Over the past 16 years, 83 different nationalities have taken part in the A-League.
The Newcastle Jets have quietly undertaken one of the largest rebuilds of any A-League club in recent seasons.
Coach Arthur Pappas has ushered in several young players with great promise while trying to find senior professionals to add experience to his side.
In a move that has surprised supporters, Newcastle announced the signing of the former prodigious A-League striker, Eli Babalj.
Newcastle have signed striker Eli Babalj for the upcoming season. [@NewcastleJetsFC]
— A-League Hub (@AleagueHub) October 11, 2021
He was expected to have an amazing career after breaking through in Australia, only to see his dreams derailed by club politics and injuries like so many before him.
Babalj was born in Sarajevo but immigrated to Western Australia with his family.
There were a lot of A-League sides interested in the 6’5″ striker who had a sublime deft touch, but his hometown club Perth Glory signed the 15-year-old to their youth team.
However, Babalj left the Glory after one season to play for the AIS in the Youth League.
This was a gifted AIS team that included Lawrence Thomas, Trent Sainsbury, Terry Antonis, Brendan Hamill and Mustafa Amini. They surprisingly finished bottom, but Babalj drew the plaudits with nine goals.
Melbourne Heart was the next A-League club to take a punt on the talented kid and his tally of 11 goals in 35 matches had European teams on high alert.
Heart had received multiple offers from several teams, however, once Babalj found out which clubs were interested there was only one he wanted to sign for: Red Star Belgrade.
Red Star Belgrade were managed by one of his childhood heroes, the legendary Robert Prosinecki and Bablj couldn’t believe his dream was coming true.
What happened to Babalj next is another cautionary reminder for young Australian players interested in signing for an overseas club.
Straight away there were problems in receiving his international registration. By the time this was rectified, the coach who moved pillar and post for his signature, Robert Prosinecki, had left the club.
His replacement didn’t seem to have the same faith in the player and Babalj cut a frustrated figure in Belgrade. A brutal fight in training with Nathaniel Asamoah which was plastered all over the local papers didn’t help his cause, either.
Red Star then missed paying the latest instalment of the transfer fee on time, so Melbourne Heart invoked their clause to bring a jaded Babalj back to Australia.
His second stint at the Heart was short and then he spent the next two injury-plagued seasons in Holland.
The injuries that he thought were left behind in Holland returned when he tore his ACL at Adelaide United.
Stints in the Czech Republic, India, Australia and most recently Thailand followed.
I can’t say that I agree with the perception in Australia of Eli being arrogant and lazy in training, especially given what I witnessed during his time in Adelaide.
Eli reminds me a lot of Tomi Juric, besides the connections to the Balkan – they are both introverts, nonchalant and seem to prefer their own company.
Babalj is still one of the best Australian players I’ve seen of his size when it comes to the ball at his feet – a man of 6’5” should not have ball control similar to a 5”9” playmaker.
Newcastle are taking a major gamble on a player that has barely played 50 games in several seasons due to constant injuries.
His time is Europe was marred by club politics and agents who seemed more concerned about how much of a fee they would receive when their client is sold rather than the player’s health and wellbeing.
Babalj has by all reports been training the house down in Newcastle’s pre-season and this is the leanest and fittest he has been in years.
There is absolutely no shame in Babalj coming back to the A-League a decade later. If he can stay away from injuries, he could play an integral part in mentoring the Jets’ young strike force.