When you have lived through two bitter civil wars in your teens, the small matter of a Big Blue derby is unlikely to faze you very much.
For Sydney FC midfielder Milos Ninkovic, born in Belgrade in 1984, a few short years before the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia, football was always a distraction from grim reality; a possible route to a better life.
“It’s very difficult, you know, because I survived two wars and when you survive two wars your personality is a little bit different,” said the 34-year-old, who will be pulling the strings in midfield for the Sky Blues as they host Melbourne Victory at Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday evening.
We had only one toy, only a ball – and most of the kids at that time played basketball or football.
“Soccer was sport number one in Serbia, because at that time Red Star [Belgrade] was the biggest team in Europe and they had an unbelievable team. That’s why I picked soccer over basketball.”
Practice makes perfect
For anyone who has watched Ninkovic’s seemingly effortless mastery of the ball, the deft touches and clinical finishes, it will be little surprise to learn of the countless hours spent mastering his craft as a child.
“I played soccer all day long, you know. Soccer was my love, my passion,” he told www.a-league.com.au.
“It’s not a good example for kids, but a lot of time I took my school bag and I put my boots and all [the] stuff for training. My parents thought I was going to school, but every time I went to training.
“I trained every day, every single day I had a double session, and even when I finished the second session I would go with my friends and play soccer or basketball.”
That dedication paid off, and having signed professional with the small Čukarički club in his native Belgrade at 16, Ninkovic moved on to the Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev three years later, flourishing under the guidance of Russian coach Yuri Semin.
After winning two league titles, three Ukrainian Cups and four domestic Supercups – as well as knocking out Valencia and PSG en route to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup – Ninkovic called time on his Kiev career to join his boyhood idols, Red Star.
It was not a universally popular decision.
“I finished my contract with Dynamo Kiev and I signed for Red Star and everyone thought I was crazy a little bit, you know, but that was my dream.
“[Red Star’s city rivals] Partizan won six titles in a row and after six years we won the title for Red Star… that was an unbelievable feeling.”
World Cup woe
Ninkovic’s name may be on the lips of every Hyundai A-League follower these days, but his first brush with Australian football was a disappointing one for the midfielder.
His Serbian side came up against the Socceroos in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, with a 2-1 defeat to a side containing some future Harbour City colleagues leaving the Serbs rock-bottom of a tough group that also included Germany and Ghana.
“We needed just one point from the game against Australia,” he recalled. “I remember we played very well in the first half, but second half [Tim] Cahill scored an unbelievable goal and [Brett] Holman I think.
“We lost that game 2-1 and I remember I played against [David] Carney, and [Carl] Valeri played as well. Really, Australia had an unbelievable team at that time.”
Touching down in Sydney
Australia became home to the Ninkovic family in July 2015, when the midfielder signed for Sydney FC, having turned down strong overtures to finish his career in the burgeoning Chinese league.
I spoke with my wife and we made a decision because of the kids – we thought it’s better to come here and to grow up in Australia than in China. I think we made a good decision."
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