The rain comes in bursts, hurled by a gusting wind across the pitch. The grass is clumpy and the goalframes are angled back, as though trying to turn away from the desolation. A solitary stand offers little respite. This is the home of Borovo, who once proudly took their place in the Yugoslav second division and each year hosted the most important youth tournament in the country. It was here that Siniša Mihajlović played his first competitive football. Now, like the rest of Vukovar, it stands as an awful reminder of the legacy of the war.

The physical scars are obvious. Although construction work is going on, numerous buildings are still dotted with the holes left by mortars and shrapnel and others live on only in rubble and the outlines they left on the building next door. The Borovo factory, which had been the major employer since it was founded in 1932 by the Czech industrialist Tomaš Bata to make shoes and rubber products, lies empty. There is a sense of decay, from the potholed streets to the bedraggled bushes. 

Not far from the stadium, on a nondescript street, stands a house of orange-red brick. It seems incongruously bright, clearly newer than those of the buildings around it, while a small notice in the window reveals that it’s for sale. It was in an apartment block there, in the village of Borovo Naselje, just north of Vukovar, that Mihajlović grew up, there that he battered free-kicks against the garage door so hard and so often that his father had to replace it every few weeks. “I soon realised,” he said, “that the ball didn’t want me to dribble it. So I just kicked it.”

It’s hard to imagine now that Vukovar was once one of the most prosperous places in Yugoslavia. In fact, it was more than that: it was almost a model for the federal ideal and there is still great pride in what the town used to be. “Before the war there were 22 different nationalities in this area,” said Nebojša Šerbić, Mihajlović’s old history teacher, a studious man with horn-rimmed glasses and a swept-back mass of white hair. “There was only one place with more — a village in Vojvodina that had 23. This was a hugely multi-ethnic community and it was always like that. In sport it was always like that and nobody cared. It was also a very rich area and people were hard-working here. In the 1980s only Maribor had more cars per person than Vukovar — that’s an indication of how developed it was.” 

Mihajlović’s mother worked in the shoe factory; his father was a truck-driver. Mihajlović never had any doubt what he wanted to be. “Eventually he got to a stage where he was much better at football than everybody else, but I want to emphasise that he was a hard worker and it was that that got him that far,” said Siniša Lazić, who first played with Mihalović when he was 12 and went on to become a professional himself with Hajduk Kula. “There was one thing that always set him apart from everybody else and that was his shot. He always had that, even as a kid, and he worked hard on everything else.” He remembers going swimming with other friends, messing about in the pool and seeing through the window Mihajlović practising alone outside. “He was very competitive in other spheres as well, especially at school,” Lazić said. “He was an excellent pupil. He started going to a technical college, a very good school, but the classes were in the afternoons and that meant he couldn’t train in the afternoons. So he quit that school and enrolled in the worst school in town — for people who produce shoes. That was very risky because nobody knew if he would become a footballer. Other kids wouldn’t have been allowed to do that by their parents but he was so determined to become a footballer that he even quit school for it.”

Mihajlović was utterly single-minded.  “I always wanted to be a footballer,” he said. “In Borovo there was a local newspaper that gave information about the factory and other things that were happening in the village. Once they did a survey and asked pupils at the school what they wanted to do when they grew up. I was only seven or eight, but even then I wrote ‘professional footballer’.”

Šerbić remembers Mihajlović as a diligent pupil, although he knew him as a footballer before he ever taught him. He ran the school football team for boys aged between 11 and 14. “I used to work with a player who played for the national team — in 1939 he scored from a corner kick against England — Nikola Perlić. I worked with him when I was high school, mostly on passing and controlling the ball. The kids found the drills boring. We would much rather have played football but if we said that we had to run laps. Perlić said that if you tried to play football without knowing how to pass it was like studying for exams without knowing all the letters. I wasn’t a real coach but I focused on that when working with kids.”

When Mihajlović was nine, “a female teacher” — as Šerbić put it — “told me he was good enough to play with my boys and that he supported Zvezda which was even better. He was very well-developed, and when he shot from 10 or 11m from goal, nobody could save it. When we played games in school, I had to make sure the other teams man-marked him because he was already so sharp that if you didn’t he would destroy you. I worked with other kids with talent, but they didn’t have the character. Even if he hadn’t made it as a footballer, he would have made it in something else because he was very persistent.”

