Our popular Serbian contributor Bojan Babić returns with another fascinating tale from Yugoslav football history. Today’s story is about the amazing life and times of one of the country’s most notable players during the pre and early post WW2 years.
Football in the days of the former Yugoslavia threw up many tales so outlandish they read now as if taken from a movie script rather than real life. One of the most incredible stories belongs to Aleksandar ‘Aca’ Aranđelović, a footballer whose remarkable record of 1,565 appearances and 1,500 goals for 20 clubs across four continents is probably the least interesting part of his eventful and chaotic life.
Born in 1920 as the only son of Rista Aranđelović, a wealthy stonemason and politician who made his fortune between the wars, Aleksandar became a rising star for FK Jedinstvo Belgrade (Jedinstvo translates as Unity) after his father bought him the club as a plaything. His privileged background didn’t confer any unwarranted advantage when it came to selection though as ‘Aca’ was playing in the Jedinstvo front line very much on merit. Quickly his powerful right foot, good technique, formidable stamina and eye for goal attracted the attention of foreign managers. The Belgrade sports press speculated about ‘Aca’s’ prospective transfer to Arsenal, but instead of enjoying the good life in London he was given a rifle and sent to fight on the Syrmian Front during the war. Aranđelović survived the slaughter that cost the life of more than 20,000 of his compatriots.
Upon his return from active service a new communist government was running the country and it immediately banned Jedinstvo as an act of revenge against Rista, an MP for the Democratic party who had bravely voted against Josip Broz Tito. With his father detained and all the family assets confiscated, Aca realised that joining the new Red Star Belgrade club was his only salvation. After a couple of seasons during which time he was named the best player in the first-ever Eternal Derby, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to defect arose for Arandjelović and he didn’t hesitate. This opportunity came about on the 16th March 1947 when the referee blew the final whistle at the end of a friendly between ASD Ponziana Trieste and Red Star.
“I wasn’t the only guy planning to escape, but the others got scared. And I was completely prepared, since I had secretly taken 46 duckets from my mother and sewn them into my jacket. With that money I was a rich refugee in Italy”, recalled Aca in later years.
This Yugoslav refugee cut an unusual figure: a talented footballer, a bohemian personality and, most curiously of all, a maths genius capable of instantaneously performing vastly complex calculations. Who knows what could have happened if permission had been granted from Belgrade for Aca to play for his new team, AC Milan, who signed him for 90.000 Italian lire (approximately 1,500 Euros today). Declared an enemy of the SFRY and now practically a stateless person, Aranđelović was forced to leave Milan after only one match and following a short stint with Padova, he fled to a Rome refugee camp based in the famous old Cinecitta film studio.
There he was spotted by AS Roma scouts and rapidly was to become the club’s saviour, scoring 11 goals during the 1949/50 season including a crucial penalty against Novara that saved them from relegation. Inspired by his shooting abilities the Corriere Dello Sport newspaper called him The Man With Armored Foot, while vociferous Roma fans nicknamed Aranđelović as Ammazzasquadroni (wordplay suggesting their love for the player). And then, at the peak of his career Aca moved on again to Novara where he added nine more Serie A goals and became an iconic figure there too.
Italian journalist and writer Gianfranco Capra was a young boy when Aranđelović led the line for Novara. “I watched him with admiration even before the matches started, while he would kick the ball about the pitch barefoot, showing stunning control. Many players tried to imitate him, but they were poor copies“, concluded Capra.
A restless spirit led Aranđelović further afield to Racing Club Paris where he spent most of his spare time fooling around in the Bois de Boulogne and the Louvre Museum with expat Yugoslav, King Peter II. Departing from Paris he ended up in Madrid and scored a goal in his only official game for Helenio Herrera’s Atlético, later describing his famous coach as a “bad manager, and an even worse person”.
His rollercoaster career took him to Canada, Thailand, Hong Kong and eventually Australia with a little assistance from the Catholic Church (an unusual aide considering he was Serbian Orthodox for the entirety of his life). He gave up football and joined a group of Aborigines and Serbs mining opal in central Australia, only to be double-crossed by his compatriots and left penniless.
“Until then, I was still a gentleman, but afterwards I was at the very bottom”, admitted Aca.
A twist of fate finally brought him back to Yugoslavia in 1963 when Tito granted an amnesty to thousands once labelled as enemies of the state. One of his former Red Star team mates gave him a job as a tourist guide and he performed this role for the next 23 years leading, by his own typically precise calculations, 550 groups of Yugoslav tourists to 53 different countries and circling the globe ten times. Furthermore he bragged about his friendships with opera singers and his own attendance at 155 premieres of ‘Tosca’ and 100 of ‘La Boheme’. His borderline obsessiveness with numbers was similarly reflected in the diary records he kept of his many mistresses.
Božo Koprivica, an acquaintance of Aleksandar Aranđelović in his later years picks up the story:
“Aca confessed to an Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela that his diary contained exactly 2,500 names of his love conquests! This would be a central part of Valenzuela’s new novel called Eroticon”.
A few years ago I met Aca’s grandson who was disappointed that a popular Serbian director and producer, widely respected for his sports-influenced films, wasn’t keen on the idea of turning Aranđelović’s life story into a feature. Perhaps sharing the story of his incredible life and times with a wider foreign audience here might yet be the catalyst in attracting some movie hotshot to finally turn this tale into the blockbuster it deserves.
Clicking on Bojan’s name below takes you to his other BTLM articles and you can also find him on Twitter @journalistbabic