Dragan Mlađa Mladenović is a former football player for Red Star and its captain, a member of the national football team of Serbia and Montenegro, a father to three sons and a „parent“ to several hundred children, as the director of the Red Star Youth School. He is a cheerful character, so he says he is currently the greatest builder among the athletes, as 1.5 million Euros worth construction work is currently underway at the Youth School.
You could say that you made the money for the infrastructure on your own?
– The Club allocated a part of the funds to invest into infrastructure, to bring the school to a higher level and to give the kids who attend it better working conditions. We are building three pitches with reflectors behind the Southern stand and a hall with a gym and locker rooms behind the Northern stand, 80 by 40 meters in size. We are also planning to build a boarding school for our players.
What’s the deciding factor in making a football player – their talent or work?
– I am an advocate of work. Talent is important in making a player, but work is critical. With that, the code of conduct must be observed. However talented a child may be, however hard they may work, they have to respect our code of conduct, otherwise they cannot be a member of the team. We must make a family here, breathe as one, and this is my guiding idea. The success of every individual is a common success and every success of the club is thanks to all of the individuals.
It is nice to work with children, but you mentioned that families often put too much pressure on the kids for no reason?
– The parents have lost compass. The Star is the largest club in Serbia and they expect success. For a youth school – and as our name says, we are a school – the most important thing is for kids to learn football and the rules of conduct, the prescribed codes. This must be adhered to, because we all represent the Star. It is very difficult to educate these kids and even more difficult to educate the parents. There’s no more upbringing, which you bring from home, so we are coming to see that it is much easier for us to educate the kids than to educate the parents.
After 10 years, the Red Star has returned to Europa League, but you are someone who has begun restoring the European spirit to the Youth School right away, by cooperating with major clubs?
We cooperate with Manchester City, Juventus, Zenith. They will all come here as guests. We have the Hoffenheim goalkeeper academy coming to visit soon. We’ve also hosted Liverpool, Sporting from Lisbon, Alaves… They are all willing to cooperate. Nothing can be achieved without integration, you have to keep learning, every day and the person who thinks they know everything is the most ignorant person. We did good, not I personally, but my team.. I split the school up in segments; my head coach is Nikola Jelić. Dušan Gašić is my goalkeeper coordinator and Nikola Perišić is in charge of fitness. They are all members of a team, carrying their piece of responsibility. I increased the responsibility levels so that each individual is accountable for their share of the work.
Do you think that Youth Schools of Zvezda (Red Star) and Partizan are far from their European counterparts?
– We are a talented nation, but at the moment, our infrastructure, mentality and literally all that surrounds football and especially youth schools speaks in favour of such a view. I hope we will turn to the world, start investing into infrastructure, to raise our game and use the talent available in the region.
You’re a family man, a father of three boys…
– Aleksa is the oldest, born in 2004 in Glasgow, while I played for the Rangers. Andrej was born in 2006 in Seoul, while I played in South Korea and the youngest, Aljoša, was born in 2013 and he is Serbian. So, I have a Scott, a Korean and a Serbian. An international family, all talking differently.
You’re not sentimental, just like your father was with you?
– Life is not sentimental. My father, Milenko, raised me so. He was a serious football player in the Kraljevo team, Sloga, had offers for the first league, never mind the name of the club, and he was also my coach. And regardless of the fact that I was good and deserved play time, he would send me to the stands because I was his son. I get Aleksa out of the Star…
Behind a successful athlete, there must be a successful woman…
– Katarina does most of the work with the kids and she is actually the head of the family. I am dedicated to my work, she to our home. I am grateful to have her by my side.
You lived in beautiful, big cities, from Belgrade, Glasgow, San Sebastian, Seoul. What are your impressions, is there a comparison there?
– I had the best time in Korea. That’s the best place to have a family as everything is child-friendly. San Sebastian is the most beautiful city. Glasgow is a metropolis, it is beautiful, but it is not well-suited to our mentality. And Belgrade does not compare to either one of the others, because Belgrade is – home.
Where do you take your friends from abroad, what do you recommend that they see, eat?
– It depends on what they like. Skadarlija is a favourite among foreigners, but everyone always emphasizes how hospitable we are. They are pleasantly surprised with just how much kindness everyone is willing to help them. The best thing is to walk down the city, getting to know its streets, as you are sure to discover something new every day. However long you may have been living in Belgrade, and I’ve been a resident since 1997; I am always surprised by some new street, some new building. You live in a city which keeps changing and we are a serious European metropolis.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
– You never know what future may bring, but in general, all my plans are linked to the Star. I came to the club with the support and assistance of the fans, and I still feel that support. I told them then that I came to be a part of Red Star, and not to have my one and only, beloved club be just a stepping stone for another job. I know what I found, I know what I am doing now and I know what the future will bring.
By: Sašo Ilijoski