Great credit for the extraordinary successes of Serbian volleyball today – with both the men’s and women’s national teams current champions of Europe – belongs to Aleksandar Boričić, president of the European Volleyball Federation (CEV), who took the helm of Yugoslav volleyball at a juncture when it was ranked bottom in Europe. Actually, it wouldn’t be right to say that it was at rock bottom, rather something much worse than that, because at that moment (1992-95) volleyball – like the whole country (then FR Yugoslavia) – was outcast from the international community. If it could ever be said that someone was the cornerstone of subsequent historic endeavours, then that is precisely Boričić. Of course – as he would point out himself – with the great help of his closest associates and a small group of friends, who were there despite perhaps not believing in miracles.
The unwritten rule is that it is players who write the history of every sport. However, they didn’t feature in the first chapter of this fairy tale, when it was necessary to raise the volleyball organisation to its feet and to convince everyone around it that something which “does not exist” (a national team) was worthy of effort and investment, and that one day this would lead to medals, glory and everything that accompanies all of that. That lightning-fast ascent of Serbian volleyball became Boričić’s masterpiece and the best recommendation for the post he now holds. His ideas and visions are today not only woven into the work of CEV, but also the World Volleyball Federation (FIVB), in which he serves as the second Vice President. With this, he’s rounded off a six-decade journey through volleyball during which he – like no one before him – was everything and won everything: he began as a player, continued as a coach, and has spent the last three decades as an administrator.
Any story about him wouldn’t be complete without his family – raised from birth with a love for Red Star and sports – as well as his other great passion – collectibles (stamps and historical documents), in which he’s also reached the greatest possible heights. He has won many gold medals at world philatelic exhibitions. But let’s start in order with the childhood he spent in the neighbourhood around King Petar I Primary School, the oldest school in Serbia, in the yard which hosted the first course in “children’s games”, in October 1923. In the place where Red Cross envoy William Wayland brought the first balls for team sports (volleyball and basketball), Aleksandar Boričić came into the world a quarter of a century later… One of the few figures in volleyball to have a European medal as a player, a coach and as president of the national federation.
How did you spend your childhood; what kind of environment did you grow up in?
I spent my childhood in the Varoš Kapija [Town Gate] area, where I was also born. Back in the 1960s that was a neighbourhood where we all knew each other. No one locked their doors and we lived like a big family. Some imaginary border was formed by Knez Mihailova Street.
And because Kalemegdan was close to us, we often played football in the fortress park’s Lower Town. When we didn’t have classes, we all ran down to play football for half an hour before returning to school.
The exceptional physical education teacher, Ljuba Stefanović, who we all referred to as Ljuba Kifla, instilled a love for sports in all of us. Dragan Kapičić sat on the same school bench with me, so there were future presidents of two federations – basketball and volleyball – sitting side by side. In the year below us were basketball players Zoran ‘Moka’ Slavnić, Goran Rakočević and the Latifić brothers, but also great football striker Slobodan Gavrić, handball legend Andrija Banjanin and many others.
It isn’t well known that basketball was one of your first sports?
There was an international match in Slovenia in 1962. I played for the Red Star junior team. In the meantime, I was already training volleyball. I went to school, then known as the Ribar Brothers School, but now King Petar I School.
People would laugh if they saw that hall today, but we were overjoyed because that was the first hall in Belgrade to have a volleyball net and a basketball court, and gymnastic equipment. It is wedged between the Cathedral Church on one side and the French Embassy on the other, so we suffered whenever the ball went into the yard of the embassy, because we had to beg them to return it to us. A ball was a real treasure back then. Whoever had the ball was in charge. The game would end when he headed home.
Who were your first sporting idols?
As is normal, football was to the fore. As I lived in a flat opposite the hotel ‘Palas’, where visiting foreign teams mostly stayed, I collected autographs. I’m proud to have Garrincha’s autograph, as well as Omar Sivori’s. My father took me to watch the famous Honved with the Rifleman, the famous Hungarian “light cavalry”. The first Olympics I remember is Rome 1960, when the Olympics first appeared on the television. I watched all the sports, and was most impressed by marathon runner Abebe Bikila and Hungarian boxer László Papp. Those are my first sporting idols, which is perhaps unusual given that team sports come first with me.
Why did you decide to opt for volleyball and when?
One of the most famous people in volleyball at the time was Igor Bogdanovski. We received a lot of good things from educated Russians, and he was one of them. He brought a volleyball ball to our school and gathered together a group of us boys who were nine to 10 years old. Just as I’d played basketball a bit, so Moka Slavnić had played a little volleyball. I trained in both sports while I could. We had no other entertainment. A cinema with non-stop cartoons appeared on Obilić’s Wreath for the first time, and we would enter five times a day to watch. Of course, we would try to smuggle ourselves in with the same ticket, because we didn’t have enough money to be able to watch all day. I first arrived on the court of Red Star in 1961, and have been a member ever since.