Mihajlović joined the Borovo club and in 1986, when he was 17, started playing for the first team. His coach there was Zvonko Popović, who had played for Borovo between 1964 and 1976. “You could immediately see how talented he was but nobody expected him to attain such heights,” Popović said. “He couldn’t let anybody beat him or be better than him, whether it was opponents or teammates. He committed a lot of fouls and got a lot of cards.”

Asked about Mihajlović’s personality, Lazić laughed. “He was very temperamental, really feisty,” he said. “He would always protect himself and the others on the pitch. There was one game when we played this team that had a huge guy, like 2m tall, and Siniša went up to him, close to him, and said something to his face. Everybody was afraid what he was going to do but the guy backed down. That was Siniša imposing himself. He’d spit on you and abuse you to win in the heat of the action, but that’s the culture here.”

He soon emerged as an outstanding player. “Some games we played him in midfield, sometimes at centre-back because he was very good in the air,” said Popović. “People didn’t like that because he was perceived as a very talented creative player and they didn’t understand why we used him in defence. It gradually became apparent he was best on the left. When it came to set-pieces he was a key player: corner kicks, free-kicks… Free-kicks from a long way out he would drop just in front of the goal.”

Mihajlović’s temper remained such an issue that Popović decided he had to take radical action. “We had a player who had played in the first division for Osijek, who was older than all the others,” he said. “We discussed how to calm down Siniša and we concluded it would be best to make him captain. The captain was more experienced than the others but we told him we wanted to give Siniša responsibility and stop him getting into trouble with the refs. That gave him new confidence.”

What everybody agrees is that Mihajlović had a classic case of white-line fever: “Siniša on the pitch and Siniša off the pitch are two different personalities,” said Lazić. Sven-Göran Eriksson’s agent Athole Still, who acted for Mihajlović for a number of years, describes him as “a Jekyll and Hyde character”. 

“Off the pitch he was no trouble at all,” said Popović. “On the pitch he was trouble as soon as the whistle blew. He didn’t respect anyone. It didn’t matter how big a player was or what his reputation was. He didn’t care.”

“In class, he was very serious,” Šerbić agreed. “There were no problems. But when he played it was something else. In the game, people get carried away.” 

Yet Mihajlović himself admits that it wasn’t quite as simple as having an on-pitch and an off-pitch personality. “As a kid I got into a lot of fights,” he said. “I got beaten up and I beat people up. I fought with older children. I didn’t get frightened. I remember there was a teacher who lived on our street who didn’t want me in her class because she thought I would cause trouble. However, I was always an excellent student, one of the best. Later, that teacher told me she regretted not having me in her class because I was a very different person in school to how I was on the street.”

Friends and teachers remember him as a very driven figure. “He wanted to win at all sports and especially at school,” said another school friend, Siniša Čučkovic. “He was very good at Serbo-Croatian language and literature. He was very confident and, if he hadn’t succeeded in sport, he would have done in some other area. And the girls loved him.”

Mihajlović himself seems to have been beset by doubts, not least about girls. “I remember my friend Zlatko had a birthday party,” he told Tempo magazine. “I went behind the curtain in the living room with a girl called Ančica. We looked through the window and then we kissed. It was my first kiss, but I wasn’t uninformed. I had watched movies to see how it was done. I was afraid I might get it wrong, but everything happened spontaneously.” There is at times a surprising vulnerability to him. He had only been at Crvena Zvezda a couple of months when he faced Dynamo Dresden in the Champions League quarter-final. In the tunnel before the game at the Marakana, he placed his hands on the wall to stretch and felt the concrete vibrating with the noise of the crowd. “Oh, Siniša,” he said to himself. “What have you done? Why didn’t you stay in Novi Sad and lead a quiet life?”

