Partizan and Pionir Hall: A Religious Experience

Partizan Celebrates, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

Thursday night I attended the Euroleague Basketball game between Besiktas of Istanbul and Partizan of Belgrade. As a basketball fan, it was almost a religious experience because of the most rabid basketball crowd I have ever seen in my life! Partizan won 87-72 to earn their first win in six tries in this year’s Euroleague, which is the basketball equivalent of soccer’s Champions League.

Partizan plays their early round games in the old, state owned, Pionir Hall. The stadium only seats around 8,000 people, but it is very, very loud. We arrived two hours before tip off and it was already almost full. Like soccer fans, the Partizan basketball fans sing many songs during the game, and have impromptu group cheers based on what is happening in the game. For example, when the small delegation of Turkish fans arrived, the crowd started singing about the history of the Serbs,defeating the Ottoman Turks and killing of a particular sultan. Of course it was in Serbian, so I doubt many of the Turkish fans understood.

The photo above is from after the game. The crowd and team stayed after and they sing “Partizane!” An amazing, exhilarating experience! It showed the best characteristics of the Serbs, they are a passionate people and love sport.

This is for a team that is 0-5 in this year’s Euroleague competition! They have a good, very young team, but with a payroll many times lower than other teams in the competition, they have a difficult time competing year in and year out. Their strategy is to develop young players and then sell them to the bigger teams. This is one of their main sources of revenue. They also get import players who want to make a name for themselves in Europe or who are new to international basketball. The positive is many players want to play for the club because the team is famous throughout Europe, they have an intense training program that develops many players, and of course, they will play in what I argue, it the best atmosphere to play basketball in the world. The experience must compare to Madison Square Garden in New York, or perhaps Cameron Stadium at Duke University.

Partizan will improve this year and will be tough to beat next year. They have three 7-footers, Leo Westermann, a French guard that reminds me of the San Antonio Spur’s Manu Ginobli, Drew Gordon, a 6-8 power forward from New Mexico that has great inside moves, and a host of athletic Serbs that can shoot. It will be fun to follow them this season, at least in the Adriatic Basketball League. I will upload a video of the post game singing when I fix my internet connection.

I would like to give a big thanks to my friend, and former Partizan player, Jagoš, for taking me to the game and sharing his knowledge of Serbian basketball with me.

Serbian Olympic Medalist

 

Ivana Maksimovic, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

Today my school had a visit from Ivana Maksimovic, who won a silver medal in this summer’s London Olympic Games. She took second in an event called the Women’s 50 Meter Rifle 3 Positions. This was a bit of a surprise accomplishment for the 22 year old as the number one ranked woman finished sixth in the event.

Olympic medals run in the family as her father, Goran, won the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics and competed in four other Olympics. Her mother is a shooting coach also.

She was very friendly and good with the kids. She even brought her medal and all the kids got to hold it. Ivana was patient in answering questions and she signed a lot of autographs.

I asked her how the Serbian Olympic Committee supported her. She said they paid for some of her training expenses and competitions, and she “couldn’t have done it without them.” She did, however, mention that she had to go to Novi Sad to find a range for the event she won a medal in.

Ocean holds the London 2012 Olympic Silver Medal

It was great she could come by the school and I was happy for Serbia to get another medal at the Olympics. We’ll she how she does at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. After watching all the Olympics this summer, my kids were thrilled to hold the medal and to meet a real Olympian.

Owen Plays in the Belgrade Trophy Tourney

 

Owen, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

We played yesterday in the Tenth Belgrade Trophy Little League Baseball championship held at Ada Baseball Field. My friend Brian and I are coaching our sons and other international school students this summer. We got a team together to play some exhibition games in the tourney.

We played “The Alligators,” Novi Sad, and Bešereck, finishing with 1 win and 2 losses on the day. Owen made a couple of nice plays at first base and had a several hits, including a 2-RBI double to seal a victory against Bešereck.

I would like to thank Nikola Vučević, the organizer of the tourney and head of the Serbian Baseball Association for inviting us to play! He went out of his way to give our kids opportunities to play on the beautiful field and have some real games. Owen and his friends were so excited to wear uniforms (the old ISB MS volleyball uniforms) and compete. The day was funded by the city of Belgrade.

