Bandung. Miljan Radovic smiles a lot. He may be thousands of miles from home and family but he is buzzing. For many people a doughnut shop in a Bandung mall early on a Saturday night isn’t going to get the pulses races racing but Radovic loves it.
He turns 38 years old later this month, has no job, yet to look at him, to spend time with him, you would think his numbers had just come up on the lottery.
“I love Bandung. I just love it here,” he said, smiling.
Born in Niksic, Montenegro, Radovic’s footballing resume is a microcosm of Balkan history. Most of his schooldays were spent in the former Yugoslavia when it was considered the most open of Europe’s communist countries.
When he was 12 years old, in 1987, Yugoslavia won the World Youth Cup with a team featuring future greats like Robert Prosinecki, Davor Sukor, Zvonimir Boban and Igor Stimac. Even now, the names roll off the tongue.
In 1990 Yugoslavia reached the World Cup quarter finals only to lose to Argentina on penalties but already the country was being torn apart by the political rumblings that eventually led to the bloody civil war. The federation was on the verge of a break-up and when they made it to the 1992 European Championships the war raging in the constituent republics meant UEFA banned them from competing.
Football fans never got to see how great that Yugoslav generation could have been.
Amid the chaos of the early 1990s, Radovic began his career with his local team, Sutjeska Niksic.
Famous for their youth academy, Sutjeska alumni includes Mirko Vucinic who now plays for Juventus.
“I played with Vucinic,” Miljan recalls. “I was his captain.”
Radovic was the type of journeyman footballer who rarely made the headlines. In 2000 he left his home town team and moved to Vojvodina, and later on to Smartno 1928 before moving on to Grbalj, Mogren, back to Grbalj, Lovcen Cetinje and Petrovac.
He was treading water. Football was a job —one that he loved— but just that.
Then, in the autumn of his career, he signed for Persib Bandung in the Indonesia Super League. “For me, Bandung is football. It has an amazing football culture. To see the fans…,” he breaks off with a whistle.
Persib fans — known as Bobotoh, a Sundanese word meaning followers — are famous in Indonesia for the passion and intensity of their support. The club, in many ways, resembles Newcastle United and their supporters, the Toon Army. They are a beacon for another state, language and culture.
Driving around West Java, the somewhat uninspiring name for the old Sundanese lands, one is never far from some Persib graffiti.
Just as people born on the banks of the Tyne support Newcastle from birth, so Sundanese support Persib. It is a given.
While Newcastle has a local rival, Sunderland, just a couple of stops away on the train, Persib has no such rival. Other clubs have tried to tap into the massive market that exists for football in the province, the likes of Bandung FC, Pelita Jaya and Pelita Bandung Raya but they just are not Persib.
Radovic spent a season and a half with Persib, netting 17 goals in that time and 24 assists.
“You know, driving out to the stadium [in nearby Soreang] the road was just a sea of blue. Everyone cheered us, banging on the coach, unbelievable,” he remembers.
“Everywhere I went in Bandung, people recognize me. They wanted their photograph with me, they wanted my autograph.
“You know, they made me feel like a star.”
“It is real football. I had never seen anything like it before. You know, I want to see Liverpool vs. Manchester United, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona but Persib games were just unbelievable,” he said. Smiling of course.
In a nutshell, Radovic was revitalized by his time in Bandung. He was part of a football culture which he had read about and seen on TV.
Bandung, its football club and its people were proving to be an inspiration and the attacking midfielder was responding to the cultural stimulation.
He wrote a book about his life. He started making plans for a football school. He had an extra spring in his step.
Released after a season and a half he returned to Montenegro and waited for a club to call. One did. Pelita Bandung Raya and he rushed back immediately, in business class paid for by the club.
But he returned to a club very different from Persib. PBR was struggling against relegation and the crowds they attracted wouldn’t have filled more than a handful of the packed angkots that regularly made the pilgrimage to Persib games.
But for Radovic, it was as if nothing had changed. “Still people approach me. I get my photo taken, I sign autographs. I’m never alone for long.”
Now, with his contract finished and PBR safe in the ISL for one more season, Radovic is pushing forward with plans for his football school but is frustrated with the lengthy process.
“You know, I have been a footballer for 20 years. It’s a great life. All I have to do is train, and turn up on match day. I love it. But now?,” he said with a shake of the head more out of frustration than of wonder.
“Getting things done here is so slow, so frustrating,” he continued, echoing sentiments from other expats over the years. When asked what it was about Bandung that kept him here and has him making plans for the future here, he replied that it was the people.
“They are amazing,” he beamed. “ I have never met people like them anywhere,” he said. “Persib is Bandung and everyone is a Bobotoh.”