A quiet life, though, was never for him. “Dinamo [Zagreb] showed some interest when he was 14,” said Popović. “They scouted him at the tournament in Borovo and also when he played in a selection for Slavonia [a region of eastern Croatia]. But I don’t think they were ever serious about it. Borovo were more oriented towards Novi Sad and Belgrade so more players went to play there.” In his autobiography, Mihajlović claimed he turned Dinamo down in 1987 in a bout of stubbornness after Mirko Jozić, the Croatian coach of the Yugoslavia Under-20 side, told him he would be picked for the World Youth Cup in Chile (which Yugoslavia, having gone with little hope, ended up winning) only if he joined. Instead, a year later, aged 19, he signed for Vojvodina.

“There were maybe bigger talents here before,” Popović said, “but Siniša had luck — the luck to go to Vojvodina in that season when they became champions [they only ever won the title twice]. He played very well during that season and people from Zvezda saw him and liked him.” It wasn’t until December 1990, though, that Mihajlović moved to Belgrade. It was then that he first came into contact with Arkan, the notorious warlord whose Tigers, many of them recruited from the Delije, the Zvezda Ultras group Arkan headed, were responsible for numerous atrocities during the war. Mihajlović’s mother was a Croat and, in the febrile atmosphere of the time, that could make things difficult. Arkan protected him.

Mihajlović played in 14 league games in that first season, but it was what happened in the European Cup that made his reputation. Zvezda won 2-1 away to Bayern Munich in the semi-final and when a Mihajlović free-kick was deflected past Raimond Aumann midway through the first half of the second leg, Zvezda’s progress seemed assured. But Bayern hit back with two goals in quick succession to set up a breathtaking final 20 minutes. Either side could have won it, but it was Zvezda who did, Mihajlović’s cross being scooped over his own goalkeeper by Klaus Augenthaler. In the celebrations that followed, fans invaded the pitch and the turf was dug up. The jubilation had a manic edge.

Keep going along the road from the centre of Vukovar through Borovo Nasleje and you come to Borovo Selo. It was there, in April 1991, between the two legs of the semi-final, that the first ordnance of the war was fired. Vukovar stands in the far east of Croatia. When the war began, there was a slight Croat majority in the town, but Borovo Selo was predominantly Serb. As tensions increased, militias were established on both sides and Serbs under Vojislav Šešelj set up barricades in Borovo, supposedly to keep the Croat militia out, although given they also excluded Croatian police and administrators, what was effectively established was a Serbian enclave. The local police chief, Josip Reihl-Kir, who was later assassinated by a Croatian police reserve, negotiated a settlement whereby the barricades came down in return for a voluntary agreement on the part of the Croatian police not to enter the village, but attempts at finding a peaceful solution were undermined by hard-line Croatian nationalists. Three Ambrust anti-tank missiles were fired into the village by members of Croatia’s ruling HDZ party, which was used by Serbian media as an example of unprovoked hostility from Croatians.

Worse followed on May 1, as four Croatian policemen, seemingly acting spontaneously — perhaps even as a dare — towards the end of a national holiday, entered Borovo Selo and attempted to change the Yugoslav flag for a Croatian one. Local armed Serbs intervened, a gun-battle followed and although two of the Croatians escaped, the other two were wounded and taken prisoner. The following day, Croatian authorities in Osijek bussed 150 policemen to the village to try to secure the captives’ release. Another firefight ensued, in which 12 Croatians and somewhere between three and 20 Serbs were killed. The Serbian militia then mutilated the bodies of their enemies, further inflaming tensions. In The Death of Yugoslavia, Allan Little and Laura Silber argue that the incident marked “a sea change” in attitudes in the build-up to the war, as Croatians began to regard Serbs in the republic as “the enemy within”, while the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army (JNA) was deployed supposedly to try to keep the peace between the militias (although it has subsequently become clear that the Yugoslav leader in Belgrade, Slobodan Milosević, and the Croatian leader in Zagreb, Franjo Tuđman, were both set on the course of war).

Šerbić felt the full effect of the rising tensions. “My wife was a professor and she was sacked for being Serbian,” he said. “I wouldn’t let my daughter go to school any more because she felt threatened. At that time I moved to a village on the other side of the border and I travelled every day to work in Croatia. Then one day I couldn’t go back any more.” 

