EXCLUSIVE: Ljubo Milicevic opens up about Perth, football and life

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Ljubo Milicevic opens up (Image: Jennifer Stenglein/Instagram)

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Former Socceroos defender Ljubo Miličević has spoken for the first time since his split from Perth Glory after just two months at the A-League club.

Speaking to The Roar yesterday, a relaxed Miličević was philosophical about his time in the west, but avoided going into specific detail.

“I left because I wanted to seek opportunities elsewhere, and I think that’s worked out best for everyone,” he said.

“I signed for the season and initially that’s what I thought I’d be doing, but life throws you curveballs, let alone football, and everyone knows football is at the best of times weird.

“If you look at my career I’ve set all kinds of records, and I guess six weeks at a club is a new one.”

Despite his early departure, Miličević believed that the Glory were taking the right approach under Alistair Edwards.

“A lot of coaches have taken advantage of Tony Sage’s kindness, but I think Alistair Edwards and Gareth Naven have got the club’s best interests at heart, they’re former Glory players, they’re legends of the club. Scott Miller’s there and Bobby (Despotovski) is there as well, they want what’s best for the team,” he said.

“Unfortunately I couldn’t stay there, but look they’ve gone out and signed a World Cup winner – they’re better off having him there than me anyway. William Gallas – who am I compared to him?”

Miličević lavished praise on the French international, and scoffed at any doubts the 36-year-old defender was past his best.

“I think the age thing is bullshit. Look at Del Piero, look at (Paolo) Maldini, look at (Franco) Baresi, Francesco Totti,” he said.

“I mean we’ve got to stop following the AFL and NRL’s lead, they’ve got it wrong, they’re not international sports.

“We don’t base our game on physicality, it’s about poise and technique. As long as you want to play and look after yourself you can play.

“William Gallas is a beast of a human being, he’s blessed with great genetics and he’s a great footballer. The dude can play until 40 if he wants.”

Miličević cited former Central Coast Mariners Patrick Zwaanswijk and Daniel McBreen – who he labelled the A-League’s best player last season, along with fellow veteran Alessandro Del Piero – as examples of players able to play at a high level well into their 30s.

An AIS graduate, Miličević emerged as one of Australia’s brightest talents as an 18-year-old in a Perth Glory side recognised as one of the most successful in NSL history, alongside the likes of Despotovski and Troy Halpin.

Since then, it’s been an up-and-down ride.

Miličević has represented his country, most notably at the 2005 Confederations Cup, appeared in the UEFA Champions League with Swiss club FC Thun and made a successful return to Australian football with the Newcastle Jets.

Yet there have also been fallings out with numerous coaches, prematurely ended contracts and a one-year hiatus from the game in 2008, after which Miličević revealed he had struggled with the depression.

But according to Miličević, he wouldn’t change a thing.

“F*** life if there wasn’t ups and downs,” he said.

“I don’t want to be monotone, I don’t to be average, I don’t want to work nine to five, I’m not a slave.

“I enjoy the rollercoaster, because when I go to a theme park I find the rollercoaster interesting. I don’t want to go on the merry-go-round.”

Since leaving Perth Miličević had fielded offers from Asia and other A-League clubs, he said, but steadfastly refused to contemplate anything but a return to Hajduk Split.

In 2011 Miličević moved to the club he supported as a boy before leaving halfway through his first season after a pay dispute. The experience hasn’t hasn’t dimmed the obvious passion he has for the club.

“I just didn’t get paid for six months, I couldn’t live there anymore not getting paid, that was it,” he said.

“I’m welcome back, the fans love me – I wasn’t pushed out of the club, but I just couldn’t live there anymore not getting paid.

“But there’s a new president, a really good guy, the coach (Igor Tudor) is a former legend of Croatian football who played for Juventus for ten years, who is a friend.

“I will be going back, it’s just a matter of timing. Whether it’s in January or June, I will be playing for Hajduk again, if it’s the last thing I do. And when I want something, I get it.”

Miličević – and his considerable footballing ability – have been well-known throughout his career, it was his spell at Newcastle that Australia fans saw the most of his talent.

Ljubo Milicevic as former Newcastle Jets captain

Ljubo Milicevic as former Newcastle Jets captain

Over the course of three seasons Miličević formed an irrepressible partnership with Nikolai Topor-Stanley in the centre of defence, captaining the side and playing with a swagger that helped the club produce their best form since winning the title in 2007/08.