Despite the heat, it was a wonderful day. The first game we used a pitching machine against a much older team, and we soon found out we needed to switch to coaches pitching. In the second game we played against a team closer to our age, and in the third game, we played against a very good older club. Owen thought the highlight was Cody’s inside the park grand slam.

Owen’s first at bat!

With temperatures over 100F, after the game we cooled off in the river and had a nice BBQ meal at one of the restaurants at Ada.

We hope to play some more games before the cold weather sets in.

Soccer Is Dead To Me

 

A photo of a representation of the majority of the play in last night’s game. Short passing in the middle of the field, far away from the goal.

I have given up hope that soccer would be a pastime I can enjoy with my children. Once again, I sat through a 0-0 draw, with few chances from either team. Last Wednesday night, Serbia hosted Ireland in a friendly match as preparation for the upcoming World Cup Qualifying play starting next month.

Both Ireland and Serbia are those average small country European teams that usually don’t escape the first round of major tournaments and recently they have not performed all that great. Ireland lost three consecutive games in June’s Euro Cup and Serbia is 0-4 in their latest exhibition matches. The stadium was half full and the small contingent of Irish fans were making more noise than Serbian fans for most of the game. It was perfect however, for taking my boys.

Red Star stadium has a great atmosphere but they have a long way to go to make the experience a truly enjoyable one. The seats were hard plastic and many broken, the bathrooms are an absolute disaster, and there is no replays on the scoreboard screen. I don’t know how long it will take to get wireless internet.

I guess my main issue with soccer is it is too hard to score. No one on the field in the game could take the ball and manuever around a defender to take a shot at the goal. Instead it was the endless pass backwards to maintain possession and then as they try to set up a perfect shot in front of the goal, they got the ball stolen by a defender. This happened as the “attacker” play-acts and falls, desperate to get a penalty kick because it is so difficult to score in normal play. It has been 180 minutes plus of me watching this “ticky-tack” Spanish style possession play but without any real talent to drive and score. Don’t they understand that one needs to shoot the ball at the goal, regardless of the angle or distance if they want to score. The more shots that the goalkeeper has to stop, the greater the chance of scoring.

At least I got to spend time with my boys and ordering hot dogs and cokes kept them occupied through the whole game. I told myself I am swearing off going to the stadium as it is a waste of my time to be bored watch guys play keep-away. Will I change my mind for the World Cup Qualifiers?

Red Star Draws With Cyprus’s FC Omonia

Update (August 13, 2012) – In the return match, Red Star defeated Omonia 6-5 in penalty kicks to move on to the “playoff” round in the Europa League. I think it is a good strategy for Red Star, play for scoreless draws for 180 minutes plus extra time and then hope for the best in penalty kicks.

I attended the UEFA Europa League Third Round Qualifying Match between Red Star Belgrade and Omonia from Nicosia, Cyprus. It was a disappointing game with my scourge of soccer occurring, a scoreless 0-0 draw. Despite dominating the time of possession, Red Star must have had the ball around 80% of the time, they could not generate any real scoring threat with only one shot on target.  Omonia, the most successful team in the history of the Cyprus league, was content to sit back and have the occasional counter attack. They were pleased with the draw in Belgrade and now await the return match in the Cypriot capital city of Nicosia.

It is nice to see Red Star in a European competition, even though the Europa League is not a prestigious as the Champions League, which Red Star won in that glorious season of 1991. They are a long way from that however, and it is a statement to how far the ex-Yugoslavian teams have fallen. They are now battling it out for the “scraps” of European glory, with the hundreds of minor clubs from the many small nations of Europe. Together, the ex-Yugoslavian teams were able to compete with the best teams, but today, with all separate nations, I don’t see any of them ever taking on the likes of Barcelona or Manchester United.

The match was basically meaningless because Red Star is still a long way from even getting to the group stage of the Europa League tourney. The qualifying rounds are quite complicated but I’ll try to explain them as best I can. For those of you who do not want the entire explanation, Red Star needs to win four rounds to get to the group stage of the Europa League.

