Ivan Ergić on the competing draws of football and philosophy
“In transitional, post-war and post-socialistic society, sport becomes an institution which accumulates frustrations and reproduces nationalism, chauvinism and hostilities, and as such it is an ideal instrument for upholding a precarium and keeping unhappy youth far from government buildings, factory yards and students’ dorms. Sport stands there together with all other forms of collectivity and mass events, in which the increasingly alienated citizen gains strength in collective delight. In that way stadiums and sports halls are transformed into incubators of nationalism and chauvinism and the descendants of the impoverished working-class and middle-class are transformed into a classic lumpenproletariat. The club consciousness, just like the regional and nationalistic consciousness, is a false consciousness, which prevents the development of authentic class consciousness. The national or the club flag replaces the flags and discourse about social justice, and the torch replaces the Molotov cocktail.”
Who would you think wrote this? You probably wouldn’t guess it was written by a professional footballer. But it was. This and many other remarkable articles — the paragraph above is of course only an excerpt — were written by the Serbian footballer (now retired) Ivan Ergić (born in 1981), who not so long ago was a star of Basel, put on shining performances in the Champions League and played at a World Cup.
Why did you decide to end your career so early, at the age of 30? You surely could have played on for at least for three or four more years?
To tell you the truth, I finished my career mostly because of a certain saturation. I had had enough and therefore I decided to terminate my career. From the age of 14 I had been separated from my family; most of the time I lived alone, no matter where I was. After so many years I felt saturated with that way of life. As a matter of fact, in the last four, five years of my career I felt that in a way I didn’t belong to this. But I still had the desire to play, because I loved to play football. I never had a strict plan of when I would play until. So when I turned 30, I thought it was time to quit. At the same time my health was important to me. Finally, I’d fulfilled my childhood dream. I’d played in big games, against great teams, great players, Champions League, World Cup... I no longer had any specific ambitions to achieve. So, all in all, I am happy with my career.
I read that in the last years of your career you became so occupied with reading and writing, often into the early morning, that you turned up at training without enough sleep. Is that true?
When I was 23, 24, when I started playing again, after that two-year-break I had because of depression, already then I started to go in a different direction. Literally, I started slowly to separate from all this. I was physically present, but my mind was more and more absent. To put it in a poetic way, just like the philosopher’s owl turns up at night, also the muse comes in the night; so yes it did happen that sometimes I didn’t sleep at all, because it was my passion to read, to think and to write. Normally, in the morning I was exhausted and sleepy. My coaches at Bursaspor and also earlier at Basel noticed that and as I was a key player, sometimes, of course not always, they scheduled training sessions for the afternoon, rather than the morning. That was an interesting episode. Maybe it was a bit unfair towards others, but I really got into that rhythm that often I didn’t sleep during nights. But it was not a problem. It did not affect my performances. Matches were played mainly in evening hours, so in that period, I was always ready. For example, while I was at Bursa, I stayed in the club hotel, I rarely went out and there was a curfew and when we had morning training, our coach was confused why I was tired. But that thing with reading and writing in the night was stronger than me. It fulfilled me. The only exception was when we had pre-season preparations, when the programme was really hard, I always had a good rest.
What are you doing nowadays?
I’m trying to do some things, but unfortunately here in Serbia it’s quite difficult. I’m involved in several things. I’m trying to do humanitarian work, but even that is not easy if you don’t have wind in your sails from politicians or some influential people… Without it it’s difficult, but I don’t want it. I absolutely don’t want any contact with anybody from politics, doing me favours. On the other hand, with just your own resources it’s very difficult to achieve anything. For some time, even when I was in Basel, I’ve been involved in the project “Women — victims of violence”. That story always touched me and I was always unhappy about the fact that in such social projects there were no men involved. I was also thinking I had to become active in the problems of refugees, because I, too, am a refugee. [Ergić’s parents had to move from Croatia to Serbia when the civil war broke out in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.] But for the time being I’m trying to help the “Women — victims of violence” project, both in a financial and an organisational way. Apart from that, most likely I will get into theatre production. That’s also a passion of mine. Together with a friend from a theatre we will try to stage independent plays, which will be politically engaged, which will deal with social problems. I think that I do have a talent for theatre. I also have long-term plans, like setting up a small culture centre to give young people more chances to engage and create. I meet so many talented and honest young people here in Serbia, but they are politically frustrated. They are disappointed and they do not have any frame in which they can find themselves.
