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Dusan Tadic: From Serbia to Southampton, this is my story

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(Dusan Tadic talking to Joe Prince-Wright)

When I was growing up as a kid in Serbia, I had always dreamed of this moment. Last week we did it. We qualified for the World Cup. When you play for your country, everyone remembers you if you play in a World Cup. It is that simple.

I remember the 1998 World Cup when we were Yugoslavia, I had the sticker albums of all the players and I still remember that squad and who was playing.

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It is very nice to be there, at the World Cup, and we need to try and go step by step and see how far we can get. A lot of people are saying we can provide some surprises and not much is expected of us, but we don’t see it like that.

With Serbia, there will always be pressure.

We are the kind of players and people who do not know how to live without pressure. Even if we play against Brazil or some of the other bigger countries, we think we are better than them. That is the way we are. People expect us to beat the big teams and we have plenty of pressure from within.

It has always been that way, lots of pressure, but at the start it was all much simpler…


HOW IT ALL BEGAN

There were a lot of kids, everywhere, and we were always playing outside in the streets.

I think this is the best way to learn football, to play with your friends, street football, looking back, those are wonderful memories and I look back on that time in my life fondly.

My hometown, Backa Topola, was in the north of the country near the Hungarian border. It is a nice part of Serbia and I am very happy I grew up there.

Growing up, one of my best memories is getting my first pair of boots. There were Adidas and one of my fathers friends gave them to me. They were a special present and I wore them all the time. When it came to my first shirt, well, this was a little interesting. My father likes Partizan Belgrade and my uncle, well, he likes Red Star Belgrade. They are huge rivals and they would always get me a shirt from each club. Ah man, that was rough.

The shirt I held closest to my heart is one I had when I was 13. It was the shirt from the 1998 World Cup that Yugoslavia wore and had Predrag Mijatovic’s name on the back. You remember that shirt, the one with the big collar?  We did really well in that tournament and I wore that shirt everywhere. I still have it somewhere at home.

Our country has gone through a lot of tough times, especially when I was growing up, but I think playing football gave myself and other kids at the time an escape from everything else that was going on. Those were tough times.

When it is like this, it is important that kids play football or another sport because you are in nicer situations and have positive vibes around you. Because if you don’t play sport at times like that, I don’t know what you would do.

I am very happy I grew up in Serbia. You can have tough times, good times, but you learn a lot. I am incredibly proud of where I am from.

My father, that’s where my love for the game comes from. He watched every single game I played in growing up. He still does now. All of my family and friends, they would come to watch me and their support was incredible.

Every coach I’ve had, even if something was wrong, you still learn something from every single one of them. I am very lucky to have had so many good coaches over the years who I tried to learn from.

My idol growing up was Zinedine Zidane. I tried to learn from him. He did everything to perfection. Everything was easy for him. I loved watching him. He was a genius.

Not just the way he played but I also like his personality, the calmness he has off the pitch and the way he carries himself. After I watched him on TV I would go straight out into the street in Serbia to try and play like him.

I was lucky that I moved to a team like Vojvodina at the age of 14. They are known to have the best academy in Serbia, so there are many similarities to how things are here at Southampton with an emphasis on bringing through young talent.

Vojvodina always gave young players a chance and by the time I was 16 I was in the first team and then we went to the Europa League and it was a great time for me with wonderful coaches who pushed me to my maximum. I’m pleased that the pressure was so high when I started off there. That made me into the player I am today and helped me want to succeed and get better.

When I then moved to Holland, at the beginning I was looking around like “why is everyone so relaxed?” I was confused. After you lost a game, everyone was laughing and everything. If you did that in Serbia, that would be a big problem.

It took me time to adapt to the less intense atmosphere in Holland but I played with, and against, some great players who ended up with me here at Southampton. Graziano Pelle and Jordy Clasie from Feyenoord and then a young Virgil Van Dijk was just coming into the first team in my second year at Groningen.

When I played in the Netherlands, the league was very strong but a lot of players have left the Eredivisie and they are struggling a little with a lot of young players coming through.

But when I look back at my time in Holland with Groningen and FC Twente, this was the most important period of my life. I was at that stage when I had to grow as a player and a person. I am happy I was there. Holland has a philosophy of football which links up with how I like to play.

I learned a lot and it prepared me well for the challenge at Southampton.


SETTING RECORDS IN SUNNY SOUTHAMPTON

It wasn’t always my aim to come to England but everyone thinks about the Premier League because it is one of the strongest leagues in the world.

You want to show yourself in the strongest league and this was the right moment.

I knew back in 2014 that Ronald Koeman really wanted me. Southampton are a nice club with great supporters and I came here with a lot of new players in that summer of 2014 and some people expected a lot from me, but that didn’t bother me because as a player you have to trust in your qualities and show yourself and help your club.

