Rich States Poach Former Yugoslavia’s Sporting Talent
by Milorad Ivanović in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb and London
Tens of thousands of Belgraders gave a heroes’ welcome to Serbia’s tennis prodigies, Ana Ivanović, Jelena Janković and Novak Đoković, following their stunning performances at the French Open in June 2007.
Little did many know that their sporting idols might just as easily have brought joy to fans in Britain, Australia, or some other country, as all three have received lucrative offers to change citizenship. Ivanović’s father, Miroslav, says his daughter has turned down many, including one from Australia.
“Australian, American and European Union passports increase an athlete’s market value by 10 or 20 times, meaning sportspeople from these countries get incomparably more money from sponsors,” Ivanović explains. More practically, they also do away with the chore of obtaining travel visas, something not even those playing in top tournaments have been able to avoid, although a new EU regime should make things easier from next year.
“When she was young and full of ideas, she thought about taking up the citizenship of another country,” Ivanović says. “There were many offers and some too good to be true [but] she stopped thinking about changing her nationality the moment she started making a handsome living from tennis.”
In 2007, the British Lawn Tennis Association approached Novak Đoković’s parents, saying he would be able to get much more lucrative sponsorship and support playing for Britain. Đoković rejected the offer amid media frenzy in Serbia, Britain and elsewhere over the issue.
But, faced with limited chances for professional development, many other Balkan athletes have given in. Marko Pešić, son of the prominent basketball coach, Svetislav Pešić, who guided Yugoslavia to gold medals in the 2001 European and 2002 World Championship, took up German citizenship.
“Initially, I declined the offer of a German passport for patriotic reasons but I was out of the Yugoslav team’s sight and wanted to play in major international events,” he reveals. “I took my parents’ advice and fulfilled my dream by playing for Germany.”