Ugarkovic relishing renewed interest in Croatian football

Janek Speight Columnist

By Janek Speight, Janek Speight is a Roar Expert

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    When Australian tourists take a trip to Croatia, their first calling is the coast. Party islands like Hvar, honeymoon stretches such as Vis and historical centres Dubrovnik and Split dominate itineraries.

    Yet when Steven Ugarković embarked on his Euro trip at the age of 17, he headed inland.

    Leaving family, friends and school in 2012, Ugarković moved to his parents’ home country of Croatia to pursue his dream as a professional footballer. He ended up picking Osijek, a town nestled between the Hungarian, Serbian and Bosnian borders.

    “I came straight by myself,” Ugarković says.

    “My parents are Croatian but when I got here I couldn’t speak the language so it was a big shock.

    “But once I got through that it was fine. I’ve loved every bit of it.”

    On the recommendation of Davor Bajsić, an ex-Sydney United coach and NK Osijek player, Ugarković shunned other Croatian clubs located on the coastline for the harsher, hotter eastern climate.

    NK Osijek’s youth setup was the deciding factor, the famed academy known throughout Croatia for its focus on youth development.

    “It has been known for bringing up some big name players like Davor Šuker and is known around Croatia for being one of the best youth systems,” Ugarković explains.

    “While I played with the Under-19s before signing with the first team we won the league and were runners-up in the cup, which was great.”

    As well as the language barriers, the jump in quality and intensity was a big step out of Ugarković’s comfort zone, with the speed and tactical play particularly stronger. Yet a first team contract quickly followed, a three-year deal reward for the overseas gamble.

    His first year as a senior player was a clear success with Ugarković’s heavy involvement in the first team leading to a call-up for the Croatia Under-19 side. A move to the Balkan state’s east was paying off, yet contact from back home was still lacking.

    Australia was always the one true love for Ugarković. His father had moved Down Under at the age of five, his mother born to Croatian parents. Prior to last year, however, correspondence with the national setup had been non-existent.

    Whether Ugarković’s performances had finally been noticed back home, or Ange Postecoglou’s new reign had ordered a more extensive scouting run, Ugarković received a call-up to the Olyroos’ friendly tournament in China last November. It was the first time he had heard from head coach Aurelio Vidmar.

    “Obviously they’ve been playing more Aussies from abroad, which is a big plus for us playing overseas. Since the call-up there’s been a lot more contact,” he says.

    “To me it was always Australia, the call-up from Croatia came but my heart was always set on Australia. I lived there my whole life, that’s where I was brought up.

    “So when I was called up it was an easy decision.”

    After coming off the bench for his debut against Brazil, Ugarković has started the Olyroos’ next five matches, including the three Olympic qualifiers in March. The transition into the midfield trio alongside Mustafa Amini and Ryan Edwards has been fairly seamless and next year he will likely feature in the Under-23 Asian Cup to chase qualification for the Rio Olympics.

    “The speed was a bit of a step up but once I got used to that it was fine. Obviously there was a bit of a difference between how Vidmar plays and the Croatian coaches but I got the hang of it pretty quickly,” Ugarković says.

    “If we go to Brazil [Olympics] it would be a massive dream come true. Just reading about the players that want to play there, it’s going to be a great tournament.”

    Yet the national call-up has come with unexpected setbacks. Prior to the Olympic qualifiers Ugarković had forced through a loan move to second division side HNK Gorica after playing time at NK Osijek had dried up.

    “I played three full games and then I got called up to the national team again,” Ugarković says.

    “But when I came back the politics side of things came into it and they started playing their own players. They didn’t want to go into the first division and so I was sort of put to the side.

    “I think [the Olyroos call-up] could have had a part to play in it. But it was my decision and for me it was the right thing to do. But when I came back there wasn’t much communication between me and the club and it just fell out from there.”

    A promising start to the season ended with Ugarković in limbo. But with new coach Dražen Besek at NK Osijek, Ugarković is optimistic about the current season.

    The club has won, drawn and lost a game so far in the 1. HNL, which included a 1-1 stalemate against last season’s champions Dinamo Zagreb. Ugarković has come off the bench in all three matches; a gradual start to getting back on track at his parent club.

    “We’ve made a good start and I have a good relationship with the coach which I’m happy with,” he says.

    “We’ll see how it pans out this year.”

    Ugarković’s relationship with Besek is a promising sign that first team action will continue this season.

    “He’s a bit different to the other coaches I’ve had. He’s got a better relationship with his players. He likes to talk to you and to see what you’re thinking and let you know what he’s thinking,” Ugarković says.

    “He’s refreshing. His style brings your confidence up, personally and as a team. You know what he expects and he believes in you and you can feel that.

    “It’s great because the last few coaches the contact hasn’t been great.”

    Ugarković is another member of the current Olyroos setup currently developing into the kind of player Postecoglou values highly – a ball-playing midfielder equally adept in defence and attack.