After 2014 we had the two most successful years in Southampton’s history. Everyone was proud of that and I was pleased to be a part of it.

I have so many great memories here at Southampton. I’m in my fourth season and I have a strong connection with the fans who sing my song and support me no matter what.

From the first moment they accepted me very well. I try my best to entertain and make them happy and to give them joy. A lot of people come to watch and support you as a player so you need to try to give them enjoyment. Ii try to entertain.

I live in a marina called Ocean Village in Southampton and it doesn’t feel like you’re in England. When you say to people “oh, I live in England” everyone is like “it is rainy and cold there, why are you doing that?”

But Southampton is not like that. It is not like the rest of England. Here the weather is very good (at least compared to the rest of England!) and every day I am happy for that. Trust me.

So far we’ve had a lot of success but when I sit back and think about all of the good times we’ve had since I arrived, my winning goal at Old Trafford against Manchester United back in 2015 is the best.

We hadn’t beaten United away from home for 28 years and it was my first time playing at Old Trafford. I will never forget that moment. Ever.

Our aim here at Southampton, and my aim, is to get us back to Europe.

It is very important for us. Just as important is another good run in the cup, just like when we went to Wembley last season and lost to Manchester United. I don’t have any regrets about the League Cup final. None of us do. We did our best and I think we should have beat Manchester United. Anybody watching would have said that. We were unlucky. Sometimes, that’s football.

Someone told me earlier that a year ago today we were getting ready to play against Inter Milan in the Europa League at the San Siro. Wow. Time flies. We have to get back to playing in big games like that.

It will be hard to keep improving every year because there are so many quality teams in the Premier League but that is my main focus.

Well, that and my two kids. People say it a lot, but being a father has changed me as a person and I live a different kind of life. I am very happy with my life and my two children. I enjoy every moment with them.

I know on the pitch I can seem a little on edge. I’m a fierce competitor. Off the pitch I am easy going and I relax more. A lot more. Honest.

On the pitch I’m sharp and I show my emotions a lot more. I’ve always been like that, wearing my heart on my sleeve. On the pitch I want to win. We all do. We give everything for our team. We are all winners and we want to win every single game.

Every training session. Every game. Even when I play cards… I have to win. It is interesting that only this makes me happy. If you want to learn one thing about me from reading this, it is that I do not like to lose. Nobody likes to lose, but especially me. It is difficult to accept.

When some of the players play table tennis or basketball, I have to be the best. I can’t stand losing. I’ll throw things and get upset because I just want to win. It’s simple.

My teammates know that and some of the players I’m closest with, like Cedric Soares, will tell you that.

Sometimes Cedric and I go up to London on our days off and hang out and have dinner but with two young kids, I spend a lot of time with my family. I’m just looking forward to meeting Cedric in the World Cup if Serbia play Portugal. We owe him one. Portugal beat us in the qualifying for the European Championships. I want revenge and on the pitch I’d be in his ear all of the time. I wouldn’t stop.

I’d enjoy that…


WORLD CUP DREAM COMES TRUE

After reaching the World Cup last week, our first time as a nation since 2010, Serbia is fresh in my mind.

Perhaps the thing I’m most proud of in my career is to be the reigning player of the year in Serbia.

When I look at some of the past winners, Nemanja Matic, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Vidic, Dejan Stankovic and guys like Mijatovic, it makes me very happy to be in that kind of company. It proved to me how much respect people in Serbia had for me after goals and assists for the national team and also what I’ve achieved here at Southampton.

This award motivates me to get better and better.

And the fact that I will hopefully be heading to the 2018 World Cup with Serbia, the first major tournament of my career, it is an incredible feeling. Even now when I look back at photos from the night we sealed qualification in Belgrade against Georgia, it makes me emotional.

When I look at the photo below, I get emotional. I was just so happy. Even though I’m crying.

Going into that final game of qualifying, as a team we were under the biggest amount of pressure I’ve ever felt with the national team.

If we didn’t win that game against Georgia and qualify for the World Cup, I think they would have taken our passports away and told us we could not come back any more! It was like that. Seriously.

Those games like that, where it is so incredibly important, we are not a country that goes to every tournament, so it was a huge success for all of us.

I’m already 28, so for my national team career this is massive because playing at a World Cup is something everyone remembers. To seal the qualification in Belgrade, in front of our own fans, it is something I will always remember. The celebrations that night were quite special…

It is something I will never forget but hopefully there are many memorable moments to come both with Serbia and Southampton.

What’s next for growing American would-be pro soccer clubs like Detroit City?

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As our attention switches from international football back to the club game, a new article coming out of Michigan recalls where American soccer was when the American soccer world hit pause for the World Cup in June.

That’s when the United States Soccer Federation rejected billionaire businessman Rocco Commisso’s plea for a 10-year runway to bring the North American Soccer League to Division 1 league status by virtue of a $500 million investment proposal.

