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As headlines go, “Young star stays put” may rival Orwell’s “Small Earthquake in Chile: Not Many Dead” for banality, but in the world of Serbian football Bosko Jankovic’s decision not to leave Red Star Belgrade for the European champions Porto was a shock of seismic proportions.

Jankovic, a tall, direct midfielder who strikes a fine free-kick, was part of the Serbia-Montenegro side that finished as runners-up in the European Under-21 championship last summer, a team of undoubted quality that has drawn comparison with the majestic Yugoslavia World Youth Cup winners of 1987.

It was widely assumed that, having alerted Europe to their ability, most of them would seize the opportunity to leave and seek their fortunes abroad, and the former Red Star goalkeeper Stevan Stojanovic, now a scout with an agency in Belgium, confirms that there has been significant interest in Jankovic, Simon Vukcevic, Marko Perovic and Dusan Basta. All four, though, remain in Serbia, raising hopes that football’s east-west divide may have entered a new phase.

The days when Ferenc Puskás’s Hungary or Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev enthralled the world have long gone, and, given their present failings, it seems remarkable that Steaua Bucharest and Red Star have both won the European Cup within the past 20 years.

The removal of state support following the upheavals of 1989 and the end of communism hit football hard and, for most of the past decade, young players have been leaving eastern European clubs as though they believed the football fields of western Europe to be turfed with gold.

Some, such as Dejan Stankovic, prosper. He left Red Star for Lazio as a 19- year-old, and became a regular almost immediately, but even he then suffered a couple of ordinary years. “It’s very different to Serbia,” he explained, “You have to sort yourself out. Nobody asks how you are, or pushes you to train harder.”

Stankovic came through the difficult time and last summer earned a lucrative move to Internazionale, but for each such success there are dozens of failures. Unable to cope with an alien culture both on and off the pitch, they go home richer, chastened, and blunted for having missed a crucial two or three years of their development.

When Dmitry Sychev left Spartak Moscow after impressing in the 2002 World Cup, he was a 19-year-old who averaged a goal every other game and was seen as the potential saviour of Russian football. After scoring just five times in two seasons with Marseille he returned last year, and promptly banged in 15 goals in 26 games as Lokomotiv won the title. He has not become a bad player, but two years sitting on the bench mean that nobody is hailing him as the messiah any more.

It is not just the players who suffer, though. Domestic leagues are inevitably weakened when the best players leave, and the mass imports of mediocre Brazilians and Africans do little to help. The national teams – relying either on players mouldering in reserve sides or coasting in a degraded domestic league – suffer, interest wanes, and sponsorship and advertising revenue drops. That in turn makes the clubs poorer, and so players become increasingly likely to seek larger contracts abroad, the standard of the domestic league falls yet further and the vicious circle spins again.

So frustrated did the former Hungary international Istvan Salloi become at the bleak inevitability of it all that he quit as sports director of the Hungarian side Ujpest last November. “A lot of young players go to Austria,” he explained, “because even in the fifth or sixth division there they get better money than we can offer them. Sponsors don’t want to spend money in Hungary, because they think it’s not a good level. We don’t know which should come first, the money or the level. If the level rises the money will come, but without money we cannot raise the level.”

In such a context, the example of Jankovic is both surprising and hugely welcome. “It is very flattering to hear that Porto are interested,” Jankovic said, “but I have more to offer in a red-and-white shirt, and I believe there will be more offers in the future.”

Red Star and Partizan have the advantage that both hold an emotional and ideological attraction for young Serbs that is certainly not, for instance, Ujpest’s position in Hungary, but it nonetheless takes firm leadership to reject a reported £4m offer. There is realism too in the acceptance on both sides that the likes of Jankovic will move on eventually. “Sure, there will come a time when he is offered 10 times, 20 times,
50 times as much as we can pay,” Red Star’s marketing manager Zoran Avramovic´ said, “and then he will go, however much he loves Belgrade.”

It may not be quite so healthy a situation (for the clubs and the league, at least) as it was in communist times when players could move to foreign clubs only when they were 28 or older, but it is a step in the right direction. Serbian football is stirring once again, and all of eastern Europe could heed the lessons.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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