Montevideo: The Story of Serbian Football

To be on the margins of existence, to constantly hug its outlines and live in its silhouette, is taxing.  Some of this burden is an undertaking.  In other senses, it’s inflicted.  This is very much a Serbian narrative, though it might easily be seen as a story of Baltic or Polish survival.  The glory days will eventually subside, and the salt will lose its flavour.  The only thing to do then is to survive, to scrounge, to battle.

Popular culture can be valuable registers of this survival.  They provide vents to air concerns and the more than occasional mania.  Cineasts from outside Serbia might not be too familiar with the rapture and popularity that has greeted the film and series Montevideo, Bog te video.  The next instalment of the series is currently showing on Serbian television, building on the film released in 2010.  It is a story that deserves wider wings, featuring as it does the herculean efforts of the Yugoslavian team to not only secure a place at the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, but make it to the semi finals and finish in fourth place.

The story is told in the shadow of war, with a focus on two key footballers, arguably the finest in the Serbian football canon – Aleksandar “Tirke” Tirnanić (Miloš Biković) and Blagoje “Moša” Marjanović (Petar Strugar).  Tirnanić is the ill-tempered, principled boy who does his level best to be a bad one. His sparring partner Marjanović, the other half of the tandem, cuts a familiar picture – boastful, permanently broke, and permanently womanising.  Both quarrel, fight over women and make up on the football pitch.

Tirnanić’s father perished in the First World War, his war medal a constant companion.  The war metaphor follows with regularity – in this, we are reminded of Courbetin and his muscular fantasies of prowess on the field.  The dream of Olympism is war by other means, violence without armaments.

Fractious from the start, the talk of Montevedio is about loyalties – to clubs (BSK Beograd and SK Jugoslavija) and the national Yugoslavian team itself.  Sport mirrors social discontent, the follies of its leaders, the foolishness of prejudice. SK Jugoslavija has a strong communist base, trendy and anti-establishment.  It is naturally opposed by the more conservative supporters of BSK, where monarchists crow their praise for the status quo, however imperfect.

The rivalry amongst the club supporters, while biting in manner, is laid aside for the common cause – getting the boys to Uruguay.  Even love and cupid’s arrow have to wait, despite the presence of luscious, longing women.

There is also another complicating factor.  The team that will be sent to Uruguay will be without Yugoslavs.  It is, however, a team stacked with toiling Serbs.  Yes, racial politics provides a certain flavour, but the decision by the Croatian authorities to refuse to allow their players to participate is the red flag of things to come.  We are together only in name, and you decided to take the selection away from Zagreb.

Amidst the querulous manner, humour crackles.  The Serbian football authorities attempt to woo the Croatian selector with their version of “brothel politics”.  This is sex for selection and posturing, if only to convince the Serbian king into providing funding for the trip.  (A team without Yugoslavs will get no royal backing.)  Nothing is forthcoming except a distinct loss of dignity.

The series seems to have a pastel colouring. Belgrade is a dream projection, itself a shimmering hologram of light that haloes the characters.  There are no concrete palaces and apartment blocs of socialist flavour – that would come after the Second World War.

This is the romanticised idyll of sports writer Vladimir Stanković, a mild flavouring of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby married to rakija, kafana carousing and the one-way conversation of the Serbian coach with his favourite pigeon Radoje.  It is the Belgrade of the first Yugoslavian experiment, a monarchical effort that failed before the tanks of Nazism and the hammer and sickle of Communism.

What then, about the funding?  Few people know where Montevideo is, though the men speak of those “American girls”.  The costs of getting there individually, let alone as a team, are astronomical. In this pre-professional era, there are no obscenely heavy pay cheques or international transfer fees.

Supporters surrender their savings.  Prostitutes provide their earnings.  Goods are pawned, family heirlooms thrown in.  Rakija is drunk in desperation and churches are visited for prayers.  Eventually, with a victory over the Bulgarian team in a “friendly”, support is forthcoming.

How the second part of the series matches the first is something Serbian viewers are awaiting with interest.  For Montevideo is a Serbian story of odds, the battle against the larger foe in the skimpy outfit of a very small David, but it is as much a Yugoslavian one, an attempt to be brave in dangerous times.  As Little Stanoje the narrator (Predrag Vasić), himself a talisman for the Serbian players suggests, dream dreams, by all means, but try to make them realistic ones.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.