First Qualifying Round – 54 teams play a home-and-away playoff to send 27 teams into the second qualifying round. Jagodina and Borac represented Serbia in this round with both teams losing.

Second Qualifying Round – The 27 teams from round one are joined by an new 53 teams from higher-ranked countries (UEFA ranks the quality of nation’s soccer association) or higher finishers in the lesser-ranked leagues. The 80 teams play a home-and-away round. Red Star and Omonia are 0-0 after the first leg of their series. The 40 winning teams move into the third qualifying round. All teams making it to the second round, get 90,000 Euros from UEFA plus the gate receipts from the game they host. In this second round, Red Star defeated Naftan Novopolotsk from Belarus 7-6 in aggregate goals, earning a 90,000 Euro bonus from UEFA.

Third Qualifying Round – An additional 30 teams from even higher-ranked leagues join at this stage the 40 qualified teams from the second round. Once again, a home-and-away leg is played and 35 teams move to the “Play-off” Round.Teams making the third round earn another 90,000 Euros. Red Star is currently in this round and will play at Omonia on August 9th.

Play-off Round – Another 41 or 43 teams join from even higher ranked league and teams that are knocked out early in the Champions League. The 74 or 76 teams once again play a home-and-away playoff and the 38 teams move to finally, the Group Stage of the Europa Tourney. This nets another 90,000 Euros from UEFA.

After playing a round-robin in the group stage, 32 teams go into a “knock-out” phase, and here teams start to earn bigger bonuses. Red Star last made it to the Group Stage in 2007-2008, but have not moved past the playoff round since then.

It all sounds to me a way for UEFA and the clubs to make money by all of these games. To make it through, Red Star would play an additional 20 games to win the whole thing. Serbia has a pretty good rank in UEFA’s system of coefficients. They are 16 of 53 associations, just behind the Ukraine and just ahead of Switzerland. Croatia is ranked 7 and the top ranking goes to of course Spain and the lowest ranking goes to San Marino. Cyprus is ranked 43.

It was pleasurable experience to watch the game last night, with a mostly full stadium and famous Red Star supporters Delije (heros) from the north section singing the entire game. Too bad the home team couldn’t give them a goal. It would be much more pleasurable if there was at least a regional league in the Balkans with the best players moving around to top clubs. More on that when the Serbian regular season begins shortly.

Red Star Coach Robert Prosinecki Leaves the Field

Filming of Montevideo Continues

 

I had another day of filming yesterday on the set of the Serbian blockbuster, the sequel to the film Montevideo: Bog Te Video, a film directed by Dragan Bjelogrilić and produced by Intermedian Network. The film is about the 1930 Yugoslavian Soccer Team that participated in the first World Cup in Uruguay. I am above with my photo with some of the “Bolivian” extras. They were actually the darkest Serbian soccer players they could find. Yugoslavia defeated Bolivia 4-0 in that first World Cup.

Throw-In for Jugoslavia

It was an great experience to play a small role in the film as the American Radio Commentator. I learned a lot about the film industry. Roberto, a Spanish actor, said one of the virtues of a good actor is the ability to wait. I sat around most of the day as they were filming game sequences and it wasn’t until twilight that the directors got to the parts in the radio booth. Hopefully, some of my scenes will make the final cut!

I can’t get over the attention to detail and the big cost and logistics that goes into making a film, especially a period piece like this one. I have a new respect for film and understand why they need to charge money to see the picture.

I met some of the main actors and everyone, from the make-up and costumes, to the director and camera-crew were first-class and extremely helpful. I am sad I couldn’t stay to see Armand Assante tomorrow play his role in film.

Filming wraps up this week at the stadium and then moves to a few days at a hotel in Belgrade and then on to Trieste, Italy for another week. The picture will debut at the Sava Center in Belgrade in December or January.