Those are noble goals. What other future plans do you have?
Those goals are not short-term wishes. My long-term wish is really to put things into motion, to do something that will make sense. For example, I often say that in football I have achieved a lot, but in fact, in a human sense I didn’t achieve anything. I represented my country when I played for the national team. But now — in the real sense — I want to help and represent my country. I aim to make a difference, to help those young people, to develop their huge potential, to get them out of apathy. I really have no dreams other than that.
What about business and income? You speak only about non-profit work. Does that mean that you won’t work for money any more, that you have enough?
It depends what you mean by enough. It depends how much someone needs. I’m not used to a luxury lifestyle. All I really need is one room, full of books… I don’t know, that’s my micro-world. Of course, I’m aware that you have to be careful with the money you have earned. I know that there are many retired football players who unfortunately let it happen that one day all their money is gone. If you’re used to having a lot of money and having a certain life style, it’s difficult all of a sudden to switch to another lifestyle. I never got used to a grand lifestyle, so I have no problem in that regard. I wish to do with my money something that makes sense, something that will fulfil me. Whether I will succeed in having enough energy, spirit and financial resources to achieve that, we shall see.
In the last two years, since you finished your career, have you ever considered a comeback? There were offers, weren’t there?
I must admit that I’m missing the game; the game as a game. It’s true that I had offers from the Middle East and China. Actually, I considered perhaps going to China and signing for a club there. I had contacts with some Chinese clubs, but eventually I got fed up after I saw how many middle-men were supposed to be involved in the deal. Also with the Arabs it was a disaster. You cannot imagine how arrogant those guys are. They got rich overnight, they don’t know anything, but they look down at you from a height. And when you turn them down, all of a sudden they sort of show more respect for you. They tell you things like, “My boss is offended, but he is ready to speak to you again,” and so on and so on. I was in negotiations with a club from Qatar, but eventually I pulled out. So, all in all, there were no serious attempts for a comeback. I didn’t speculate, I didn’t wait for offers. Besides, there was never a serious offer like with Bursa, when the coach said that he wanted me, that he stood behind me, when we had decent and serious meetings.
You wrote and still write articles for the Swiss paper Tageswoche and the Belgrade Politika. When and how did you get the idea for those columns? What was the main motive and inspiration?
It was back in 2005 or 2006 when I started first writing for [the Swiss daily] Tagesanzeiger, but that didn’t work out well. There were issues with making the pieces shorter, changing them, moving them from the sports pages to another section and things like that. Then I began writing for Tageswoche from Basel. The inspiration for those columns I got from everything I’d experienced in my football career; dealing with people from clubs, with agents, with criminals. I found myself in the middle of that story at the age of 19, with stories about millions and so on. Also the period before that marked me. Moving from place to place, being a refugee… All that was accumulated in me and it culminated at one point. So it was maybe natural that it resulted with some pathology [his depression]. After everything, it was for me a way of discharging, a way of dealing with everything. My basic psychological and emotional structure was in me, I couldn’t reshape it; I kept everything, but I didn’t hold it back any more — I decided to throw it out of myself. At the same it was a conscious decision, because I thought that people deserved to learn the truth. Sport, in general, is still keen to keep around it that aura of cleanliness. So it is still sort of a taboo. So I wanted, for example, youngsters and their parents to learn what is going on in this business. That was my main motive. I have to say that I was lucky with my writing, because I was at a club like Basel, which functioned a bit differently than other clubs.
I was just about to ask you this. How did your bosses and teammates react to your writing? On the one hand you were making a living from professional football and on the other criticising the business severely in print. One could say that it’s like spitting into the plate from which you were eating.
The head coach [Christian Gross] was not happy about it. He was a strict guy. I had issues with him. Not so much because of my columns, but because I commented on our style of play. At one point we had a team that could have played attractive, attacking football, but we played destructive football. So, sometimes I said that our main rival, FC Zurich, played better football, although they had poorer players than we did. That frustrated him. After each interview I ended up in his office. As for my columns, I noticed that people at the club were not happy with them, the president was not happy about it. But I knew the limits. I never wrote anything that could have had a negative effect on the atmosphere in the team and in the club. I wrote mainly about some general pathology in sport. So, in that sense I think that I managed to find some balance. But I cannot deny that I felt some sort of negative reactions, that I was regarded as a Nestbeschmutzer [someone who fouls their own nest], but I accepted it. After all, we lived in a democracy. Earning good money from football doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to say something against it. When I was criticised in the club and from people around the club, as well as from fans and media, I replied that I thought that Switzerland was a democratic country, but that it seemed that it was not. But it was not polemical. It was my general attitude if there were complaints. Actually, it’s ideal for the establishment to give a lot of space in the media to rich athletes and other celebrities, who have nothing to say, or who are not allowed to say it. As for my teammates, they didn’t bother; they weren’t interested in those columns.
