In Focus

The Wonder of Serbian Sport
How does a country with a population of about eight million succeed in being a world power in team sports without importing people? Do Serbs succeed because they are really closer to the source and real meaning of the thing which fragments we call sports today? Why can it not be explained by modern sociology and sports commentators? What is the relation between authentic sports and spirituality, glory, beauty, game, entertainment, nationalism? Are sports only ”compensation for everything else the Serbs don’t have or are not able to do” or is there a deeper meaning in it?

By: Branislav Matić
Photo: Vlada Marković, Žikica Jovanović, SWPF

Several times every year, events force us to ask ourselves: where do all those Serbian supreme successes in sports come from? How do we, small, exhausted, robbed, defamed, fragmented, wounded, in refuge, we, the reformed wizards of survival, treated with one dollar a day and a viperous pat on the back, conquer the world with such confidence and self-assurance? Is that a lucky exception confirming the sad rule, or does sport emanate the deeper layers of our national being, preserved under superficial damages? Whence come the firm gaze, the victorious smile, the self-consciousness of value in sport in the sons of those among who most don’t know if they will have enough to eat until the end of the month? What unclear memory of heights do we have, where does the unusual image we carry within and express through sport come from?
Sport today is for certain one of the last remaining domains with the strength to deeply shake and initiate postmodern nations. By this it can only be compared with music and the ultimate temptation we know by the name of war. Sport is probably the only domain in which Serbs, although small in number, consider being champions of the world a normal thing. And they a priori expect it; almost any competition begins with this idea. The attitude is classical, Greek, something that couldn’t be learned from Coubertin. No, participating is not enough, it is important to win. Second place already makes us sad, while third sounds as a hardly acceptable consolation prize. Anything below that exists neither in view nor in memory. Furthermore, it is not only important to win, but how the victory is won. A triumph made using dishonest means or due to the unjustness of the referee towards the opponent leaves emptiness incomparably larger than an honorable defeat. If the judges are unjust to us, it is only a sign that we must win the judges as well. A smile is, by the way, a question of rank.


One could speak about common megalomania if it wasn’t for one detail: sport is, along with several domains of spirit and knowledge, the only area where we really regularly are world champions. An area in which, by repeatedly winning and overpowering ourselves, we win everyone else. Especially those bigger and stronger, richer and more arrogant, ”more civilized” and emptier, those who, in other things, thanks to the barbarian ”rules of the game”, sin against us and cause us the pain we call injustice. We win contrary to ”logics”, despite the ”omnipotence” of money, calculators, whistles, chemistry. We win more often, which should be immediately noticed, in the so-called team sports, where two teams confront, two communities, than in disciplines based on individualism. We do feature the personal approach and have supreme individuals in team sports too, but the frame is always the fellowship. The fellowship spirit is the axes of the team. A team without such a spirit and a strong leading idea, although made of high quality (and expensive) individuals, is not meant for highest achievements and most difficult temptations. The same is with nations, regardless of their size or economic power. Therefore in sports, as in any realm of spirit-action, the criteria for determining the big and the small resists the external, the material and statistics.
Why is all that, especially in our case, so?
Why isn’t it so in a more exact way in other areas of our life? To be more exact, why is it completely different in other areas? Why is it that only in sport our nation has an undoubtedly credible elite, worthy of the temptations we are confronting?


Sports competitions in ancient Greece, which are the root of today’s sports, were also a ritual. A service to god. One of the ways to express gratitude to the gods through achievements and a symbolic sacrifice. Greek histories describe ”soldiers who thank the gods of the Olympus for a victory in war by preparing a stadium at the battleground and hold a competition in running, fisting and wrestling”. War and sport laurels were often laid on the same heads, underlining the deepest spiritual similarity.
Besides mystery, the spiritual and glory above any materiality, that ancient culture, which gave birth to Europe, brought sports into a direct relation with the cult of beauty. This is what Miloš Crnjanski wrote about on December 19, 1935, in one of his pre-Olympic reports from Berlin:
”The ancient Greeks separated very early the idea of beautiful in sports, the beauty of the body which makes people similar to gods, from the idea of professional slavery to sports matches. The one who, through sports, aspired to the divine in physical beauty, whose aim was not getting applauses at the races, was called a true agonist. An ordinary athlete for them was a human muscle-machine who kept falling lower through the centuries and who, prostituted, among animals, ended in the dust of the circus arena.”