On May 8, Mihajlović lined up for Zvezda against Hajduk Split at the JNA Stadium (now the Partizan Stadium) in Belgrade. Alen Bokšić got the only goal to give Hajduk victory, but the game is better remembered now for the clashes between Mihajlović and the Hajduk captain Igor Štimac. At one point they stood eyeball to eyeball. Mihajlović subsequently claimed that Štimac had said that he hoped his whole family in Borovo were murdered — a particularly sensitive subject given he hadn’t heard from his parents for over a week because the phone lines had been cut. He admitted he spent the rest of the game targeting the defender, until both were sent off in the 70th minute.

Three weeks later, Mihajlović scored one of the penalties as Zvezda beat Marseille in a shoot-out in the European Cup final. Almost with its dying breath, Yugoslav football had, at last, won a major honour. As the attacks on Serbs intensified, Mihajlović’s closest friend visited his family in Borovo Naselje and warned them to leave for their own safety. They did, fleeing with Siniša’s brother, who was studying in Zagreb at the time. A few days later, the same friend was brought back to the Mihajlović house by two men who demanded that he shoot the family photographs on the walls, including one showing the Crvena Zvezda team before the European Cup final.

By the July, Vukovar was surrounded by the JNA. For four months they bombarded the town, reducing the 15,000 (mainly but not exclusively Croat) inhabitants who remained to living in cellars without water or electricity. Those who tried to flee were picked off by snipers. Vukovar fell on November 19. Around 260 men were massacred on a farm to the south of the town and buried in a mass grave, while hundreds of others — Croats and Serbs —were rounded up and sent to camps in Serbia. One of them was Popović. “I stayed in one of the camps for a month before they let me go,” he said. “The reason they let me go was because I was a footballer. One of the people who interrogated me was a general who used to work at Partizan Belgrade. He asked me that if I was a footballer, did I know a player called Mile Stamenković. Stamenković was the best man at my wedding. So the general said it would be OK and they let me go.”

By then Mihajlović had added the Intercontinental Cup, as Zvezda beat Colo Colo of Chile 3-0 in Tokyo. The following year, he was sold to Roma and so began a 14-year stint in Serie A in which he also played for Sampdoria, Lazio and Internazionale, scoring a record 29 goals direct from free-kicks. Controversy and turmoil, though, were never far away.

Mihajlović dreams of snakes and has been told by psychologists that they represent his enemies. There are plenty of them. Mihajlović has become a hate figure, for Croatians riled by his obvious pro-Serbian sympathies and for those everywhere disgusted by his misbehaviour on the pitch. The most notorious incident came in a Champions League game in 2000 when he called Patrick Vieira a “black shit”, something that earned him a two-game ban. It is the moment that defines discussion of his personality — at least in Britain — and of course it is a deplorable thing to say.  Mihajlović’s explanation was that he was responding to Vieira calling him a “zingaro”, a word meaning gypsy and often used in Italy as a term of abuse for those from the southern Slavic nations. That is also racist, but was never investigated. None of which diminishes the seriousness of Mihajlović’s offence, but it does give some insight why he committed it. “Vieira provoked me from the first minute,” he said. “I’m not going let somebody treat me like that. I am who I am and I would have reacted the same way even on the street. I’ve played football since I was 15 years old and in that time I have been kicked, spat upon and insulted. In football these things happen. What made me really angry is that off the pitch, back home, Vieira gave a press conference to talk about incidents that occurred during the match and must be kept on the field. If I am a racist, so is Vieira.”

Lashing out at supposed slights to your honour, of course, is an easy excuse, but when a group of far-right Lazio ultras hailed him as somebody of similar political persuasion, Mihajlović took a microphone onto the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico before a game and addressed the crowd, admitting he had been wrong, stressing he regretted the insult and insisting that he did not hold racist beliefs. 

But that wasn’t the only incident. He once spat in Adrian Mutu’s ear — again, he said, in response to an insult: “I was provoked in a dishonourable way and I reacted” — and there is a whole catalogue of other instances of petulance and pointless red cards. Against Slovenia at Euro 2000, he played in such a fog of fury that Yugoslavia trailed 3-0 when he was sent off for a second yellow card in four minutes but came back to draw. Still, he’s hardly the only player to have let his temper get the better of him. “There are many worse incidents on a football pitch than those that are mentioned about Mihajlović,” said Lazić.