Did you maybe think about one day working as a professional journalist?
No, not really. Especially not being staff writer in some company. But you never know. What attracts me is investigative journalism. I have the highest respect for that. But I think for that one has to have some sort of detective skills. I don’t think that I have that talent.
Reading your columns, you get the impression that they were written by a sociologist or a psychologist, that the author is at the level of a university professor. Please tell me about your education.
Even when I was a little boy, I was keen to learn and to read. I come from a working-class family and my parents were quite severe. School was always very important. I was lucky that I received a scholarship from the Australian Institute for Sports and I finished high school in Canberra. Reading was always my passion. I wanted to study philosophy while I was in Switzerland and also later in Serbia, after I finished my career, but I didn’t. I realised that formal education was not for me and that most people do it in order to get an academic title, rather than gaining essential knowledge. In a nutshell, I would say that I am an autodidact. As Chomsky said, formal education can make you blind rather than enabling you to develop critical thinking.
What kind of literature were you reading the most?
At one point I read a lot of stuff on psychology. It had also a healing effect for the emotional state I was in. I read also a lot of stuff on philosophy, sociology and politics, of course also a lot of literature per se. I can’t tell you all the authors or titles, but I read so many books about philosophy, that it’s no exaggeration to say that I could immediately get a doctorate in philosophy.
Last year you published a book of love poetry. Do you plan to publish more?
I have more poems. Some of them are a bit heavier, with more social and patriotic topics. I don’t know if I will ever publish them.
Do you follow football? Do you go to games or watch football on TV?
Not so much. Usually I watch the Champions League highlights and some Spanish league games, especially Barcelona.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I had the impression that you never seemed integrated with the national team. Is that fair?
When I played my best football, when for example I was voted in the Champions League Team of the Week, I wasn’t called up to the national team. Other players played instead of me and that hurt. At the same time the Australian Football Federation constantly pushed me to play for them. They gave me a lot, they invested in my football development, so I thought that it would be fair to play for them, but my heart decided to play for my homeland. I mean, I never regret that decision, but at the same time, you are right, I never identified myself with the milieu in and around the Serbian FA, with the people who were around the national team.
Everybody was puzzled when before the 2006 World Cup game between Serbia & Montenegro and Côte d’Ivoire you were the only player who loudly and proudly sung the old Yugoslav national anthem, an anthem of a country that hadn’t existed for 15 years. What were you emotions then and how did your teammates react?
There were no particular reactions, although I think that they thought that I was strange. As for singing the anthem, I did it spontaneously and it meant a lot to me, because I was born and brought up in Yugoslavia and I loved that country. You know, I am a Yugoslav in a cultural sense. I cannot accept that [the Serbian writer Jovan] Dučić is mine and [the Croatian writer Miroslav] Krleža is not mine any more. That’s as if someone cut off my arm. I cannot grasp why I cannot be at the same time a Serb and a Yugoslav. I even think that I am a bigger patriot than those guys who hold up three fingers all the time or wear some Chetnik [Second World War Serb nationalist paramilitaries] symbols…
Juventus spotted you in Australia and signed you. Still, in the end you didn’t make a career with Juventus. Why?
I was a 19-year-old kid and of course I was impressed when Juventus wanted me. I also had offers from some other big clubs, but I picked Juventus. They sent me on loan to Basel, where I played very well and at one point I was supposed to return to Juventus, but then I suffered a groin injury, I had an operation, the recovery took longer than expected [Ergić suffered at that period also from mononucleosis] and eventually I fell into depression. I was two years out of the game and in the meantime Juventus pulled out. They acted as if we never had a contract. Basel supported me; they were still counting on me, so that after my comeback Juventus was not an issue any more. I really felt a moral obligation to pay back Basel for the trust they put in me, during that difficult period I went through. Also Juventus were in turmoil, they were in the middle of the corruption scandal, club officials were arrested… and when I saw all that, I said to myself, “I’m not interested whatsoever in Juventus,” besides the fact that I was happy at FC Basel and that I owed them. Afterwards I was given the captain’s armband, I was called up to the national team for the World Cup, I involved myself a lot in various club activities, in contact with our fans, especially in that tricky period when the club had to play six games behind closed doors [after a pitch invasion in May 2006]. I had credibility both at the club and with the fans. So I was practically an intermediary. I was also interested in how the fan culture functioned.
