Nebojsa Covic: “We transformed a sleeping giant into a respected EuroLeague member”

2023-07-22T11:00:17+00:00 2023-07-23T11:32:02+00:00.

Aris Barkas

22/Jul/23 11:00

The president of Cverna Zvezda, Nebojsa Covic, talks to Eurohoops about his club, the vision for the next 10 years, the infamous Campazzo case, the rivalry with Partizan, having an A licence in EuroLeague and himself

By Aris Barkas/

Neboja Covic is a divisive figure. You either love it or hate him. And there’s a good reason for both since Covic’s personality is bigger than life.

Since 2011 he is the president of Crvena Zvezda, however, before that, he was even the acting Prime Minister of Serbia, a political figure, the 66th mayor of Belgrade, a businessman, and a basketball executive. That’s a path that it’s bound to create a lot of supporters and also a lot of enemies.

The 65-year-old Covic, however, was always a basketball executive at heart, having a key role in the Serbian basketball federation and an input on things like building the Stark Arena, as he explained to Eurohoops.

In a long interview, the always outspoken Covic, who prefers to be a little quieter from now on, addresses pretty much everything, from the alleged threats to Nikola Mirotic from Zvezda fans pushing him to deny a deal with Partizan, to former EuroLeague CEO Marshall Glickman, the return of Milos Teodosic, Zvezda having an A EuroLeague license, money spent by Serbian clubs and more.

You have said that you might be stepping down from Zvezda’s presidency due to health issues. Is this a true concern?

It’s very possible, I had a major operation during the fifth game of the ABA league finals, which couldn’t be postponed. If I had been healthy and just been there – the fifth game would not have happened because of some things that have nothing to do with sports. Ok, that’s in the past, and to some who are “concerned” about my health…

I’m fine, and we’re ambitiously entering a new season in which we want to achieve good results. By good results, you know what I mean when it comes to Crvena Zvezda, but this time we want to take the next step in the Euroleague as well.

What’s your vision for Zvezda in the next 10 years?

When I took over Crvena Zvezda as president, the club had large deficits in the millions of euros, exactly 15.6 million, and I believe that the readers that follow your well-known media know it well. And what we went through, and where we are today. Crvena Zvezda is today a respected European club, a member of the Euroleague family, which has been able to sell out the Belgrade Arena for 10 years and has won 22 trophies in 12 seasons.

I will remind you that the club that brought basketball to Serbia through Nebojsa Popović, Bora Stanković, and Professor Nikolić… won a total of 21 cups in the period from 1945 to 2011. And that speaks for itself about what we are doing and how much we have raised the club at all levels. I see Red Star as a stable Euroleague club, with an A license, a stable budget, and a clear idea of the direction it is going.

Are you moving to Stark Arena for all games, gearing up for an A license in the EuroLeague?

Yes, it is our determination to return to the Arena where we set a Eurocup and Euroleague record 10 years ago in the match with Budiveljnik. One of the reasons is the A license because we simply have to play in the best hall available to us. Many people have the wrong idea that this gym is available to one club.

The Belgrade Arena is a city arena that I built as the mayor of Belgrade 27 years ago, and Crvena Zvezda will have at its disposal all the resources for the first team, junior selections, and club management. We know Beogradska Arena well, we played there for 10 years and I expect our fans to fill the Arena during the next season.

How do you feel about reuniting with Milos Teodosic after 15 years, when he left for Olympiacos?

Miloš Teodosić is my kid, a fantastic player who was “born” in the FMP basketball program, the club I run about 20 years ago. We have been in contact since the period when he moved to Athens. He kept his promise to me last year that he would close the circle at Crvena Zvezda, a club of which he is a big fan. He has a great career, but he still has a great desire, which is now mixed with emotions because he wears the jersey of the club he loves. I expect a lot from him, on the court, in the locker room… in every sense – because he is a great player in every sense.

Do you think this year’s Zvezda will be the strongest roster ever of the team?

We are working to make it so. For now, we are very satisfied with the work we have done, especially because the market is small, it is what it is, and there are not many players on the market and on the move. I publicly said that we plan to spend around 12 million euros on the players’ salaries for the next season, by Euroleague standards this is not too much.

However, because of everything we have done in the past, the players know that they are coming to a club where they will be respected, they will be led by the experienced coach Duško Ivanovic, and they will have huge support from the stands, and an atmosphere that few clubs in the Euroleague can offer. We plan to bring in two more players in positions two and four, and we’ll be picking those players carefully because we really feel like we’ve put together a strong team this summer.

Who is your favorite non-Serbian player after all those years?

When I was running FMP, it was definitely Reggie Freeman, in Crvena Zvezda Marcus Williams and Stratos Perperoglou.

Why Campazzo and Vildoza left?

Facundo Campazzo has chosen to return to Real and we respect his decision, he is an extraordinarily great man who has received a lot of love from Red Star fans for his commitment to the club, the team, and his teammates. I think that this decision to return to Real is not only related to the economy but to the comfort and happiness of his family. And we respect that. The fact that we have established a very strong relationship that will perhaps be renewed one day, is also shown by the fact that he received an incredible financial offer to play for the city rival, which he turned down a couple of days ago. Immediately and without hesitation. I wish him a lot of happiness, health, and success in Real.