What did sporting equipment look like back then?
At one point the balls for volleyball were also heavy leather balls, and we played outside, in the wind, in the rain, and even in the snow… It would happen – because at that time there was no spiking in reception, that we played only with fingers – such were the rules: for
slightly trickier players to catch the ball, then stand above a puddle, then deliberately drop it and roll it in the water, for the leather to get soaked. So when they served it would hit you like a cannonball. We entered the halls in the late ‘60s.
A huge shift came when at Red Star we got a man who was the sheik of Yugoslavia – the director of Petrol Union. His name was Milan Crevar. He practically transferred volleyball from amateurism to professionalism. By then we were training three times a week, and when he secure us with the conditions, we had training nine times a week. He was at Red Star FC. He is the only man at the helm of both the volleyball and handball clubs. He also became president of the Volleyball Federation of Yugoslavia and created conditions for the first medal at the 1975 European Championships, held in our country.
As a player, the only title you won with Red Star was title in 1974. That title didn’t only come after a wait of more than a decade and a half, but was also Red Star’s lasy in the Yugoslav era?
We were an amateur club, and Partizan always had an advantage with the military – going to some tournaments abroad, travelling on military planes. And we, as amateurs, went to a game in Osijek and put a bottle of mineral water on the table… We lived modestly, but we were – and have remained – good friends. Then Mr Crevar came in and practically created a semi-professional volleyball club, brought in two players and secured the conditions for us to be champions. When the national team won bronze in 1975, five members of the national team were from Red Star. We’d won three cups before, but we always lacked something in the championship. Although we were the best in Yugoslavia for those four years, we only won that one championship.
“I’ve been to more than a hundred countries, in many of them many times. In Japan alone I’ve visited 23 cities. Last year I started taking notes: I had 136 flights, and I’ve had 112 so far this year.”
The 1975 European Championships in Yugoslavia, which brought the first medal (bronze) for the Yugoslav men’s national team, was the pinnacle of your playing career?
There was also a European championships in basketball that year, with had larger audiences. We started from Skopje, where the first round was played, and where the stands were full. We lost to the Poles there. We led 2:0 against the Russians; we were one set away from the title of European Champions. We lost 3:2! When you are aware that you have a chance to be champions, it is normal that you become scared of making a mistake, and we then made a lot of mistakes. We lost the third set 15:0! In the end, we were overjoyed that we’d won a much-awaited medal. In tennis and volleyball, time and points differences mean nothing. And when you’re a point away from winning, you’re still not sure. I often joke: In volleyball I didn’t pay attention to points and sets, but I liked the last point to be mine!
Why did you switch to coaching as soon as your playing career ended?
I went into the army after those European championships. Red Star lost 14 players instantaneously: some went abroad, some joined the army, some quit playing… When I came back there was no management and I didn’t know the new players. They persuaded me to do it for a month, and I stayed as a coach for ten years. I immediately turned to focus on the players who hadn’t wanted to train with any coach. They accepted everything and we immediately won first place. At one point I was playing with the men and coaching the women, which was pretty exhausting.
When the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia collapsed, you became president of the Volleyball Federation of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. How did you manage to “invent” a place for the men’s national team at the 1995 European Championships in Athens?
Former CEV president Michalis Mastrandreas, a great friend of ours, helped us to break the embargo and participate as the 17th participant in qualifications for the European Championships. They were plundering our players; he helped us, because we had nobody in the commissions. Only an engineer called Kovačević was a member of the Technical Commission. We had no team, no jerseys, nothing. Some players were in twominds over whether or not to continue with us, but we were tenacious. I knew that if we didn’t catch the train then, the older players would never play again and the younger ones would never do anything on their own. We fought like lions. I brought Mastrandreas to a meeting with the Yugoslav Olympic Committee at the Hotel Metropol. In attendance were Yugoslav Olympic Committee President Aleksandar Bakočević and Secretary General Đorđe Perišić.
It was there that we learned that our fate would be decided at a meeting to be held in Luxembourg on 9th December 1994. Federation Secretary General Slobodan Milošević and I insisted that we attend the meeting, but we were told that we couldn’t attend. However, we were persistent and went anyway, to be there before and after the meeting. Mastrandreas emerged from the meeting as though leaving a funeral and we expected a negative answer, but he said: “You can play!” Milošević began to cry at that moment. And Mastrandreas said, “The only chance is for you to pay all the expenses of yourselves and your rivals, both at home and abroad!” And we didn’t even have money for ourselves! I laughed and took the paper to sign. After he asked me if I was aware that it was 150,000 dollars, I told him it wasn’t a problem. Milošević and I took the risk, because there was no time for subsequent meetings and decisions. And that signature symbolically marked a new era of our volleyball.
We don’t suppose things were easier in 1999?