As if on cue, a John Niyo article in The Detroit News drags the so-called “closed system” back to the forefront, and his article on National Premier Soccer League side Detroit City FC makes an interesting case.

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DISCLAIMER: Before we go any further, it’s important to note I operate a club in the same league as Detroit City, and very much admire how they’ve built what they’ve built there. That said, my opinions may be buttressed by that fact but are not birthed by bias.

The would-be Cliffs Notes go something like this: Detroit City FC wants to move from the short-season, semi-pro National Premier Soccer League to a fully professional league with a longer season. The rub is that DCFC currently only has one path and it’s one neither they nor the lion’s share of their supporters would support at the given time.

That’s largely because the U.S. Soccer Federation has only sanctioned two options above the NPSL: The United Soccer League and Major League Soccer. If DCFC doesn’t want to play a part in either of those organizations, it has no other current option. And while Detroit City has continued to bring huge crowds to its restored Keyworth Stadium whether NPSL matches or friendlies against the likes of FC St. Pauli, Necaxa, or Venezia, its next step is currently stuck in a holding pattern despite the club’s achievements.

And — and this is where Commisso’s offer comes back into play — the USSF has no reason to sanction any league that doesn’t go by its current divisional guidelines, which demand a very wealthy owner and specific stadium requirements amongst other things. Infrastructure and fan support can be built, but asking these clubs to hand themselves over to someone with deeper pockets simply to meet a standard is real 2×4 to the gut.

“What you’re doing is awesome, but imagine if instead of you owning all of your success, you found a wealthier person to help you meet our standards?”

As we saw when MLS had its Detroit press conference without DCFC, there is no longer the ability to pretend soccer wasn’t already in town. DCFC may seem like an outlier, and may well be one, having had massive success with big crowds in a stadium they renovated themselves. Yet there’s little doubt there are myriad markets in this giant country that wouldn’t mind trying their hands with something new.

Put plainly, there are 172 clubs in the NPSL and Premier Development League alone, few of whom are in markets with MLS teams. Even eliminating the PDL teams with close relationships to MLS and the USL (The USL owns the PDL), and there are still well over 100 teams in play. Sure, some of those may not have the ambition to grow higher, but they are also currently also shackled by having to compete against the former NASL teams who had no alternative outside of the USL once their Division 2 league shut down last winter.

So Niyo’s article asks a question many have posited in the realms of social media: Why not go outside the structure of FIFA?

From The Detroit News:

Building a league outside the constraints of U.S. Soccer’s “Professional League Standards” could be one option for remaining NASL owners — New York, Miami and Jacksonville — and NPSL teams that are looking to grow pro. Detroit City FC was one of at least a half-dozen NPSL teams — clubs from Boston, Phoenix, Virginia Beach and Boca Raton, Fla. among them — poised to join the NASL with letters of intent last fall. But whatever path a new league pursues, it’ll require strength in numbers — at least 10 or 12 teams — and a geography that makes sense.

It’s a major risk, one that certainly is lined with the hopes that the influencers and money people behind the USSF might blink at significant competition.

But it still requires significant salesmanship: Getting top-notch players to commit to a league which several hampers their international aspirations is a hard sell (The NASL had capped players from 27 caps heading into the 2016 season).

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So, too, is convincing deep-pocketed investors that they are capable of slaying, or at least denting, a big machine which has grown in a dramatic way in the last two decades. If a guy like Commisso, who has since went deep into discussions for a takeover of AC-freaking-Milan, sees the value and necessity of USSF sanctioning, lawsuits or not, certainly most would have the same questions.

Are there enough of the renegade rich to self-sustain a league outside of the MLS-USL set-up, and even get to sanctioning? Probably, as evidenced by Commisso’s belief that he’d be able to go from multi-club ownership of a D-1 NASL to 10 owners within a decade.

And there’s no denying the allure of safety for new markets. NISA founder Peter Wilt left his nascent D-3 league to helm USL soccer in Madison, and it’s easy to envision his safer new venture an almost automatic success.

So would that same group of risk takers be willing to do it outside of USSF sanctioning, without name players?

That’s where DCFC’s status as an outlier might really come into play. For everyone tooting the proverbial horn of MLS’ rapid and impressive evolution in quality — academies and foreign recruitment alike have made the league very entertaining — there’s no doubt that players with the name quality of Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Carlos Vela still put butts in seats.

Consider this: For all its growth, MLS’ top performing players remain almost overwhelmingly foreign-developed. Using an advanced rating site like WhoScored, the Top 20 finds only two players with any sort of U.S. or Canadian development in their lockers (and that’s being gracious with Kei Kamara, who came to U.S. for college at the age of 20).