From the path to deification to the fall into the dust of the circus arena, sport has, like the one who fell like a human and woke up as humankind, passed a long and mysterious history of deterioration, losing rank. The great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who gave one of the most perceptive descriptions of sport in the century behind us, nonetheless considered sport the last oasis of martial spirit in the modern age. An oasis preserved in spite of everything.
”The martial spirit for me is common bravery that, in the riskiness of an undertaking, does not find a sufficient reason to avoid it. The industrial spirit, however, decides upon the evaluation of danger, since it comprehends life as constant caution. The reason why the wish for action overpowers the fear of danger is only in deep self-confidence. And vice versa, the deep lack of self-confidence lays in the focus of the industrial spirit”, writes Ortega. ”A warrior and a soldier are completely different. The middle ages were not familiar with militarism. A soldier represents the degeneration of a warrior corrupted by an industrialist. A soldier is an armed industrialist, a bureaucrat who invented gunpowder. He was organized by the State for fighting against castles. His appearance begins the war at distance, the abstract war of the cannon and gun.”
Ortega destroys a shallow liberal-democratic stereotype and brings the warrior’s spirit into a direct relation with the optimistic concepts of the world. ”It truly sounds paradoxical that optimistic philosophies blossom in the Middle Ages, described by stupid historiography as a time of darkness and anxiety, while in our modern age one cannot hear almost anything but voices of pessimism.” Serenity and self-confidence do not result from the lack of comprehension of the cosmic pain and human drama. On the contrary. However, before the same fact, before the same painful reality, the figure of a warrior takes a stand opposite from a soldier or industrialist, just like today’s sportsmen compared to (for example) politicians, yuppies or space merchants.
”Today we begin feeling sudden fondness of such a nature and such a spirit, watching them flourish in sports in a not at all archaic form. In my opinion, the difference between sport and game is in the fact that sports include danger, even if it is reflected only in the extreme physical strain. Instead of avoiding danger, a sportsman rushes to confront it, which actually makes him a sportsman”, concludes the famous Spaniard.
Interestingly, another great man, Béla Hamvas, does not entirely share Ortega’s opinion on the limits of sport.
”Sport stops in the moment one puts his life at risk. An Olympic player was a sportsman, Achilles was not. Why? Because he remained at the battlefield”, he says in The Invisible Story.


What about today? What is left of all this today?
Sport, even today, reflects the deeper layers of social and ethno-psychology, the strength of the spirit and will. Success in a skill, when it is truly fruitful, is the consequence of virtue. A virtue that cannot be invented, forged, relativized, fixed by marketing, purchased. A virtue that is repeatedly tested and its relation with skill resolved in a way explained by Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović in several of his works.
The things going on in real sports games have been happening in the whole universe since the beginning of time. A truly sporting competition, like love, symbolically sums up the history of the world. All important moments and archetypes are there, all forces and radiations, brought and confronted within a small cosmic drama. Two opposed principles (teams), law (rules), measure, number, eras, passions, ethics, chivalrous ideal, Faustian temptation, slyness, accomplishment, falls and ascends, spiritual and natural forces. Any credible sports encounter, in which certainty is implied, contains a series of symbolic births and deaths, flashes and eclipses, creations and destructions; everything boils in a fire which both melts and strengthens. The catharsis is mutual, the catharsis of victory and catharsis of defeat, directly involving the audience. Both the person and the nation. (Illegal is only the presence of a mass through which lower instincts and madness penetrate; the typical example of the illegal presence of a mass in a sublime place of the sports encounter: the figure of a hooligan.)
And, what’s most fascinating, all this has the form of a game.
That is why obstruction, dispiritedness, calculativeness, even when hiding behind ”tactics”, seem so ugly, tormenting, pathetic in sports. They leave the impression of fleeing from an encounter with fate, attempting to reply to ”to be or not to be”by blabbing, choosing the life of an ant over the life of a hawk, or considering the length of life more important than its intensity. It seems like begging after the seconds have already marked the beginning of a duel, or choosing a wallet as a weapon to fight a samurai. Everyone is clear that it represents unworthy cowardice and cancels the spirit and meaning of the game. A stupid idea that one can be ”excused” from the Final Judgment. Learning that not-playing is also a form of the game.
The audience reacts to such an approach from the depth of their being, spontaneously, with despise, sometimes angrily, like to an insult or betrayal. It protests regardless of whether this is applicable for their or the opposing team. The audience has an unmistakable feeling it is participating in something dishonorable.