Of his Australian options, Newcastle was his preferred club, but Miličević cited several unnamed individuals standing in the way of his return to Hunter Stadium.

“Let’s not beat around the bush, there’s a couple of people at the club that don’t want me there,” he said of his prospects of playing for Newcastle again.

“The fans want me back, I’d love to be back, the majority of the team would be happy to see me, but there’s one or two individuals – without quoting names, it wouldn’t take that much of a Google search to figure out who I’m talking about – that don’t want me back at the Jets.

“Players, but also maybe one or two administrative guys as well, but we’ll see how long they stick around.

“I don’t think they’ve got a long time, because once the dude with all the cash runs out of cash he’s going to dash, and then it will be the people’s club again, which will be good.

“I was there on the weekend and while I’m here I’ll go to every game and pay my respects to the Squadron.

“But there’s an obvious disconnect between the club and the fans. Even though there was a good crowd there, there’s no atmosphere, and you can see it on the field as well.

“It’s not working as it is – the effort’s there but they lack a bit of soul. When Gary won the title not enough credit was given to (assistant) Mark Jones.

“Mark Jones was fantastic to work with, and I really hope he gets his chance in the A-League, if everyone else gets a turn then why not him?”

Two less-than-inspiring performances have seen van Egmond come in for criticism for his first-team selection and recruitment, after moving some of the Jets’ established stars on in favour of players he had worked with during his stint at the AIS.

Miličević had no hesitation in laying the blame squarely at the feet of the man who he worked under during the 2008/09 season.

“Under (van Egmond) the team hasn’t made the finals for the last two years, which is an achievement in itself in a ten-team league where the top six make the finals,” he said.

“Whether he says the team is developing for the future or not – that’s shit, because it’s not a youth development team.

“This town deserves a team that goes out there every week and plays with heart, gives it their all – and wins.

“When I was still here, we were entrenched in the finals landscape. Since I’ve left, they’ve bombed, and all of my mates have been moved on.

“Jobe (Wheelhouse) got moved on, Topor (Topor-Stanley) left and has gone on and been one of the best defenders in the league at Western Sydney, (Jeremy) Brockie left and went on to be the top goalscorer in the league, scoring bombs every week.

“Now Kanta (Ben Kantarovski) isn’t even playing, and Gary was saying he was going to be the next big thing, (Taylor) Regan was pushing me and Topor out two years ago and now can’t even get a game.

“Now Gary’s bagging out the young players that he signed, so where’s your f***ing vision Gary?”

His barbs weren’t limited to the Jets’ current boss.

“Branko Culina – mate, come on, look at his so-called success,” Miličević said, shaking his head.

“Look at Sydney United, full of Socceroos – Humphrey B. Bear could have coached that team. Again, Sydney Olympic – full of quality – Charlie Chaplin could have coached them.”

Not all of Miličević’s views on the FFA were critical, however, and he applauded the governing body on Wednesday’s appointment of Ange Postecoglou.

“Ange is a fantastic coach and I’m sure he is going to turn things around quickly. He isn’t part of any cliques, he doesn’t owe anybody anything, and he’s always backed himself,” he said.

“I think it’s the best choice Frank Lowy and David Gallop could have made.”

But Miličević hit out at recent criticisms of Socceroos’ ‘golden generation’, and was equally scathing about the public turning on some of the nation’s most decorated footballers.

“I think it’s been great that they’ve qualified for another World Cup, I mean we’re really getting complacent in this country,” he said.

“We didn’t qualify for a World Cup (since 1974) until this generation came together, now we’ve qualified for three in a row.

“Let’s give them a bit of respect that they deserve, you know, I think it’s quite sad that everyone forgets how good these guys have been for the country.

“They are the golden generation – Cahill, Bresciano, Lucas Neill, Wilkshire, Schwarzer, Dukes (Mark Viduka). I mean how much shit did Dukes cop? He’s the best player to come out of this country, along with Kewell, and we gave him shit because he didn’t score.

“Nobody remembers the fact that he had three guys on him all the time. That’s just Australia and the tall poppy syndrome here.

“But do you think the boys really care? Dukes sails his yacht off the coast of Croatia every summer, they’ve all got mansions, they’ve all played at the top all their life, it’s unfortunate that the fans turn on them so quickly.”

