Australian striker Eli Babalj has been involved in a training ground punch-up with Red Star Belgrade team-mate Nathaniel Asamoah, which is making headlines for all the wrong reasons in his adopted city.
The pair face a dressing-down from coach Aleksandar Jankovic and a club fine since tempers erupted after a regulation training session as the pair exchanged words – and then blows.
Babalj, who has made just one appearance for his new club in a UEFA Europa League tie since his switch from Melbourne Heart was ratified last month, was carrying the goalposts off the training pitch on Monday (AEST) along with Asamoah when a heated debate between the pair turned ugly.
The incident, which erupted in front of club president Vladan Lukic, has been widely aired across print and electronic media in Serbia with Bablj, backed up by several witnesses, insisting that Asamoah, a regular starter this season, threw the first blow while he acted in self-defense.
But there are conflicting reports over just who lashed out first in the fracas which saw Asamoah, 22, knocked to the ground.
The pair were forced to shake hands afterwards by Jankovic who sought to play down the incident.
“Babalj is a guy who has come into a new environment, a new system, a different way of life," Jankovic told popular Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti:
”People control their emotions in different ways.
“We expect him to adapt well in time, because we need Eli like any other player. He was in contention for the team and we want him there when he is ready.”
Asked about the consequences of the bust-up, which was quelled by the timely intervention of young Serb defender and peacemaker Nikola Maksimovic, Jankovic replied: “We have a fund to cover these sorts of incidents which the players pay into.”
Babalj, who was left with marks on the bridge of his nose, was praised for his “boxing” skills by the daily, which claimed that it was Babalj, 20, who hit out first after he had been goaded and insulted by the African.
But another Serbian source said: “Eli insists that he was punched first and was only reacting. It has been misreported in the media in Serbia.
“The truth is that Eli was defending himself after he took the first punch and he’s feeling pretty bad about the whole thing.
”His version is backed up by several of the players present at the time.”
Feelings were running high, according to team-mates, after Bablj berated Asamoah for not passing him the ball when in front of goal during the training session.
“Eli had a goalscoring opportunity, but the guy didn’t want to pass him the ball and it stemmed from there,” added the source.
“This is what Eli says and what other players there also confirm.
”These things happen at training at many clubs and while you don't want to condone it, it can be a reality of competitive sport.”
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