SUCH is the reputation of Sinisa Mihajlovic that one could forgive the SFA if bars are being hastily erected around the technical area at Hampden in deference to the imminent arrival of the Serbia coach.

It is easy to draw a caricature of Mihajlovic but he is a personality who defies the facile labelling him of a racist, violent player with little or no discipline who has become an authoritarian manager whose hardline stance threatens to destabilise the Serbian team.

There is truth in some of the above. Mihajlovic has been guilty of racist behaviour, made a public show of mourning for a man indicted for war crimes and has now exiled a player from his squad for not singing the national anthem. Yet if Mihajlovic cannot be excused, he can be explained. He remains an intriguing figure, a personality of stark contrasts and a manager who is determined to learn from the mistakes of a past he played a significant part in forging.

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His life has seemed the epitome of the sporting soap story with a boy from a small town reaching fame with local heroes before lighting up Serie A with spectacular goals from set pieces and delighting fans and infuriating opponents with his belligerent attitude. However, the 43-year-old Serb has a backstory that contains genuine tragedy and a proximity to awful violence. "He was the original enfant terrible as a player," said Victor Stankovic, a journalist with the Ringer Axel Springer group in Belgrade. "He is seen as very Serbian in his outlook and personality but his mother is a Croat. He is a complex character but that is not unusual for a successful sportsman."

Mihajlovic, though, has a background that separates him from the mainstream of the sporting world and places his association with a reputed war criminal in a context. His relationship with Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan, has immersed him in very public controversy but it was both almost natural in its beginnings and it almost certainly saved the lives of his parents.

The Mihajlovic story is therefore hardly straightforward but it must be investigated before any attempt is made to explain a Serbian superstar who played with a sublime left foot and an unrestrained violence.

It is best to start at the beginning. Mihajlovic, son of a Croatian mother and a Serbian father, was born in Vukovar, in the east of Croatia, near the Serbian border, on February 20, 1969. He was brought up in Borovo Selo, a village on the outskirts of the town. In 1991, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army reduced the town to rubble and several hundred Croats were massacred.

Four years later, as the war came to an end, the Croats returned. By this time, Mihajlovic was a European Cup winner with Red Star Belgrade. The Vukovar Serbs waited in dreadful apprehension. Mihajlovic's parents were in a particularly vulnerable position given their son's status as a Serbian hero but they were taken away hours before the Croatian army arrived in Borovo Selo. It is not certain who rescued them but Arkan and his paramilitaries, the Tigers, were in the area at the time.

"It is not so unusual for Mihajlovic to have known Arkan," said Jonathan Wilson, the award-winning author writes regularly about Eastern European football and tactics. "Arkan famously ran the Red Star supporters' club, who were almost a paramilitary group," said Wilson of fans who formed the core of the Serbian Volunteer Guard, also known as the Tigers.

"Arkan would have been around Red Star when Mihajlovic played and they would have known each other, spoken to each other," said Wilson. Mihajlovic played for Red Star from 1990 to 1992 after signing from Vojvodina and scored in the penalty shoot-out win over Marseille that earned the Belgrade side the European Cup in 1991.

When Arkan was shot dead in a Belgrade hotel in 2000, Mihajlovic played in front of banners marking the death of the warlord. There were reports that the Lazio supporters had done this in response to a request from their player. "I commemorated my friend," was the player's short response to criticism of the gesture.

Wilson, whose books include Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, believes there is another unspoken side to the racist row between Mihajlovic and Patrick Vieira in the Champions League tie between Lazio and Arsenal in 2000. "First, you can not excuse what Mihajlovic said. His comments were wrong and racist," said Wilson of the Serb's admission he called the Arsenal midfielder a "black bastard" and "a black piece of s***".

However, the writer added: "Vieira escaped very lightly from this incident. He repeatedly called Mihajlovic a gypsy so and so. This is racist and absolutely unacceptable but Vieira did not receive a suspension but Mihajlovic did. Vieira is as culpable as Mihajlovic."

In 2003, Mihajlovic was again suspended by UEFA after spitting at Adrian Mutu, then playing for Chelsea, in a Champions League match. It was yet another sign that Mihajlovic could not control himself on the pitch but he has imposed strict guidelines for the Serbian players. They have all been asked to agree to a contract on behaviour on and off the field. The first fissure occurred when Adem Ljajic, the Fiorentina forward, was banned from the international set-up after he failed to sing the national anthem before a defeat to Spain in May.

Wilson, who said attempts to portray Mihajlovic as a "loathsome Serb nationalist" seem "grotesquely simplistic", said there may have been two motivations for Mihajlovic to act in such a ruthless manner. "First, he may be over-compensating on the national issue because his mother is a Croat but there is a very valid second reason. The Serbian squad is notoriously volatile. They are either about to combust or have just combusted. Mihajlovic will be trying to introduce some discipline, some sense of purpose. This is a dressing-room that regularly falls apart and he has to keep it together."

The manager has used more than 30 players in four friendly matches, employing both a 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 system. "He was a player who was brought up on three at the back and could easily switch to a four. He will believe his players should be able to adapt easily between systems," said Wilson.

But how will the tempestuous player fare as a manager in the heat of World Cup qualifying? "It is impossible to judge him properly as a coach until the competitive matches begin," said Stankovic. "But there is a feeling in Belgrade that this is not a great squad with expectations fairly low."

The voyage begins for Mihajlovic at Hampden on Saturday. There will almost certainly be storms along the way.