Sinisa Mihajlovic
Sinisa Mihajlovic Image Credit: AFP

Rome: Sinisa Mihajlovic died at the age of 53 on Friday after leukemia finally got the better of a charismatic and controversial figure who was one of the most recognisable players from the golden age of Serie A.

Serb Mihajlovic, a powerful defender and mecurial set-piece taker, passed away in Rome after spending most of his adult life in Italy, where he was revered for his play and reviled for his friendship with notorious Serbian nationalist paramilitary warlord Arkan.

His wife Arianna and their five children deplored the "unjust and premature death" of Mihajlovic who played for numerous clubs in Italy and competed in the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships for the former Yugoslavia.

He later became a coach, largely in Serie A and most recently with Bologna, where he was working when he was diagnosed with leukemia just before the 2019-20 season.

His coaching career was less distinguished than what he achieved on the field in Serie A, where he won the title with both Lazio and Inter Milan and was a prominent player when the league was considered the world's strongest.

Mihajlovic moved to Roma in 1992 from Red Star Belgrade, where he won the European Cup, but he is best known for his time at Lazio.

He won the Serie A title, two Italian Cups and the Cup Winners Cup in his six-year spell with Roma's fierce cross-town rivals, and remains a hero figure among Lazio supporters.

Lazio remembered "a warrior on the pitch and in life".

"The courage he showed on the field of play was only second to that which he showed in the face of a serious disease which never weakened his spirit," his former club said in a statement.

Lion and Tiger

Mihajlovic is considered one of the best set-piece takers of all time, and jointly holds with Andrea Pirlo the record for free-kick goals scored in Serie A, netting 28 times from dead ball situations.

"You fought like a lion on the field and in life. You were an example and gave courage to many of those who had to face the disease," wrote Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

However Mihajlovic, who scored 10 goals in his 63 international appearances, was a controversial figure due to his friendship with Arkan, a gangster who led a paramilitary unit during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

In an interview with Sky in Italy in 2016 Mihajlovic insisted that Arkan was a "sporting friend" as he was simply the leader of Red Star's hardcore "ultra" supporters before he left for Italy.

"I don't condone the crimes that he committed but there are no good guys and bad guys in war, it's a mess and horrible things happen on both sides," said Mihajlovic, who was born in Croatia and whose mother was Croat.

"He was a hero for the Serbs in Croatia because he went there to save them from being massacred."

After becoming coach of Serbia in 2012 he ordered players to sing the national anthem before matches, kicking attacking midfielder Adem Ljajic off the team when he refused to do so for "personal reasons".

In 2000 Mihajlovic admitted racially abusing Patrick Vieira during a Champions League match between Arsenal and Lazio.

The relationship between the pair reportedly softened when Vieira moved to Inter in 2006, shortly after Mihajlovic had become an assistant coach there.