And then there is the ethnic issue, something Mihajlović hasn’t necessarily helped with some inflammatory comments, although Lazić insists many of them have been taken out of context. “If he’d gone to Dinamo and played for Croatia,” Popović said, “it would have been the Serbs who hated him. It’s like a kind of jealousy.”

His divided heritage means any act is open to misinterpretation. When Yugoslavia played Croatia in a Euro 2000 qualifier in Zagreb in 1999, a huge banner commemorated “Vukovar 91”; Mihajlović knelt before it and crossed himself, a gesture that was understandable in that he wanted to commemorate the fallen on both sides but one that was also hugely provocative, drawing a torrent of abuse from home fans.

His reputation means many simply assume the worst. As Serbia manager, he was determined to stamp out the cliques that had undermined the squad — and Yugoslavia’s before it — almost since international football began to be played. He introduced a code of conduct, which included singing the national anthem. The Fiorentina forward Adem Ljajić, whose parents are Bosnian Muslims, signed up to the contract but then refused to sing the anthem, saying he found the references in it to a Christian god unacceptable.  Mihajlović’s critics immediately took that as evidence of his nationalistic stance. “When we played as Yugoslavia our fans booed our national anthem as it was the symbol of a unification that wasn’t really felt,” he said. “Our opponents would absolutely bust their guts to sing theirs and, to me, that always seemed a disadvantage even before the game had started. As coach I expect that every player and member of the coaching staff sings the Serbian national anthem. That’s the rule: Ljajić agreed to it. And he immediately ignored it. I don’t only look at talent, but at the man as a whole. I need to be able to rely on the man.”

The wounds in Vukovar are beginning to heal. Many Serbs have returned, including Popović and Šerbić. “As a historian I can tell you that in the late 17th century Croatia was freed from the Turks but Serbia wasn’t,” Šerbić said. “And that was a time of great movement of Serbs out of Serbia. My ancestors came with that great movement of people here so my ancestors lived here for three centuries. I kept going away to Belgrade but I came back here because this is my home. After the war I also decided to do the same. I was born here. It’s normal. All my relatives and family live here. I bought my house here. It was normal.”

Mihajlović last visited in 1991. “Up until the war, everybody here loved him,” said Čučković. “He was a star. People would be very angry if anybody made a tackle on him — stuff like that. Only after ’91 did people start to be divided in their opinion. He didn’t have to do anything to be divisive: it was just the circumstances of the time. It was just because of his nationality. He didn’t have to do or say anything.”

His house was completely destroyed in the war, although whether it was targeted is difficult to say. What is known is that when his parents fled Vukovar during the siege, Arkan helped them cross the border and settle in Serbia. Mihajlovic’s uncle, his mother’s brother, was a senior officer in the Croatian army and was taken prisoner after the fall of the town. Arkan called Mihajlović and asked him to come and pick the uncle up before his men murdered him. When Arkan was assassinated in a Belgrade hotel in January 2000, Mihajlović wrote an obituary for him, something that for many in western Europe confirmed his image as the snarling face of Serb nationalism. “It was easy from the outside, sat in an armchair, to point the finger,” Mihajlović said in an interview in Gazzetta dello Sport. “But Arkan had been a friend of mine from the time when, as a youngster, I used to play for Zvezda and he was one of the leaders of the fans. And Arkan defended the Serbs in Croatia as they were about to be massacred. Arkan was a hero to these Serbs. I don’t deny writing the obituary, but I didn’t defend his war crimes. They will never go away. They were terrible. And I condemn them. As I do all war crimes ever committed, by one side or another. During civil wars there are no good guys or bad guys. There is no black and no white. The colour that dominates in the end is always red. The blood spilt by the innocent. The war in Yugoslavia had many culprits. Too many.”

Even as many return, Vukovar remains a divided city. “There was a guy from a village near here, Milutin Milanković, and a few years ago Nasa voted him one of the 10 greatest physicists who ever lived but people here don’t even know about him — because he’s Serbian,” said Lazić. “Normally, if people saw a footballer in the street — [Nemanja] Vidić, [Edin] Džeko, whoever — they’d shake their hand and wish them good luck,” he said. “Not Siniša. His father died a few years ago but his mother and brother came here because of the house. But Siniša doesn’t come here any more.”