Partizan Belgrade illustrates how much Serbia has given football
It feels like the worst day for a chat with Momcilo Vukotic, but perhaps it is actually the best. The time is just before 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 15, just 12 hours since Serbia's match with Albania, a few miles down the road at Partizan Belgrade's own stadium, was abandoned amid barely fathomable scenes of provocation and violence. Nobody has slept much, if at all. But into this smartly appointed room in the fashionable Belgrade suburb of Zemun walks Vukotic, 64 years old now and still Partizan's record appearance maker with 752, and the impression dawns that it suits everybody to while away an hour with a good news story.
Vukotic can tell one of those. He has seen Partizan from all angles, top to bottom, player to first-team manager, since first arriving at the age of 12 and has, for the past two years, been director of its youth academy. The facility has few equals and, according to an influential study from Football Observatory earlier this year, just one superior. Partizan have trained the second-largest number of players currently under contract with top-division clubs in Europe; its figure of 66 is just three behind that of Dutch side Ajax.
Whether you know it or not, a list of Partizan products rolls off the tongue. Try Manchester City's Stevan Jovetic and Matija Nastasic, Roma's Adem Ljajic, Liverpool's Lazar Markovic, Aleksandar Mitrovic of Anderlecht and Milos Jojic of Borussia Dortmund. These are products from the past half-decade, the latter three moving on just more than a year ago. Thanks to their academy, Partizan have, whether or not the club would rather have it this way, become one of European football's most important trading posts.
"The youngest players here are 8 years old," Vukotic explains. "What we are looking for at that age is the sense for the game -- that's a basic. All other things can come later. We want to see the way a player thinks, what solutions he can find on the pitch. The way they manage on the field is the most important thing in the youngest kids.
"In the past, boys started training at 12 or 13 years old. They had previously been playing on streets, fields, gaps between buildings, places like that. They showed their creativity and invention there -- they had freedom to think, to play, to show their full potential without pressure. And that's what Partizan wants to do with its youngsters. We don't want our youngsters copied. We want them to develop and to have the space to find solutions without any pressure."
The academy has 10 different age groups and approximately 300 players, so competition is predictably fierce. But nowadays, the pressure is perhaps on the club more than its young hopefuls themselves.
When the facility was founded 60 years ago, an academy graduate was Partizan's for keeps until at least the age of 28 -- unless, of course, the club wanted rid. Players in a formidable Yugoslavian league were not allowed to move abroad until then; now, with the old country long since fragmented and Serbia in worsening economic straits, there are no such limitations. And Partizan's academy, ever since six of its products played in the side that narrowly lost to Real Madrid in the 1966 European Cup final, has long suggested that it might hold the key to survival and maybe -- but not necessarily -- more.
"Back then, conditions were different," Vukotic confirms. "It was a great Yugoslavia. The league was far stronger, there were more fans, more players, more of everything.
"In modern Serbia, the Partizan academy is more important than ever before. In the past decade, one or two players have progressed to the senior squad each year, but they don't stay there long. They go abroad, and then the cycle begins again, so we always have to make new players. We are practically forced to create at least one player for each year because there is such an exodus of talent.
"It means that you can't have the same team for two years. You're in a kind of vortex. We lost to Ludogorets in the Champions League qualifiers, but you imagine that if we had Markovic, Mitrovic and guys like this, it might have been different."
The cycle is certainly a frustrating one. At the time of the Football Observatory's study, just seven of those 66 Partizan products were still with the club. That is the second-lowest proportion among the top-10 most productive academies. The lowest? You don't need to look far. It is the five of 50 products who remained at Red Star Belgrade, Partizan's big-city rivals, whose sixth place in the table points further to Serbian football's blessing and its curse.
Markovic left Partizan for Benfica at 19 after two full seasons; Mitrovic was 18 and had completed just one, with another at farm club Teleoptik, a lower-league side based on Partizan's training premises and used as a bridge between youth and top-flight football. Reports this week suggest that Ivan Saponjic, a striker of huge promise who turned 17 in August but made his full debut almost a year ago, will join Mitrovic at Anderlecht. It will not be long before Andrija Zivkovic and Danilo Pantic, 18 and 17, respectively -- the former already Serbia's youngest full international -- move on, too.
That Partizan's players can be plundered by teams from countries such as Belgium -- who would have been considered their equals, at worst, a couple of decades back -- speaks volumes for Serbian football's fundamental lack of viability and the domestic setup's status as little more than a buzzing marketplace for clubs, agents and assorted vultures.
Yet it should be repeated that, within its context, Partizan's is a good news story. The academy's headquarters, mixed in with the first team's training setup in Zemun, are outstanding and stand comfortable in comparison with those at big clubs to the north and west. The care that goes into training each age group, each player, is obvious and stems back to the sense of freedom, of identity, that Vukotic comes back to throughout the conversation.
"Previously, one coach would look after the same generation and take them all the way to the seniors," he says. "But when I consider the coaches, I decide that you need different qualities to work with the youngest boys from those you need if you're one step away from turning professional.
"What helps is that all of our coaches are, like me, former Partizan players. They have been at the club for years. Their first steps were in the Partizan academy, and then, even if they go away, they come back to coach. It is inbuilt. And as within the players, they have the chance to rise up -- perhaps coach Teleoptik, maybe manage the first team, maybe go and manage somewhere else. We are not only producing players -- we are making coaches, too."
Vladimir Vermezovic and Vuk Rasovic are, in a Partizan managers' roll of honour whose turnover is even more intense than that of the first-team squad, the two most recent men to have taken the very path Vukotic describes. It is not easy these days to manage Partizan and go on to big things. But the emphasis on identity, on imbuing the essence of Partizan in all that it produces, is a welcome and utterly vital piece of continuity in a setup for which a strong identity, given that most of its graduates will move far away, does not necessarily appear a strong prerequisite.
Financial imperatives rule the day and dictate that the academy is the lifeblood of a club that used to have so much more to show for itself. The same applies, too, to Red Star, whose barring from the Champions League on financial fair play grounds will not have gone unnoticed at similarly positioned clubs. But Vukotic, every inch a football man, is emphatic that the craft of developing a player is what makes his job worthwhile. If they move abroad, then they serve as inspirations to his next set of charges.
"I played here since I was 12, went through all the youth teams, was captain, manager," he says. "I know what I'm talking about when it comes to this club, and I have managed abroad, too [notably in Greece and Cyprus], so I can pass on that kind of experience, too.
"It is a huge personal satisfaction to work with these young people. Yes, we are forced to sell players, but when you see them make great careers, it is a reward for the club and for all of us. They show the new generations what can be achieved with great motivation. I love my job, and nothing about it is a hardship to me. I am dedicated to giving young players the platform to play for Partizan."
After Vukotic leaves, the translator smiles. "He was glad you didn't talk to him about last night," she says. The feeling was mutual, really. The benefits of Partizan's production line are not felt in Serbia as tangibly as they should be, but they do serve as the timeliest of reminders that this country has given, and will continue to give, more than its fair share of positive things to a sport that -- for now -- seems to have fallen out of love with it.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.