Yet Miličević’s plaudits weren’t restricted to Australia’s former stars. During his time at Perth the former Young Socceroo captain was impressed enough with 16-year-old Daniel De Silva to label him the best number ten in the country.

“Without a doubt,” he said.

“Anyone who has watched him play can see it, the kid’s a freak. He is that good – that good.

“I know there’s clubs after him in Europe, wanting to pay million-dollar transfer fees – they know what we’ve got here, we’ve got a jewel.”

Miličević also singled out Celtic midfielder Tom Rogic as a leader of the next generation.

“Rogic is fantastic, I’d love to see them (Rogic and De Silva) actually play together, but they’re different players, it’s not even right to compare,” he said.

“Rogic has got an amazing left foot, great control, technique, vision, Danny’s a right-footer, he’s more nimble, maybe quicker on the turn.

“If had to compare (Rogic) to a successful international player, I’d compare him to Zidane, and Danny reminds me of Messi.

“Which one would you have in your team? I’d rather have them both. It’s wrong to compare, they’re different players, but they’re both great – they’re the future of the Socceroos.”

“Overall I think that the standard of coaching in the A-League is fantastic,” he said.

“Popa (Tony Popovic) at Western Sydney, from what I hear (Josep) Gombau at Adelaide is doing a great job, look at John Aloisi at Melbourne Heart, Ernie Merrick has come back and is doing great at Wellington Phoenix, I mean look at their result on Sunday.

“Look at Arnie, and what he has been able to do with the level of turnover in that squad. And the reason, and I know from meeting with some of the Central Coast boys, is that they are tight.”

Miličević is known for his love of Torcida Split, Hajduk’s supporter group who once famously ringed the city of Split with flares during the club’s 100-year celebrations, and also has a close relationship with the Squadron, Newcastle Jets’ active support group.

He threw his own support behind the A-League’s active supporter groups, including Melbourne Victory’s North Terrace and Blue and White Brigade groups, in the wake of the FFA’s attempts to clamp down on what they deem to be “anti-social behaviour”.

“Why is there such negativity around the word ‘hooligans’? Flares are nothing, man – as long as they don’t go onto the pitch,” he said.

“At Hajduk, in Europe, it is nothing. At a derby against Dinamo (Zagreb) there is 50 flares – minimum – and do you think the players care?

“Forget the sponsors. They can have their half-time ad breaks, their advertising hoardings, but leave the ends to the fans.”

While he believes that the A-League has moved beyond ethnic-based clubs returning to the top level, he also believes those clubs and their traditions deserve to be respected.

“Melbourne Knights – Melbourne Croatia – were the team that I grew up watching, supporting week-in week-out, they’ve produced some of the best players this country has ever seen.

“Mark Viduka, Josip Šimunić, Frank Juric, Andrew Marth, the list goes on. Recently they had their 60th anniversary – but it was forgotten, other than in the Croatian community.

“The Italians at Marconi or Adelaide, the Greeks at South Melbourne or Sydney Olympic, they’ve all been pushed down, they’ve all been forgotten. They’re the reason why soccer has survived here.

“I’m not saying they should be back in the A-League, but they definitely shouldn’t try and crush them like they’re trying to with this NPL at the moment.

“Let them be, they’re a community club. People go there not just to watch soccer, they go there to play cards, they go there to play bocce, they go there to have a drink with their friends.

“When they’re feeling down and life’s getting to them, that’s where they meet. Stop trying to get rid of that.

“That’s where my parents met, at a Melbourne Croatia game. I exist because of football.”

Whether the FFV are in fact trying to crush the likes of Melbourne Knights and South Melbourne or not is a matter for another discussion. But in listening to Miličević comfortably switch between discussing a range of footballing issues, on and off the field, at a local, club and national level, it’s clear that there is deep thought and intelligence behind the persona often portrayed to the public.

Outrageously confident, yes. Outlandish, probably. But baseless? Hardly.

It is Miličević’s willingness to tell home truths that has landed him in trouble within the confines of the media-trained, cliche-riddled environment of team sport. Yet it is also the precise reason why when he speaks the Australian footballing public at the very least listens to what he has to say, regardless of whether they agree.

In 2011 the often-outspoken Miličević made what seemed at the time to be an outlandish claim about drug use in the AFL, labelled Eddie McGuire a bigot. He’s since been proven correct, and took the opportunity to once again aim up at McGuire.

