Sitting in the lobby of an opulent Pune hotel, the shadows of the past flitting across his face, Ranko Popovic recollects the time he almost gave up football at the height of his career.
Popovic was in Graz at the time, playing for the Austrian Bundesliga club Sturm Graz. The four-year stint ranks among the highlights of his time as a footballer. Yet, underneath the surface there was disquiet.
The disquiet in Popovic's heart and mind was because back home in Serbia, a war raged on as the region of Kosovo demanded its independence. And the unrest was knocking on the doors of his childhood home in Pec — the city in Serbia flanked by idyllic mountains on all sides — where he grew up, and where his brother and his mother were still living at the time.
To make matters worse, communicating with anyone in Kosovo was getting increasingly difficult. Just to find out if all was well back home, Popovic would have to phone his aunt, who lived in another part of Serbia, who would then contact her sister before relaying the details back to Popovic.
During one such phone call, what Popovic's aunt said shook him.
Kosovar militiamen had turned up in Pec one day looking to reclaim it from the sizeable number of Serbs who lived there. Popovic says his brother, cousins and many other neighbours engaged in a gun battle with the militia for several hours. The situation descended into anarchy when the army turned up and started raining fire on both factions. It was only when some locals told the armymen that they were acting in self defence that the army focused their entire firepower on the Kosovar militia, forcing them to flee.
Popovic was 15 when his father passed away, leaving him to assume charge of the family — which included his two sisters and a brother.
"When I found out about this, I told my mother and my brother I wanted both of them to leave that place the next day itself and go to my aunt's house. It was safe there. I remember saying, 'If you don't leave tomorrow, I will leave everything, even football, and come there myself to take you away.' They knew how serious I was when I said something like this. They left immediately because they knew my decision was final," says Popovic.
There was no turning back. Popovic's brother and mother fled the city overnight carrying all they could in their two hands.
It was the last time any of them saw that house again. Popovic's family were among the estimated 2,30,000 people of Serbian and other ethnicities that were forced to flee Kosovo during the armed conflict which saw excesses from all sides. The faultlines of the unrest were based on the fact that while Serbia ruled Kosovo, ethnic Albanians were the overwhelming majority in the region.
Kosovars had also been resentful towards the Serbians ever since 1989, when Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic abolished the autonomy granted to Kosovo in the 1974 constitution. By 1993, the resentment had snowballed into armed conflict while war broke out in 1998.
"Always if you have a dispute, there are two sides to the argument. Both versions have some history and both sides believe they are telling the truth. But in such complex issues, which version is true, no one knows. The truth is that many people lost their lives, many families were destroyed, people lost their houses while some people lost everything," says Popovic, who is currently in India as the manager of Indian Super League club FC Pune City.
He says his family has never even visited the city since then.
"My father died in 1981. The last time I was in Pec was back in 1996. Since '96, I have never been there to even put flowers on my father's grave.
"Later, when NATO came there, the Albanian people destroyed all Serbian houses and we lost everything. Fortunately, we only lost only the house and other material things. These things are important. Of course, they are. But not as important as human lives. My family is safe. But many of my friends didn't have this luck."
"In the end, material things are not so important because everything that you can make or buy has a small price. What's priceless is human life. I don't want to say who is guilty and sit in judgment on this conflict. But this is my side of the story. This is completely true. Maybe many people from the other side have the same stories. But this is how I feel the international community has wronged us. They favoured only one side — the Albanian refugees. But what about the refugees and victims who were Serbs? Serbians also lost homes. Kosovo is part of Serbia. All our spiritual things were born in Kosovo. Not only our religion, but also our culture, our mentality, everything was born out of Kosovo," Popovic asserts, his eyes piercing and anger palpable in his voice.
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008, even though Serbians still claim it's part of their territory. The Kosovars even renamed Pec as Peja.
The issue of Kosovo's independence is a thorny one and has understandably divided the world. Countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Germany have recognised its sovereign status while nations like Russia, China and India state that the region is part of Serbia. The International Olympic Committee accepted Kosovo as a member in December 2014 — a move which spurred other sports governing bodies like UEFA and FIFA to follow suit in 2016.
Kosovo was the latest country to be born out of the disintegration of what used to be known as Yugoslavia until the early 1990s. Through a series of bloody civil wars, violent uprisings, international peace treaties and NATO interventions, socialist Yugoslavia crumbled into five nations along ethnic lines — Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Montenegro mutually separated from Serbia a few years later.
Popovic was indirectly affected by the unrest. The United Nations slapped multiple sanctions on Yugoslavia, which back then was an amalgamation of Serbia and Montenegro. The first sanction was from 1992 to 1995 for inciting the Bosnian Serbs to rebel against the Muslim-led government in Bosnia while the second one came in 1998-99 when the Kosovo War raged.
"My only regret is that I never played for my national team. That was my biggest desire. When I was at my peak, Yugoslavia was under sanctions internationally and we didn't participate in international competitions for a couple of years," says Popovic, his voice growing distinctly grim.
