‘Do you think that [football] is pressure? The pressure was when I was running away from the war as a baby,” says Australian defender Milos Degenek

“Do you think that’s pressure? No, it’s not pressure,” said Australian defender of Serbian origin Milos Degenek, warming up after being asked why they now have a competitive game after losing 4-1 to France.

“The pressure was when I was running away from the war as a baby. The pressure was when, at the age of six, I was in the middle of a new war. That’s pressure. Do you think this is pressure? No, that’s not pressure,” Degenek said at a press conference.

Degenek was born in Knin, Croatia. When he was 18 months old, his family fled to Belgrade to escape the Yugoslav civil war – the Croatian War of Independence. They drove on a tractor for nine days, he says, to get to safety. With nothing but milk, bread and two suitcases.

But the relative peace didn’t last too long. They were living as refugees in Aranđelovac, 70 kilometers south of Belgrade, when a new war hit them. He was six years old when the Kosovo war stormed into her life. NATO troops bombed the city.

France’s Kylian Mbappe (right) and Australia’s Milos Degenek fight for the ball during the World Cup Group D soccer match between France and Australia at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Tuesday, November 22, 2022. (AP Photo/ Christopher Ena)

“These things are pretty hard to explain to people who haven’t lived through it,” Degenek once told ABC News.

Like he’d drop everything and run when the air-raid speakers panicked his life. Into a dark, windowless underground bunker. “He can taste the metallic cans they’ve survived on for days and the soft whispers of other families comforting one another in the shadows. He can hear those haunting sirens pierced by whistling warheads and the deep rumble of distant bombs bringing down bridges and buildings. He can still see the bodies, the debris, the fire, the smoke.

And he can still feel Đorđe, his older brother, calm and trembling by his side,” ABC News poignantly noted.

His father Dusan, once national champion in the 800-meter dash in Yugoslavia, and his mother Nada protected him and the brother as best they could. Dusan would work as a carpenter and Nada as a dishwasher in Australia.

“That was the sacrifice my parents made – to leave their comfort zone, which was Serbia, where they knew everything and everyone – to leave that and go to Australia and risk everything for me and my brother, so we can have a better life. ‘ Degenek told ABC News. “I am very grateful to Australia for actually allowing us to come into the country. I am now 28 years old. I have a wife, I have a baby, I have a second baby on the way. My brother has a wife and a child, my parents are healthy; They are grandparents now.”

For a man who’s been through hell and back, what’s a must-win in football? Whistle.

It was Serbia that sparked real footballing ambitions in Degenek. When he was older, his father took him to Serbia, most notably to a football match at Red Star Belgrade.

Red Star and Partizan, two of the oldest Serbian clubs, stood for different things. Red Star supporters were seen as supporters of Serbia, while Partizan stood for the Yugoslav state. To this day, the rivalry plays out in the ugliest way. The famous Belgrade derby between the two clubs, which incidentally have their own stadiums only 500 meters apart, still splatters blood to this day. The menacing red smoke from the torches fills the air in Belgrade. The sky turns crimson. Torches jump from the stands. They even have a name for it in Serbian: Bakljada. Photographers do not watch the game. Their cameras are instead trained on the stands, where the gory action takes place.

In his article in the International Journal of History of Sport entitled “It all ended in in an Unsporting way: Serbian football and disintegration of Yugoslavia”, Richard Mills quotes the curator of the Red Star Museum speaking about the chants used in the USA rang out stadium after the collapse of Yugoslavia. “Red Star Serbia, never Yugoslavia”.

On March 29, 1991, just months before the country’s collapse, Red Star Belgrade became the first Yugoslav club to win the European Cup, the biggest honor in European club football. During the game, a huge 60-meter Serbian flag was flown by 20,000 traveling Red Star fans. It was a statement in itself. Shortly thereafter, the country collapsed in civil war.

Degenek was in this stadium as a football-mad kid. “It was like back then with the Colosseum. The guys would fight, people would be around and they’re there for entertainment. I sit in awe and sometimes just think about how much I respect the people who go to these games… ‘Those moments when I went to Red Star Belgrade with my father to be able to play for the club 15 years later is a even bigger “wow”. It was my dream come true, my family’s dream, all our relatives’ dreams come true,” he told ABC News.

At 16 he left Sydney for Germany to pursue a football career.

France’s Kylian Mbappe controls the ball alongside Australia’s Milos Degenek (left). during the World Cup Group D soccer match between France and Australia at Al-Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Tuesday, November 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

“You either eat or you get eaten. That’s the easiest way to put it… My first experience was that I was dropped off in the middle of Germany, in Stuttgart, and had to train for an hour and a half in the middle of a freezing winter,” Degenek said at the press conference under Qatar.

“It’s minus eight[degrees]… two pairs of trackies between each other and four sweaters because I didn’t have enough money to buy a winter jacket – until I got one from my agent. That’s where I got to know my first problems with people thinking, ‘Oh, you go to Europe, you like football, you go pro and you make a lot of money’.

“My first professional contract was $1000 a month. I didn’t make big money.

He has traveled the world playing soccer: Germany, Japan, Serbia and Saudi Arabia and is currently playing in the United States.

He then spoke enthusiastically about Australia’s next opponents, Tunisia, who had captured the public’s imagination with a hard-fought draw against Denmark in their first game.

“I’ve never seen a team at a World Cup that has so much heart and passion and desire and love for their country,” Degenek said of Tunisia. “They have phenomenal desire … the boys love each other and they have this fire in their eyes and they’re very strong in the way they go about things.”

Why did he choose to play for Australia and not Serbia? “I was eligible to play for Serbia but I only had ideas to play for Australia because that country gave my family a chance,” he had told ABC. “I probably won’t be able to repay Australia for giving my family the chance to move in, get a job, buy a house. I cannot formally repay Australia. The best thing I can do when I’m playing is play to the best of my ability, try and win and keep the crowd happy.”

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