I never saw my father play. When I was born, he was 30 and his career was coming to an end. But if you mention his name in my country, everybody knows who you are talking about – Blagoje Paunovic. Partizan Belgrade. Yugoslavia.
We always talked about football together. We talked about it at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner. My brothers and my sister also liked football, but I was the one who inherited his talent and love for the sport more than the others.
When I was very little we lived a long way from the Partizan stadium, but we would spend the whole journey in the car talking about football. There were the usual questions about school and other stuff, of course, but most of the time it was football. The teams he played in or managed; the matches we watched together on TV; his experiences as a player.
“My father demanded one thing – run, and eat, like a horse”
He talked a lot about playing in the final of the European Championship in 1968, when Yugoslavia lost to Italy. He told me that when he came back from Rome after the tournament, there were 10,000 people waiting to welcome him home, shouting his name. He and his teammates were proud of what they had done, of coming so close to winning gold. He said he hoped that, one day, I could feel that.
My father was a defender. He played as a sweeper, read the game well from the back, and passed with great precision into midfield. I was more of an attacking player; more creative. I liked to join up the attack; overtake players. He didn’t talk much about my position, though. He only demanded one thing from me.
“Son, run like a horse on the pitch, and eat like a horse off it.”