Jakšić Goes Down

Tennis in Belgrade

 

We are loving the newly finished tennis courts at the school. Last month the courts were completed on the roof of the gymnasium and they are absolutely spectacular. The best thing about the courts is they are free to use, which is rare in Belgrade. All tennis courts in the city are privately owned and have rental fees ranging from 6 to 12 euros an hour, depending on quality and time of day. That is if you can find an available time.

With Novak Djokovic and the other Serbian professionals in the Top 20 of world tennis, the game has become very popular in Serbia. It is a shame that the city does not build public courts for citizens to use. Tennis is expensive as it is with equipment, coaching, etc. and to not have access to free courts, Serbia is not fully developing its potential. If I was mayor, I would start putting some courts in.

Owen Practices His Serve

Most of the courts in the city are clay and the school’s court is a hard court surface. They are perched on the roof, overlooking the valley towards Košutnjak Park and the view is breathtaking. They also have lights so we have been playing every night. I need to get Owen and Oliver into a club and some coaching as all three of my children love the game! Owen and I actually played our first set of tennis on the big courts, I won 6-1. I need to savor this victory as soon enough, the boys will be beating me on a regular basis.

We have been following closely the Wimbledon Championships. Too bad Nole lost to Federer in the semifinals. We are cheering for Andy Murray to be the first UK citizen to win since 1936 in today’s final.

Nemanja Serving

French Open Fever

 

We’ve been following Novak Đoković in the Roland Garros Tennis Championship this week. We were so inspired that we went down to his tennis center. Oliver is shown above on the red clay of Belgrade. It is also the home of the Belgrade Open, one of the stops on the ATP tour. I really want to get the kids into tennis this summer. It is a great sport.

It is something that Nadia and I can play together. It is so much better than golf in the fact that it is much quicker to play and it is more physical, although I do like the walking in “nature” aspect of golf.

I am excited for the second week of the French Open. Let’s hope Novak can pull it out, although Nadal and Ferrer look like the favorites right now.

Ocean Gets Into the Act

Great Day in Košutnjak

Finish, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

I ran yesterday in the Košutnjak Challenge Race here in Belgrade. Košutnjak is a large park near our apartment that used to be the hunting grounds of the Serbian Royal family before World War I. Today it is still mostly forest with lots of public recreation areas.

The race was 5 kilometers with an obstacle at every kilometer. The obstacles included a narrow, deep ravine, hay stacks, ropes, even an old carnival ride we needed to climb over. I finished in 29 minutes. I didn’t feel great yesterday, but it was fun, barelling through the forest. There were about 100 runners and we had a good day with my friend Michael and my family. I would like to thank the running club of Serbia, trcanje.rs for organizing the run and for having a calendar of runs in the area.

Owen runs down the hill at the Cafe

Later in the day we went back to Košutnjak to meet up with friends at Alexander’s Cafe and Ski Hill. It was the first time I went there, and the views of the city are spectacular. I highly recommend the place for drinks and we’ll definitely go back this winter for some skiing with the kids.

Latvian Professional Basketball

Last night we took the students to watch a professional basketball game in the first division of Latvian basketball. Turiba College defeated Latvijas University 88-74. Both teams are from Riga and are in the middle of the table. I was really impressed with the level of play. Both teams played with much effort and it was fundamentally sound basketball from start to finish. It was very good for our players to watch. I learned about a new way of stretching (moving instead of sitting on the floor) and a new “circle defense” employed by Turiba and founded by a Russian coach. I need to explore this a bit more. Turiba had much more energy and better outside shooting to defeat LU’s star player, Zanis Pieners. The game was held in an old Soviet gym, with the fans on top in the balcony and the players and benches only on the floor. There were several hundred people at the game, including a couple of drunks, one who ran onto the floor during a time out with his shirt off. He was escorted back to his seat and watched the rest of the game with his shirt on.

Latvia like Lithuania, has a good basketball program. Arturs, the Athletic Director of the International School of Latvia was explaining the youth programs in the country. Every town and village have their leagues with a range of ages. The country only has just over 2 million people, so they need to be organized to produce top talent. The two teams last night, are universities that give scholarships to players so they can study, but still play professional basketball.

I would like to thank Arturs for arranging the game! Go Turibas!