonia was built, there were statements in the sense “Which successes/triumphs are we going to celebrate?” But the basketball players and the handball players passed under it, welcomed by an audience of 100,000, thirsty for such successes (although both returned without medals). This returns us to the dilemma of the article – can we make it as a country?

Let me finish where I started from, with Djokovic. One anecdote says it is ascertained that the secret to his success is: 1% luck, 9% talent, and 90% hard work J. It might be so!


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