You get to No. 23 before another U.S. developed player, Sean Davis, hits the list. It only gets to seven by No. 40 if you allow foreign-born players who largely grew their games in college soccer (including Mark-Anthony Kaye from TFC’s Academy and York University in Ontario).

Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of quality American and foreign talent which would benefit from more jobs.

As DCFC CEO Sean Mann says in The Detroit News piece: “It was frustrating: Why are there so many obstacles? We’re not zealots. We’re not crusaders to reform American soccer. We just want to play at a higher level. We want to naturally grow. And U.S. soccer doesn’t allow that.”

This nation is gigantic, and there are few fans out there who genuinely believe MLS will stop expanding any time soon. In fact, it’s a safe bet that the long play is to one day announce a knockoff of promotion and relegation within the confines of the Major League Soccer umbrella.

The question isn’t who’s right and who’s wrong. Let’s face it: the answers seem likely to fall along the lines of one’s political alliances. Those who fear the risks of the new and unusual will worry about short-circuiting the current path, while the other side will beg to give ideals and theories a chance at practice in the name of something better.

But something does have to change. Soon, more and more major success stories are going to be held short of their goals because of the current structure. Whether that’s Detroit City or Chattanooga seeking a next level and not finding it, or the Sacramento Republic not getting its shot at MLS, or a fan base and market like Columbus getting waylaid by a slimy contract and inaction from on high, they will keep coming into your news feed.

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And if we keep making the mistake of letting these conversations regress to simple “pro-rel” banter, then we’re all going to lose. And it’s going to take a bunch of risk takers who put aside their egos to find common ground.

Here’s a quick way to put the American soccer landscape in perspective: Look at a map. As this sport continues to grow, and the country’s young players are coached and encouraged by generations of fans who were coached and encouraged by fans themselves, the markets for summer sporting entertainment will continue to explode in the United States (with only baseball to compete with them thanks to the given calendar implemented by the USSF).

Are there more than 26 markets fit to host a top-tier side? Yep. Are there more than the 60-plus when tossing in USL (but subtracting MLS reserve sides)? Yep.

And if Commisso’s offer tells us anything, anything at all, it’s that there are figures out there who love the game and have an appetite for something not currently satisfied by the current structure. So either MLS or the USSF is going to announce its plan for a much bigger league with more than a couple dozen markets, or someone is going to challenge from the outside (Of course, both could happen and that would be very intriguing).

Either way, let’s hope it happens before the next guys who want to take up Detroit City’s example decide they’d rather not rattle their skulls against an unnecessary ceiling.

What’s the solution given the current power and success of the USSF? Your takes are welcome.

Nothing to separate Portland and 10-man LAFC

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There was entertainment value in Los Angeles FC’s potential playoff preview with the Portland Timbers on Sunday in the City of Angels, but all that arrived was a scoreless draw.

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Both Giovani Savarese’s Timbers and Bob Bradley‘s nickname-free expansion club remain in the West’s Top Four. PLAFC remains unbeaten at home during their maiden voyage through Major League Soccer.

Adama Diomande came close for the hosts, who finished with 10-men when Lee Nguyen went studs-up on Sebastian Blanco‘s thigh for a pretty easy red card (though it took some time for Silviu Petrescu to produce the red).

VIDEO: France stars projected onto Arc de Triomphe

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If France’s players had any doubt about the level of import their World Cup title had back home, it was erased when their photos were projected onto one of the most celebrated monuments in the world.

The photos of Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and company made their way onto the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday, hours after France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup Final.

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The Arc de Triomphe honors those who died in the French Revolution and early 19th century wars, and sits above France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

How humbling must it be for those players to grace such a heavy monument (both in weight and substance).

Dalic: In one day, Croatia went from lucky to unlucky

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Ante Cacic’s Croatia was on pace to miss out on the World Cup.

Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia rallied the troops to second place in their qualifying group, a playoff defeat of Greece, and a run to the World Cup Final.

Pretty decent stuff.

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And surely the 51-year-old will reflect on that, probably even this evening, but he’s more focused on a letdown after Sunday’s 4-2 loss to highly-favored France.

Key to the match was a penalty awarded to France when a partially-obscured Mario Mandzukic handled a ball inside the 18, leading to Antoine Griezmann’s pivotal goal.

The PK was awarded via VAR, and France went up 2-1 en route to a three-goal lead. From the AFP:

“I never comment on referees but in a World Cup final you do not give such a penalty,” said Dalic.

“It in no way diminishes France’s win. We were a bit unlucky. Maybe in the first six games we were favored by luck and today we weren’t.

“I have to congratulate my players. Maybe today we played our best game at these championships. Against such a strong side as France you must not make mistakes. We are a bit sad but we must also be proud of what we’ve done.”

Croatia had two-thirds of the ball and doubled France’s shot attempts, and Dalic isn’t the least bit controversial in wondering whether the match is much different if that penalty goes unawarded by referee Nestor Pitana.