By Brian Homewood
March 12 (Reuters) - Sinisa Mihajlovic has always credited Sampdoria with saving his playing career. Twenty years later, the former Yugoslavia international has returned as coach and repaid the debt by steering the Serie A club clear of relegation.
In only four months since taking over, the 44-year-old, known in his playing days as one of the game's greatest free kick exponents, has led Sampdoria from second to bottom to a comfortable 12th
A run of seven wins, four draws and four defeats in 15 games under his leadership has left his team closer to the European places in terms of points than they are to the relegation zone.
The fiery Serb may still be seen by some as a volatile nationalist and remembered by others for getting into vicious brawls and slanging matches on the field, but he has clearly motivated a previously demoralised team.
When he took over the Genoese club in November, Mihajlovic, a keen student of history, introduced himself by reading his players an adapted version of President John F Kennedy's inaugural address.
"He said: 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'," Mihajlovic told reporters at the time. "To my players, I will ask not what Sampdoria can do for them, but what they can do for Sampdoria."
"In front of the Berlin Wall, he (Kennedy) said 'Ich bin ein Berliner'. Well, today, I am proud when I say 'I am Sampdorian'. This is why I've come back."
Mihajlovic also had a message for the supporters. "I want visiting teams to feel that they are taking on the entire city, not just 11 players."
A number of players have flourished since he took over. Goalkeeper Junior Da Costa has grown in stature while, defender Daniele Gastaldello and midfielder Angelo Palombo have both found a new lease of life.
Manolo Gabbiadini, playing on the right of the line of three behind the striker, has become one of the sharpest forwards in Serie A and Brazilian forward Eder has also found his scoring touch with nine goals to his credit.
Defender Shkodran Mustafi, drafted into the team by Mihajlovic, has impressed so much that the 21-year-old earned his first German call up this month, although he was not used in the friendly against Chile.
Even Mihajlovic's own behaviour, so often a source of controversy, has so far been exemplary.
When Sampdoria's players lost their tempers after some refereeing decisions went against them in a home defeat by AC Milan, Mihajlovic refused to join the chorus of discontent.
"I don't comment on refereeing decisions," he said. "Sometimes they go for you, sometimes they don't. We deserved to lose today and I don't want excuses."
His only criticism was aimed at substitute Maxi Lopes, who was sent off after picking up two yellow cards in quick succession for dissent.
"The red card makes me very angry, my players cannot get themselves sent off like that," added Mihajlovic, whose coaching career until now has been a mixed bag.
He began in 2008/09 with a stormy six-month spell at Bologna which ended with the team stuck in the relegation zone.
The following season, he moved on to Catania and helped save them from relegation. That was followed by a spell at Fiorentina where he resigned after 15 months following protests by fans which included ethnic insults.
He then coached the Serbian national team and they failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, although Mihajlovic claimed to have rebuilt the team.
He has seemed far more comfortable at Sampdoria, the club where he first arrived from Roma in 1994 at a difficult stage in his playing career and ended up staying for four years.
"I feel at home, I feel a family atmosphere," he said. "As a player, I arrived here when things were difficult and it's because of Sampdoria that I am who I am today." (Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Alan Baldwin)