Last time Once A Metro checked in on former New York Red Bulls Academy standout Ismar Tandir, he was a few weeks away from his 21st birthday and settling in with Serbian SuperLeague club Javor Ivanjica. In early January, FIFPro, effectively global soccer's players' union put out a warning:
FIFPro, the world players union, is advising professional footballers not to sign contracts with clubs in Serbia during this month’s transfer window because of worsening working conditions in the Eastern European country.
And the press release only got worse from there. FIFPro cited its own study of global working conditions in soccer, stating 68% of players in Serbia were not being paid on time, and 89% of those who had completed for-fee transfers had been "pressured" to make the move. Further, FIFPro effectively accused the Serbian FA of rigging its main dispute resolution institution by stacking the body with key officials connected to the country's bigger clubs. A perception of bias toward clubs in arbitration is significant because the president of the Serbian players' union estimates:
When you sign a contract with a club in Serbia you have a 50% chance of ending up in court.
It's an estimate based on a simple arithmetic: there are around 500 pro players in Serbia and the union has taken 250 cases to arbitration over the last two years.
FIFPro General Secretary Theo van Seggelen did not hold back in his comments on the issues in Serbia:
This is a flagrant violation of the fundamental rights of the professional football players in Serbia who are now effectively playing in a lawless environment.
Eek. Not good. How's Izzy doing?
Last we heard, Tandir had signed a three-year deal in Serbia. In an email exchange, he put our concerns to rest: "I am no longer there; I am with FK Sloboda Tuzla of Bosnia."
Phew. Glad to hear it.
Indeed, Tandir's arrival at FK Sloboda was announced on the club's website on January 10. Club president Senad Mujkanovic was enthusiastic about signing the 21-year-old: "We expect him to be the backbone of the future team." In the same release, Tandir said:
I am grateful to the boss and the club to the engagement. It is a great honor that I will play for Sloboda. I played for the U-19 and U-21 national team of Bosnia and Herzegovina and it has been a great desire to come back to this country.
The club's release states Tandir is on a three-year deal.
For the player, though the move out of Serbia was inspired by the issues pro soccer players are facing there, he is excited by the chance to develop at FK Sloboda. "Yes, part of the move was because of this [the problems highlighted by FIFPro]," he told Once A Metro, while noting, "Also, Sloboda Tuzla is a much bigger club - one of the bigger clubs in the Balkan region with a lot of European competition and history behind it."
FK Sloboda Tuzla was the runner-up in last season's Bosnia and Herzegovina Cup and Premier League. It qualified for the 2016-17 Europa League, losing 1-0 on aggregate to Beitar Jerusalem in the first qualifying round.
When the club returns from its winter break, it will pick up competitive play in sixth place in the Bosnian top flight. But the team is targeting hitting its best form in 2019: "We plan on winning the title for the club's 100th birthday [it was founded in 1919]. It has a massive history and, like I said before, it's one of the bigger clubs in the Balkan region. The stadium fits about 12,000 to 14,000, and it's known for one of the best fan bases in Bosnia," Tandir told OaM.
The move to Tuzla suits the young forward remarkably well. His career is testament to an open-minded approach to what a career in pro soccer has to offer. Since leaving the Red Bulls Academy in 2012, Tandir has played in France (for Sochaux's reserves), California (for Sacramento Republic), in Iceland, almost (paperwork troubles) in Spain, and latterly Serbia followed by his current club: "In soccer, you never know where you will end up, so I was always open for anything."
But perhaps this latest stop is more a move toward the known than unknown. A former Bosnia and Herzegovina youth international, Tandir feels at home: "I am familiar with the country and, more importantly, the language."
And his move to FK Sloboda in particular was no accident. Head coach Vlado Jagodic was the Bosnia and Herzegovina U-21 coach from 2011 to 2014. For Tandir, a young and ambitious attacking player remembered as a prolific scorer for a Red Bulls Academy team that won national titles at U-16 and U-18 levels, this is an opportunity to make a name for himself: "I came to play in Tuzla and hopefully move on. The coach knows me personally and was my coach with the national team. I plan on scoring goals and going forward with my career."
And maybe giving fans of FK Sloboda the 100th birthday celebration they want for their club.
Tandir has not lost touch with his RBNY days. He tries to keep up with former teammates, though they might notice something different about him if they saw him today: "I've changed in many ways. Of course, my understanding of the game is better, but my biggest change would be my weight: I am a lot lighter and faster than before."
Tandir is 6' 5". If he's quick with it too, FIFPro's next advisory might be to warn defenders away from Bosnia's Premier League.
Still a young player, it seems remarkable that Tandir is already at his seventh club since leaving RBNY's system just over four years ago. One wonders whether the club's newfound enthusiasm for youth talent retention and development might have arrived just a little too late for a player like Izzy, whether the star striker of an all-conquering Academy team thinks he might have stuck with the Red Bulls if there had been the focus on homegrown players there is now.
He doesn't think so. At 17, he was given the chance to move to a club in France's top flight and be closer to a national team set-up that was keen to have him aboard. It would be understandable to look with hindsight on the decisions that didn't quite work out as hoped between then and now, to think maybe a different path might have been chosen - but Tandir knows himself: "The offer I had from Sochaux and coming with the Bosnian national team - I could not turn it down. It was too good a deal to turn down."
It was in part the lure of advancing his career with Bosnia and Herzegovina's youth national teams that drew the teenage Tandir to European club soccer in the first place. Now 21, his next challenge is to establish himself in Bosnia's Premier League.
All the best, Izzy. Once A Metro is rooting for you.