“Look at the comments he made about the ‘land of the falafel’, Kevin Sheedy’s comments about the Department of Immigration earlier in the year,” he said.

“And then, a week after Adam Goodes is called an ape by a young girl, he comes out and suggests Goodes should be used to promote King Kong?

“Eddie calls himself a man of the people, and always goes on about being from Broady (Broadmeadows) – well go and live there Eddie, meet the people. You live in Toorak, mate.”

When the news broke of Essendon’s peptides scandal earlier this year Miličević said he wasn’t surprised, but was firm in his belief that the same problems did not exist in the A-League.

“The AFL and NRL are sports built on physicality, but football is about technique, and players being nimble,” he said.

“Look at Messi, Zidane, Boban – some of the best players in the world barely got behind halfway, I mean Ronald Koeman played most of his career with a gut.”

Miličević spoke of his frustration at seeing the over-reporting of fan trouble in the A-League when compared with similiar issues in the AFL and cricket.

“That’s just Anglo Australia – let’s pick on the ethnics,” he said.

“Every generation of ethnics in this country has copped shit, from the history of time. Go back to Sovereign Hill and the golden age.

“My parents and all the other ‘wogs’, which is a term created in this country that nobody else in the world knows the meaning of.

“But now we’re in vogue and there’s Italian restaurants everywhere and everyone loves going out for a Serbian or a Croatian bite to eat.

“Then I guess you’ve got the Cambodians and Vietnamese, and it’s in to eat pho and san choy bow, and now you’ve got the Afghanis and Iraqis.

“They’re only coming to this country because we’ve gone and bombed theirs. Why would they want to come and live here? They were happy. They would be happy if it wasn’t for the Americans raping and pillaging their country for oil.”

The root of Australia’s attitudes to immigration, according to Miličević, was not with its people but those running it – and those who report on it.

“What breeds that are the papers that report it, the Telegraph and the Herald Sun,” he said.

“Aussies are loved everywhere they go, and people love visiting Australia. But if you’ve got the paper reporting negativity and bile every week, then of course people are going to form an opinion on it.

“The same way people form an opinion about Frankston being full of bogans, or the Bra Boys in Sydney, or the bikies – mate, I don’t know about you but I don’t remember the last time a bikie knocked on my door and shot me in the leg.

“Who’s worse? The bikies, or the politicians that support Americans bombing countries and stealing their oil?

“Tony Abbott – give me a break. Don’t allow boat people in? Did that guy f***ing forget he came on a boat?”

But while Miličević remains as forthcoming on a wide spectrum of issues as ever, he is positive and bullish about his future career.

His love for football is still strong, and while he flatly refuses to entertain any football-related career beyond his playing days he looks forward to returning to the terraces.

Not that that will be any time soon.

“I’ll play until I’m 40. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’ve gone vegetarian, I do yoga every day, my body feels better than it’s ever felt, I’ve lost a lot of weight, I’m the lightest I’ve been since I was 16, and anyone who has seen me play recently will tell you that” he said, with a steely, determined gaze that seems to dare you to suggest otherwise.

“So I don’t put any limitations on where I’m going to go and what I’m going to do, and I always score a contract, and I’ll continue to for as long as I want to.”

How Miličević is remembered as a footballer in this country may yet to be determined. With no major injuries and subsequent reconstructions, Miličević is probably correct in saying that his body isn’t that of a typical 32-year-old, and his best might still be ahead of him.

He dismisses the possibility of not returning to Hajduk, bluntly calling it a negative question. But if his future isn’t back in Croatia, it would be fair and just to see Miličević get the chance to again underline his footballing credentials to the doubters, whether it is in the A-League or abroad.

Beyond football, Miličević is ultimately happy.

“I love this country, this land that the Aboriginals have welcomed us to live in. You talk about playing for Australia or whatever, and you can talk about playing for money, it’s the mates that I’ve got out of it that’s important.

“I’m always greeted with hugs and kisses and smiles, and when I see my mates and the smiles and the friendships that I’ve made over the last 20 years of my life I can tell you, you can have all the money in the world, and still not be happy.

“When I see the smiles, that means more to me than driving a Ferrari. I’d probably have just f***ing crashed the Ferrari anyway.”

As always, the last word is left to Ljubo.

“Namaste,” he said.

“It’s a term used in yoga, Google it, follow me on Instagram @ljubomilicevic, there’s a definition there.

“I’m spreading the love.”

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