Due to identifying a small cosmic drama in a sports event, injustice and dishonesty are taken harder than in so-called life, work, banal civil relations. Injustice and setups in sport as a small cosmic drama have the same meaning as injustice and forgery in a big cosmic drama; they are only, since they don’t disturb the masses, given somewhat milder names. However that is why sins in sport are perhaps most difficult to cover up and they are least easily forgotten.
Sport is also a strong realm of creation. Proving this claim is not necessary. One cannot oversee the difference between the creationistic and industrial (or mechanic) approach to sports. Most people like the matches of Brazil more than the matches of the English or the Italian, although they do not completely realize why. The feelings for creative, beautiful, simple, brave, belong to deep inborn emotions. The most beautiful is when two elevated imaginations confront in the finals. However, more often is the encounter of the highest imagination and the strongest will, such as the football match between Brazil and Germany. Imagination won more victories, but will was also seen off with applauses of general respect.


Authentic sport, which preserved part of its original meaning, does not have ”common games”. Routine is bland and destructive, like in love. Just like an exhibition game cannot be played with an enemy, however much the politically correct sports reporters convince us it is possible. Who can claim that the sons of Argentina (a country destroyed by American monetarist parasitism that sportsmen had to pay the trip and accommodation themselves) played a common basketball game in Indianapolis in 2002, in which they blew away the arrogant and allegedly inviolable Americans? If anyone can be that blind, we will remind that a day later, against the same opponent, Serbs played an even more common game with the same outcome, and the whole unsuccessfully ”denazified” Serbia ”had taken it to heart”.
We are in sports what we are in great temptations, in personal and social dramas, in wars, such we will be in the greatest possible spiritual drama which, already prophesized, awaits us. Therefore, everything the sportsmen do is related to the whole nation, to the soul of the community. Both sportsmen and nations are crucially divided into those who know it (feel it) and those who don’t.
There is absolutely no doubt that sports is one of the greatest catalysts of good, healthy nationalism, a factor of cohesion and mobilization. Those who reject any possibility of the existence of good nationalism attempted to introduce regulations, through international political and sports organizations and lobbies, to weaken that connection. Good excuse: safety reasons and fighting against hooliganism. Hence the number of seats in stadiums was drastically reduced, the stands with lower ticket prices, filled mainly with passionate young people were canceled, draconic fines were introduced for ”politically incorrect” supporting, nationalist fan groups were equaled with frantic hooligans. The results were evident. For example, both Argentina and Serbia experienced the games against the USA ”like any other game”. Right?


The root and meaning of sport, as we have seen, belongs to the crystal clearness of pre-philosophic thought. On the other hand, it is hardly possible that anything more gray, stupid and shallow can be written about something so exciting and ancient than the modern ”sociology of sports”. Modern sociology is pervaded with a spirit of poorness, recycling, mental and verbal onanism. ”Sociology of sports” resembles an attempt to explain the quality of food with the length of chewing, or attributing the origin of elements to a test tube, or explaining Cinderella (soul) with cosmetics, accompanied with a few significant nods and a bunch of vain and meaningless footnotes. Why? One cannot babble about the primeval. Not without consequences. Blathering is unbearable, like an excessive concentration of kitsch, and everything is visible to everyone. The vocation of sports reporters is therefore so demanding, and that is why we had only a few great ones in the previous 45 years, more in printed than in voice media. A bad television or radio reporter soon turns into a harassment of the entire nation, especially if he or she is a political sycophant, tavern pedagogue, phrasemonger, or just a jumbled emptiness with a first and last name.
Furthermore, sport does not stand conceited, vain, frustrated people, it painfully brings false greatness down to earth. It seems that there isn’t such a fast and ruthless tumbling down in any other area. Those who cannot carry the glory implied by sport, especially those who misuse it, go through the same. I don’t know why Serbian football players came into my mind, but I know that besides virtues, weaknesses of both nations and individuals are also unmistakably reflected in sports.


