Football: Mijatovic leads boycott threat

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The Independent Online
NATO AIRSTRIKES threatened to trigger a boycott by Yugoslav football players yesterday as the Real Madrid striker Predrag Mijatovic said he would not play for the European champions if the bombing continued.

The former national captain denied launching an organised political protest against the attacks, but found immediate backing from colleagues playing for clubs across the continent.

The Atletico Madrid midfielder Vladimir Jugovic and Real Sociedad's striker Darko Kovacevic expressed their concern over Nato's action - and Sasa Curcic, of Crystal Palace, picketed the gates of 10 Downing Street. "I don't know if I can play football thinking that my family and countrymen are suffering. I don't know if I'm capable of playing football in those conditions," Mijatovic said.

Charlton are waiting to hear from their Yugoslav goalkeeper, Sasa Ilic, after he was ordered by his national association to boycott the club in protest at Nato's bombing campaign on targets in Belgrade. Charlton admit they have had no contact with Ilic since the order was given, but the club's managing director, Peter Varney, admits he is sympathetic.

"Sasa is in a very difficult position," Varney said. "He's a player trying to build a career in this country and I'm not sure what it would achieve for that career by going on strike. Nothing will be solved in Yugoslavia by a footballer being told to go on strike at a club in south-east London. That is the responsibility of politicians."

As an alternative to going on strike, Yugoslavia have suggested the possibility of players being transferred, at least temporarily, to clubs in countries outside Nato membership, but Varney said: "I can't see what good that would achieve [in Ilic's case]."

However, Mijatovic told a radio station on Friday: "This shouldn't be seen as a political protest, nor as an order. Everyone should do whatever their heart tells them."

Mijatovic, who flew back from Budapest on Thursday after Yugoslavia's match against Croatia became one of four European Championship qualifiers to be postponed because of the crisis, received strong backing from colleagues in Spain. "I agree with this completely," said Jugovic. "I think this is the moment to make an international protest because they [Nato] do not have the right."

The defender Sinisa Mihajlovic, who plays for the Italian Serie A leaders Lazio, said he was still considering the call for a boycott.

Mihajlovic's Lazio team-mate Dajan Stankovic said: "I'm aware of the proposal but to be honest all my thoughts at the moment are with my mum and dad, who are in Belgrade."

Lazio's owner, Sergio Cragnotti, expressed sympathy. "We're ready to play even if we don't have Mihajlovic and Stankovic. It's important for the players to maintain their dignity and to follow their consciences," he said.