Popovic reveals he has barely any pictures or videos of his childhood — a consequence of his family having to flee his boyhood home. But when he starts talking about his younger days in Pec, it's almost as if there's a film playing in his mind, replaying anecdotes and events in technicolour detail. Most of his childhood memories revolve around football, the sport which took him to Greece, Spain and Austria as a player, and later when he retired, to countries like Thailand and Japan.
The same sport has now brought him to Pune, a city thousands of miles away from his homeland of Serbia.
As he recalls his younger days, Popovic's face is a picture of joy.
"It's been 40-odd years since that time, but the memories of my childhood are still a little emotional. I cannot remember when or how I started playing football. But football has always been a part of my life. The first toy I ever had was probably a football. The sport is an inseparable part of me. A large part of my childhood was spent playing on the streets of Pec," says Popovic.
The footballer he was back in the day, and the coach he is today is because of his days playing football on the streets of Pec. Those days made Popovic the man he is today.
"I always say that it is really important to play on the streets, like I used to when I was young. This is what we have lost today. Street football is very important, not just to learn the sport, but it teaches you how to be stronger and how to be better at the sport and to develop your leadership. In our neighbourhood, we would all play together, from six year olds to 15 year olds. Each time I lost a game against the older guys, I would go home and cry thinking what I could do tomorrow to beat them. Physically, they were stronger. But they could be beaten by creativity. That helped us play more creatively. I was someone who tried to play good football but I was very big fighter. I hated to lose. I never wanted to give up. As long as there was a possibility to change something on the pitch, I would keep on trying. This is what players today don't have," he adds.
"We spent every spare minute of our time playing something. That's why people from Yugoslavia are so good with group sports that require creativity and use a ball."
The Kosovo region has given the world many talented footballers. Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka (who represent Switzerland now) and Lorik Cana (who plays under the Albania flag) all have roots in the region. Behrami, who sports a tattoo of Kosovo on his leg showing empty gun cartridges and fighter jets flying, left Kosovo when he was four, while Shaqiri, who was born in Glizan, was one when his family shifted to Switzerland. Xhaka was born in Switzerland. The city of Pec is most popularly known for being the hometown of judo champ Majlinda Kelmendi, who at Rio 2016, became the first Olympic gold medallist from Kosovo.
His childhood was a phase of his life that Popovic refers to as unique because it was the only time in his life he played as a striker or a No 10, the jersey number traditionally reserved for the best player or the most creative footballer in the team.
"Back in those days, every player who played on the street was like a No 10. Every boy who was a No 10 on the street went on to play professionally for some club. We don't have that today," says Popovic, who was a central defender during his footballing days.
"But I would like to say I was an attacking defender because I never lost my hunger for goals. For a defender, I scored many goals," he says with an unmistakable hint of pride.
"Today we have — I'm sorry, I don't want to be harsh — specialists," Popovic adds, uttering the last word with some disdain before continuing, "You have labels and categories for footballers like you have on clothes or soft drinks. Someone's a striker. Someone else is a central defender. And as a central defender you can run only until here and then go back. You cannot cross the central line. Why can't a central defender go up the pitch till the opponent's box like Franz Beckenbauer. Why?
"This is what we're doing wrong as coaches. Now, we have too many electronics, too much science, too much everything else in football. But too little football. This is why I try to make my players play freely and play like I did in my childhood as long as they don't forget their role on the pitch. Some discipline is necessary and players need to remember their roles also. But I don't like to kill the individualism or creativity of my players. In every one of us there is still a boy who likes to play with artistry. This is football. This is what we have lost to time," he adds.
Those were simpler times. Popovic reckons he played so much on the streets that he would wear out a pair of sneakers ever week and spend the rest of the month waiting for his parents to get paid so he could buy another pair. Those who could not afford football shoes, played barefoot. Not just football, basketball too was popular on the streets of Pec. Popovic's father, who worked in a sugar factory as a mechanic and repaired cars in his spare time, himself fashioned a basketball hoop with iron at home. A traffic light served as the post to hang the hoop. Someone else's father would make a goalpost from a tree.
The Pec of Popovic's childhood memories and the present day Peja are not the same.
Popovic and his family have turned the page on that chapter of their life by beginning life afresh in Subotica, which lies in the north of Serbia. It's the city where Popovic had his last playing stint at a Serbian club — Spartak Subotica between 1992 and 1994. He fondly calls it "the beautiful part of Serbia" adding that it is a very international city where people from some 28 different nationalities live peacefully. His brother — the one who fought the armed militias in Pec — lives there with his wife and three boys.
Popovic's mother, though, longs for Pec more than the others do.
"All of my family members are very happy now. But they also miss Pec very much, especially my mother. She's still not moved on completely from that incident. She still cannot reconcile with the fact that she can never go over there anymore," he says.
As with everything in his life, football brings some solace.
"I am happy that there is peace now in the region. But no one can cut a part of my heart and say that Kosovo is not part of Serbia. The good part is that people — some other people, not me or my family — still play football there," he says simply.