    “I play as a number six or I can play the box-to-box role. We rotate a bit in that [Olyroos] midfield three. I love getting forward when I can, but I don’t mind playing a defensive role as well,” he says.

    “We play a different formation [at Osijek] with two defensive midfielders, but I’ve been playing the attacking midfield role.”

    Tomi Mrcela’s recent introduction to the Socceroos setup for the first World Cup qualifiers against Kyrgyzstan in June has shown that Postecoglou is casting his eye further than just the usual European hotspots.

    Vidmar’s use of Ugarković for the Olyroos is further proof that the Australian network is working harder to unearth potential stars. Previous youth teams were strangely Australian-based, with many young prospects working overseas left out.

    Rewarding the youngsters who take a risk and move away from home early is just as important as ensuring locally-based players get their fair chance. Especially considering the talent Australia has lost to the Croatian setup in previous years, keeping an eye on the 1. HNL should be common sense.

    Ugarković’s ability to install himself as a starter under Vidmar in such a short time frame is also vindication of the early move to Osijek.

    “When I saw [Mrcela’s call-up] I was overwhelmed and happy for him because I’ve been in contact and we know each other from over here,” Ugarkovic says.

    “It just gives you that extra little boost to show that they’re following the Croatian league now. It’s extra motivation.”

    Now in the final season of his original three-year deal with NK Osijek, Ugarković could be the next Australian thrust into a bigger European league if he impresses over the next 12 months.

    “There’s always that desire to move onto bigger clubs and bigger leagues, that’s always an option,” he says.

    “It helps with your motivation to keep your game up and you never knows who’s watching here in Europe. But we’ll see what happens, it’s still a long way away.”

    Janek Speight
    Janek Speight

    Janek is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. You can follow him on Twitter, @JanekSpeight

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    The Crowd Says (12)

    • July 31st 2015 @ 9:13am
      aladdin sane said | July 31st 2015 @ 9:13am | ! Report

      The turnaround in o/s based players getting youth call-ups is refreshing. One of the biggest issues in recent years has been players who do not come up through ‘the system’ (jnr state teams) being totally ignored. Obviously kids develop at different stages, and the things have been, if you develop late here you’re right off the radar. Perhaps this has something to do with Eric Abrahms? Either way, very positive for the future. Nice article too, Janek.

    • July 31st 2015 @ 9:49am
      Franko said | July 31st 2015 @ 9:49am | ! Report

      Another great piece Janek, bravo.

    • Editor

      July 31st 2015 @ 4:05pm
      Patrick Effeney said | July 31st 2015 @ 4:05pm | ! Report

      Good work Jannie. These pieces are always a good read.

    • August 1st 2015 @ 9:13am
      Aljay said | August 1st 2015 @ 9:13am | ! Report

      Enjoying your articles Janek. Really worry about his club playing time if he is going to be called up for all of the Olyroos games & camps this year.

    • August 2nd 2015 @ 10:53am
      LordBrucie said | August 2nd 2015 @ 10:53am | ! Report

      The popularity of in countries like Croatia is often over rated by many. Basketball, Ice Hockey and even Rugby League are faster growing sports

      • August 2nd 2015 @ 11:46am
        MelbCro said | August 2nd 2015 @ 11:46am | ! Report

        lol, I’m Croatian and I can confirm you are talking crap. Croatia lives and breaths football, no other sport even comes close. Basketball is a significant sport there but its fallen off dramatically since the glory days of 90s, Its been overtaken by handball as the second most popular sport. Ice Hockey is a niche sport, and is very much a spectator sport which doesn’t translate at all to people actually playing it. And Rugby League? LOL. Union has more of a niche in Croatia than League. Get out of here Lord Brucie

      • Roar Guru

        August 2nd 2015 @ 1:50pm
        Mister Football said | August 2nd 2015 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

        I think it would be fair to say that soccer would still be the number one sport in Croatia. Basketball has always been quite popular.

        It would be remiss of me to not use this opportunity to mention the Hrvatksa Liga Australski Nogomet

      • August 3rd 2015 @ 4:59am
        Realist said | August 3rd 2015 @ 4:59am | ! Report

        The NRL is taking over the world!

      • August 3rd 2015 @ 12:59pm
        Midfielder said | August 3rd 2015 @ 12:59pm | ! Report


        You know this how …. and the world cup is a fraction of the size it is made out to be.

    • August 3rd 2015 @ 7:50am
      Jack said | August 3rd 2015 @ 7:50am | ! Report

      This 21 year old Serbian Aussie playing for Munich is the one ange should look at

      • August 3rd 2015 @ 9:19am
        aladdin sane said | August 3rd 2015 @ 9:19am | ! Report

        which one?

        • August 3rd 2015 @ 8:28pm
          Jack said | August 3rd 2015 @ 8:28pm | ! Report

          Milos denegek I think his name is

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