As for Luca, he had a turbulent season in every sense, with a great start, after that, he run through injuries to some problems that took away his focus, not related to the basketball court. Luca is a passionate Argentinian who left his mark at Crvena Zvezda, he received an incredible offer from Panathinaikos that we couldn’t match, and that’s it. Crvena Zvezda has also built the image of a club in which players can increase their value multiple times, or refresh and raise their careers. I will remind you of Lorenzo Brown, Billy Baron, and many others. A similar case is with Luca. I would like to wish him all the best in Panathinaikos.

Do you still feel strange about the way EuroLeague handled the Campazzo case?

Yes, I feel very bad about that, I think our arguments were not fully listened to, but we respected that decision. What bothers me much more is the personal animosity that the now former Euroleague CEO Marshall Glickman had towards Crvena Zvezda, and only he knows the reasons for that. He is a man who was completely wrong for the position and he did not understand anything. Not even the importance of Facundo Campazzo playing in Crvena Zvezda, or playing in the Euroleague. In the end, we all suffered the damage! Euroleague, clubs, competition, and finally, most of all Crvena Zvezda. I’m sorry that he will be remembered only for that scandal.

Why there’s such tension in the ABA League, the Serbian League, and your games with Partizan?

I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the people from Partizan. Calming tensions is solved with concrete actions and not with words. You know, before the fifth game of the final, they lit candles for me in front of the Belgrade Arena while I was undergoing complicated surgery. Do you think it’s normal?

Or to put pressure with disinformation on Euroleague clubs through Zoran Savić, and many many other things, like what’s happening now with the Mirotic saga, where lies and spin are being made to the detriment of Crvena Zvezda? Nikola is an extraordinary man, a philanthropist, who deserves the best, and we wish him all the best. But to say that someone is threatening him not to go to another club? This is madness. We are for normal relations, and rivalry but only on the basketball court.

Zeljko Obradovic addressed the issue saying that things in the 80s were totally different. Do you feel that he is right? Is it time for a change in the way Serbian fans of both sides approach those games?

I will have to repeat myself. We should not ask questions but need to work to find answers and solve the problem. You know, Željko and I know each other well and for a long time, I was the president of the national basketball association when I appointed him as the coach of the national team after Athens in 1995 when Duda Ivkovic was the coach. We had fantastic results in Atlanta and Barcelona in 1996 and 1997.

But, if you cite as a concrete example that a child in the company of his mother shows you the middle finger on the way to the game, which is very ugly, then you must know that this has happened many times before to coaches and players of Crvena Zvezda, and immediately another 50 pictures appeared in the public with that type of examples. And we know all of that – what is the solution? To begin with, let’s be honest. Let’s not say one thing, and do completely another!

Even as we speak now, in theory, Zvezda is in danger of being voted out of the ABA League for noncompliance with the rules. Do you feel that there’s a chance for anything like this to happen?

We are very comfortable with our position because we have the law, bylaws, and all possible regulations of the ABA League behind us. Information leaked to the public that Crvena Zvezda wants to destroy something. No, Crvena Zvezda is fighting to save that league because we all need that league in the region, but not as a league where two or three individuals want to run that league and make deals.

There are a lot of questions about the money spent last year and this year from the Serbian clubs. Can you give us an explanation for this change in financial resources?

Serbia is a basketball country, and it is truly a privilege to have two clubs in the company of the 18 best clubs in Europe. The President of the Republic of Serbia is a great fan of basketball and sports, and through basketball, he also sees a way to promote Serbia in the best way, regardless of the rivalry that currently exceeds the limits of normal sports rivalry.

As I already said we plan to spend around 12 million euros for the team for next season. It is not a huge amount of money, looking at some other investments and the effect we get with full Arena in Belgrade and the image we send to the world. We have great support from the president, the government, and the city of Belgrade we represent, and we also earn part of our budget through sponsors, season tickets, merchandise…

After all those years what makes you proud as the president of Zvezda and what would you have changed if you could?

Extremely proud, this is not an easy job, I have been president of Crvena Zvezda for 12 years, and in my humble opinion, I have succeeded with people from the management, and with everyone who has been part of Crvena Zvezda, coaches, many players in these 12 years, to transform a big “sleeping” giant into a respected member of the Euroleague and a club where even the biggest European players want to come and be part of this story.

It also makes me proud that on the 100th anniversary of Serbian basketball, I have behind me, the house of national basketball, the return of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia national team on the international stage in Athens in 1995, as well as the construction of the functioning system of the National Basketball Federation until 1999, 2001 and 2002 when I helped our basketball a lot as the Deputy Prime Minister, and of course all that I did with the KK FMP from the 90s of the last century.

Could I have done something different – I had a little room/space to do something different. You know how it goes, there were a lot of ideas, but the realization of those plans is something else…

How do you like to be remembered as Zvezda’s president by friends and foes?

As a workaholic, someone who has invested everything he has in the progress and development of Crvena Zvezda. Finally, the surgery I had at the end of June is the product of the great efforts I made to make Crvena Zvezda a big club.

Many have forgotten that Crvena Zvezda was the avanguard, and founder of Yugoslav and Serbian basketball, but also a club that won 21 trophies until 2011, and 22 since I became president 12 years ago. The numbers speak for themselves. After all, we are talking today about Crvena Zvezda, well known, Euroleague club that has returned to where it belongs.