On the cover of your poetry book you wrote, “Football is my wife, poetry is my lover.” You could say that maybe that was precisely the reason why you didn’t have a bigger career, although you had the potential for it. What do you think?
Well, probably I could have had a bigger career. I still keep that contract with Juventus as a souvenir and I believe that I could have played successfully for a bigger club, but I really have no regrets at all. Who knows, perhaps at a bigger club I would have struggled to cope with that massive machinery that surrounds the modern game. If I hadn’t been with a club like Basel, which is not among the biggest clubs, but which is a respectable club in Europe, probably I wouldn’t have had the space for my other interests. They were tolerant towards it.
Is it true that you never had an agent? Why?
In the beginning, when I moved from Australia to Juventus, I did have an agent, but actually he was more a Juventus agent than mine. But later on I abandoned contacts with agents, although at some point it was suggested to me that I should have an agent, that I wouldn’t find a club and that I wouldn’t succeed in football without an agent. But I rejected the idea. I said that I didn’t need an agent. I didn’t want to change my mind.
You were treated for depression and you didn’t play for two years. At that point you even considered giving up your football career. How do you look back today at that difficult period?
Yes, it’s true that I wasn’t sure if I could go on. I had a break of two years and you won’t often find a club that will stick with their player in such a situation. But Basel held on, they were very correct and they extended my contract. It’s not easy, when you’re in a psychiatric clinic, to explain to people what kind of state of mind you’re in. In such circumstances you don’t think about life, let alone about your football career. So, at one point I told my psychiatrist that I didn’t want to continue with football, but he tried to persuade me to go on. He was a big Basel fan and afterwards we became friends. He repeated all the time, “You will play again,” and after I recovered, also the hope returned that I would continue my career. He worked a lot with me, he lifted my self-confidence. So, talking about football was part of my therapy. If I succeeded in re-socialising through football, it meant that I was ready again for life. Eventually I came out from it far stronger than I ever was.
You wrote that professional sport is anything but healthy. Do you plan maybe one day to publish a book about that topic?
Yes, I wrote an article about that subject. I don’t know whether I’ll write a book. Besides, Duci Simonović [Ljubodrag Simonović, the former Crvena Zvezda and Yugoslavia basketball player, who is also a philosopher and publicist] has written about it his whole life, so I wouldn’t like to repeat the same things.
Fair Play practically doesn’t exist any longer. You said that a fair game is more important to you than a victory. Did you have issues with coaches and teammates because of such an attitude?
There were some situations with Basel, when they were not happy about it. For example, once when I told the referee, who gave a penalty-kick to us, that it wasn’t handball and he changed his decision. Our coach [Christian Gross] called me into his office the next morning and asked me to give him an explanation. You know, it’s the logic “to achieve victory by all means”. Also from some teammates there was mocking. They told me that I was a pussy and things like that. So one could see that there was the logic of machoism, that one had to be aggressive, but it didn’t bother me. Also the fans were divided. A few praised me, but most said that “victory is most important.” They are raised from childhood like that. Of course I knew that I could never change things, but still sometimes I tried to turn around things a little bit.
You wrote that you would like to experience the humanisation of football and professional sports. Is that too utopian an idea ever to happen?
It’s impossible to achieve as long as the society functions as it does now. Sport will become human only when society becomes human. Football cannot be humanised in the present circumstances.
Do you have a soul mate from the world of football or from other sports, someone with whom you share your thoughts, with whom you discuss ideas and arguments?
I am in touch with Duci Simonović. He is a legend. In another age, he would surely be in a high position in sports. With the exception of some of his political views, I agree 99% with his ideas and views. But, in general, I don’t have friends from football. Well, at Basel I had good relations with [Zdravko] Kuzmanović and with [Ivan] Rakitić. I was like their older brother, but we didn’t have a relationship in terms of discussing the darker side of modern sport.