Ever since Plato’s Politeia, sport has been strongly connected to the state. The care of the state for sport is caring for the spirit and health of the nation, for the education of young people, the quality of future backbones of the state, overlooked by none of the comprehensive classic political doctrines. It is logical and necessary. However, considering the terrible loss of rank of the new age political class, contemporary sport is especially threatened by two dangers: the first are small greedy politicians and the second is the degradation of sport into an entertainment of futile masses. Both dangers have the same source: sick and low politics. Always conditioned by dark passions and demony of money, premeditatedly manipulating the feelings of voters, educated to court and trick, often reduced to the political wing of the mafia, small politicians always have the ambition to subject sport to their own egoism. The credits of others fall from their smiles; they will always rush to the place where people pour their love for their sports champions, or present their group portrait with the champions (hoping they will automatically be identified with them). Their tiny greedy heart beats like a taximeter. They forget that the winners are not there as a decoration of their election campaign and this betrays them. They will do anything to infiltrate into the strongest and best organized fan groups and manipulate them as ”the voice of the people” (just remember all those who tried to get the fans of ”Zvezda” or ”Partizan” on their side and navigate them). Small politicians are even more exposed with their intention to turn sport into mass entertainment, parapolitical amusement, instrument for covering up burning problems in the state, to deprive it of its height and depth, and put it under their control.
”... Political authorities noticed it a long time ago. The most efficient mean for easily governing a human is entertainment”, warns wise Hamvas. ”By using entertainment, one can make idiots out of entire nations.”
That is perhaps the most important game Serbian sports must win for all of us.


The roots of the thing which remains are represented by today’s commercialized and subjected to the mania of profits sport should be sought, understandably, behind the curtain separating today’s mankind from sacral ancientness, in the domain of the mysterious and spiritual. The origins of sport are similar to the origins of art, perhaps mostly theater, testified in a way closest to us by the history of ancient Greece. ”The life of ancient Greeks and their entire culture were based on understanding the world as a great game and competition. Not only within oneself – the competition of the body with emotion and emotion with thought – but also the competition of thoughts, feelings and body with ourselves. Athletics, poetry and philosophy, or in brief, culture,were conceived in such a way!” (Prof. Aleksandar Stanković, maitre d’armes, in his essay Roots of (Western) Sports)


The initiator of ancient sportsmen was honor, not greed. The path of sport was one of the spiritual paths, full of dedication similar to chivalrous paths and implied self-perfection close to the later search for the grail. Wining in sports, an athletic record, for example, was a way of transcending a human’s own limits, advancement through a specific accomplishment. It is, of course, an approach similar to alchemy: overpowering physical limits had a return influence on spiritual maturing and transfiguration.


Victory brought glory: social and spiritual status. Plutarch states examples that before a great sport winner fortifying walls of his birth town were destroyed. It was a triumphal return with a message: ”The city that made such heroes does not need any walls.” Essentially, we often experience such a return at the central square of our capital city.
Glory? Certainly, but not material. It was not the modern entertainment and sports profiteers and space merchants who discovered the magnetism of glory; they only lowered, vulgarized, massified it, in order to make money from it more easily.


Welfare of the Community
Social engineers in our era suggest that uniqueness and glory can only be written with many zeroes. The old advice of Lucian, stated in the apology of gymnastics, belongs to a different order of things and a higher status of a human compared to the modern one:
”Exercise is not only for competition, for participants to win prizes. At the same time it serves them for accomplishing a higher good for the whole state and themselves. Since, another joint competition (life) and a wreath are expecting all citizens.”


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