Another CEV president, Rolf Andresen, also helped us a lot, as a German, during the 1999 embargo. We were supposed to have a meeting in Geneva on 3rd May 1999, and as we didn’t attend, Andresen asked me what was wrong with us. I told him, “Neutral Switzerland didn’t give us visas!” He asked me where we could travel! As we were able to travel without visas to Budapest and Sofia, he asked me to make it Sofia. We were suspended, but we’d already qualified for the Euro 1999 tournaments in Vienna, but if you don’t play then you lose a point and in that case we wouldn’t have qualified. We took a rental car from our friend Joca Burmaz and headed for Sofia. We had a car, but we had no petrol. It was wartime!
I took 10 litres from Ana Avramović at the club and that’s how we set off. As the highway and bridges had been bombed, we took side roads. We reached Ćuprija, hoping to find petrol. And Ćuprija had been bombed that very morning… We entered a city filled with scared people in the streets. After stopping at several petrol stations, we somehow found fuel. At that time you could only enter Bulgaria if you had flight tickets, and we didn’t have any. The customs officer looked at our passports, mine first, which he returned to me, then he took the other. He said, “you’re Slobodan Milošević – I would like to rip your head off!” The situation became strained. However, the president of the Bulgarian volleyball federation at that time was also Bulgaria’s minister of sport. I called him, he came for us and we somehow entered Bulgaria. At the meeting, Rolf helped us overcome our suspension, and we went to Vienna and won bronze medals. The next year we were Olympic champions.
You’ve also won plenty of medals as a collector and philatelist?
I have gold medals from world exhibitions. Those are large hall attended by thousands of exhibitors. I have the only Grand Prix in the history of Serbian philately. I got it for the postal history of Serbia. I have the largest collection of propaganda and anti-propaganda against Serbs from World War I. I’ve been a philatelist since the age of nine, thanks to a neighbour. I also have the largest collection of the first Serbian aviators and planes. I have a collection of our first ships on the Sava and Danube. I have lots of things connected to the First Serbian War. I have the oldest letters for Serbia and for Montenegro; I received gold medals for the Balkan War, and for the Partisan Post Office… The following year’s World Exhibition was in London. I was president of the Federation of Serbian Philatelists, but since I have so many obligations I left that position to Nikola Ljubičić.
Could you describe your family for us?
My wife Goroslava played basketball at Red Star. Both daughters, Aleksandra and Ivana, played volleyball at Red Star. My son-in-law Nikola Manojlović played handball at the London Olympics and won a silver medal at the European Championships in Belgrade, and he also started at Red Star. The favourite song of my grandson Mateja and granddaughter Valentina is surely “Red Star score a goal”. We all belong to a healthy red & white family. I was at the final in Bari when Red Star players became the champions of Europe.
How did you become president of the European Volleyball Federation?
Just as I became President of the Yugoslav Olympic Committee, when it was at a standstill, I agreed with a group of lasting international friends that Europe needed to change, and I’m satisfied that we’ve changed a lot. Of course, not everything can be immediate progress, but we are pleased with the way volleyball is moving to a much higher level. We’ve launched snow volleyball that will most likely be a contender for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy. We’ve already had the European Championships, the first World Cup, the first competition in Argentina, where the Brazilians won a medal in a winter sport for the first time. Participating were volleyball players from Cameroon, South Africa, China, Japan… We are giving an opportunity to countries where snow has never fallen to participate on snow. That would be one of the cheapest sports if it were to enter the program of the Winter Olympics.
What do you think of today’s Volleyball Federation of Serbia?
The Federation is achieving great results today. Our women are the strongest female selection in the world by far. With the men, we reached a mini crisis and lack of confidence in the players, who were cadet category world champions. They were third in the world as juniors, second in the world at under-23s… This is a generation that has grown up through excellent results. That’s why they needed a little more optimism, more togetherness, and now they’ve been cheered with a new gold.
Belgrade is set to host the Euro 2021 women’s volleyball finals?
At the last European Championship, we increased the number of spectators in eight countries, which is to be expected because everyone wants to watch their team. That was the key. However, the most striking was the final, where Serbia and Slovenia played in front of more than 12,000 spectators in Paris, which thrilled everyone. Volleyball is slowly changing; we had a wonderful super final in Berlin, where more than 60 per cent of the audience had come from abroad… This is all encouraging for the future.
LIGHTNING ASCENT OF WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL
“Girls used to stop playing volleyball when they went to college or started working or got married. The then presidents of the World and European federations told me not to go into that, because we are a small federation and we don’t have money for the men’s selections, let alone women’s. I responded to that saying, “You will be the first to give medals to our girls!” We headed for Sheffield in 2005, we got through the first round, then the second, the third, went to Japan and won bronze at the 2006 World Cup, then silver in Luxembourg in 2007. That’s how the girls also became part of that big story, only for us to go on to have European gold in both selections for the first time in 2011.”