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the story of the Milinković brothers, sons of a former Lleida player

“I am the proudest and happiest father in the world. What I feel these days is something that cannot be explained in words,” says Nikola Milinković (Sanski Most, 1968), former Lleida player and father of two world cup with Serbia: goalkeeper Vanja (Turin) and midfielder Sergej (Lazio). “I don’t know if I’m more nervous when Sergej has the ball at his feet or when the opposing team gets within 20 or 30 meters of Vanja’s goal,” he continues. Located in Vienna, he answers the call of the NOW a few hours before the duel of the last day of the group phase between Serbia and Switzerland, last Friday. He speaks nervously: he knows that Serbia will only advance to the round of 16 if they win. He explains that if they pass round he will fly to Qatar and open a bottle of wine: “Here I have about 20 or 30 bottles of Rioja. And in Serbia more than 50. I like it a lot. Whenever I come to Spain I come back loaded with bottles” . But Friday’s bottle remained in the pantry: Serbia lost and was eliminated.

Milinković, yesterday a striker and today a collaborator of two footballers’ agencies, speaks with a hoarse, smoker’s voice. I used to smoke when I played. Laughing, he admits that Mané, a coach based in Lleida, caught him smoking once or twice around the city. Walking? “No, not walking. Because at 54 years old I have never lit a cigarette in the street. I can’t smoke and walk.” He says he was very happy on Terra Firma: “They are beautiful memories. They are two years that I will never forget.” He scored 14 goals in 74 games with Lleida, in two years: 1993-1994 and 1994-1995. The 1993-1994 season, the club’s second and last in Primera, was Lleida’s best with six goals. He did not score either in the victory against Barça at the Camp Nou or in the victory against Madrid in Lleida, but he played in those two games. “When I talk to my children or to people in the world of football I always say that I am one of the few ex-players who can say that they have beaten Barça at Camp Nou. It does not happen very often. And I am even more proud because it was in the time of Cruyff”, he emphasizes.

Sergej was born in Lleida; the Vanja, in Ourense

Sergej, a midfielder valued at 60 million euros on Transfermarkt, was born in Lleida on February 27, 1995, just one day after a victory in Toledo. “In our country, when a son is born it’s a party. The next day I brought whiskey and wine and about 50 cigars with Sergej’s name to the dressing room. I was told it was a tradition in Serbia, but of course it wasn’t valid for the dressing room. Mané said to me: “Milo, what are you doing?” and explained to me that this should be done at home or in a restaurant. «It can’t be done here»“, he explains with a laugh.

He continues: “Right after Sergej was born and they saw that he had all his fingers and toes, I went out into the corridor. Three friends were waiting for me outside. They took off my clothes. I was left in my underpants. A Serbia, when a child is born, the father’s clothes are thrown away. They are not thrown away, in fact, they are torn. I was worried at the time that the doctor would call the police, but luckily I had worked in Germany for ten years and I already knew the people of the Balkans. I already had more clothes ready in the car because I knew what was going to happen.” “When Vanja was born I had maybe 30 babies in the car,” he adds jokingly.

Vanja was born in Ourense, in Galicia, in 1997, when Milinković was playing for Chaves in Portugal. Both Sergej and Vanja, starters in the three matches played in Qatar, have dual nationality. Of the 26 Serbians called up for the World Cup, they are the only two who have two surnames: because in Spain children are registered with their father’s and mother’s surnames, while in Serbia only the father’s is taken. His two surnames, Milinković for Nikola and Savić for Milana, ex-professional basketball player, are joined by a hyphen because in Serbia it is not possible to have a name with two surnames.

His voice sounds even more serious when he talks about the war in the Balkans: “I don’t like to talk about this issue because I lost everything there. Since the year 90 I have not been able to return to the house where I was born, in Sanski Most. It’s been 32 years. No one will put a gun to my head if I go there, but I won’t know anyone anymore.” They are the scars of war. “My father always said, and still says, that you have to look at the man. You don’t have to look at his name or his surname, or whether he’s Muslim, Croatian, Slovenian or Montenegrin. You just have to look at whether you can talk to him or not,” he remarks.

Son of a land that bled and cried a lot, it doesn’t take much for him to find an excuse to start a Rioja. And less since Irina, his first granddaughter, was born. “I’m the happiest grandfather in the world,” he proclaims. He is one of those who sees the glass half full, of water or wine: “There is a lot of fog in Lleida. But you get in the car, drive for 15 minutes and you see the sun.”

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