Sports

Aleksandar Duric: The soccer story that’s almost too good to be true

Before he found soccer, Aleksandar Duric had already lived a half-dozen lives filled with adventure.

Aleksandar Duric has an incredible life story. More twists than an Agatha Christie mystery and less believable than the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. A yarn packed with life-changing hindrances, Odyssean solo journeys and astonishing adversity.

This is the story of someone who became a canoeist even though he couldn’t swim, escaped a bloody civil war, hitchhiked to compete in the Olympics, traveled the world, became a professional soccer player and notched as many goals for his country as Marco van Basten, Geoff Hurst and Alfredo di Stéfano despite not making his international debut until he was 37.

A man who touched the lives of countless sports fans across continents and has a Wikipedia page in 15 different languages, yet he remains not just ‘under-the-radar’ but more ‘buried beneath a large rock at the bottom of the Mariana Trench’.

A Google search of his name displays about 200,000 results, which might sound impressive until you note ‘pygmy piano’ has more than two million.

He is a legendary figure who inspires wistful reminiscence from those who know him and genuine reverence and even greater respect among the minority unfortunate enough to have faced him in competition.

A one-man band of hope and glory, a living testament to the human ability to improvise, adapt and overcome; Bear Grylls wants to be him and opposition defenders would probably rather face a bear.

He runs 15km before breakfast — now aged 50 — and could probably breeze up and down Everest wearing shorts and a vest in six hours if he put his mind to it.

This is the story of Aleksandar Duric.

Aleksandar Duric: The origins of a superhero

“We used to dream about being sportsmen.”

Duric was born in Lipac, a tiny village on the outskirts of Doboj in Bosnia-Herzegovina (then Yugoslavia), into a deprived Serbian family.

As a child, Communism and kicking a battered ball about, sometimes barefoot and in winters which fell to minus-25 degrees, were precursors to his football career.

Speaking over the phone from his home in Singapore, Duric said: “In Communist countries a big part of youth is sport and I was no different. Like any child in my hometown, we used to play football all the time, that’s how I had my first touch. We all used to dream about being sportsmen.”

But canoeing was his first sport, not soccer, and it was no ordinary beginning either, only taking it up due to malformed bones in his chest and the prospect of Adidas tracksuits.

He continued: “It was accidental! I was sick and the doctor told my parents it was best for me to pick up a sport to develop my chest. I lived near the canoeing club, a few of my friends were there already so I liked the idea of trying — but I didn’t know how to swim. Even though I grew up very close to rivers, in those days nobody really taught you how to swim, so my problem was when I went for the trial and the coach said I needed to show I could swim. I risked it and jumped in and I swam!

“I don’t know how but at the end of the day I joined the club. It was a good sport to learn discipline — I always trained hard. Because it’s an individual sport, you depend on yourself: however much effort you put in is how much you get out.”

Duric survived the sink-or-swim situation, happy to take his first chance in canoeing at the age of 13.

Before his 18th birthday he finished eighth in the Junior World Championships; from not being able to swim to eighth-best in the world in less than five years.

An officer and a gentleman: “I was basically left on my own in the middle of Europe.”

Once he turned 18, a teenage Duric was forced to enlist in his country’s armed forces. He said: “I had already been marked as a youth leader or good citizen, so I didn’t have a choice but to go to army officer school for the Yugoslavian People’s Army.”

After a year of compulsory national service, which was a setback for his burgeoning canoeing career, Duric competed at the Canoe World Championships in Paris in 1991, where he finished a respectable 14th in the 10,000 meters.

Upon his return home, he was forced to report to his reservist army camp in Doboj and was put in charge of a team of 15 soldiers, tasked with disarming and arresting the paramilitary Serbian National Guard.

Following a few successful missions into the war-torn eastern Croatian city Vukovar, Duric demanded to withdraw his team for their own safety. It did not go down well.

“After two days I realized it wasn’t my war and, aged 21, told my senior commanders we needed to protect people instead.”

On the way from an interrogation room to his cell, where he was being held for questioning orders, Duric spotted someone he recognized from his national service and asked him to tell his father Mladjen what was happening.

His dad marched into the office, threatened to kill the commander with his bare hands if he didn’t let Aleksandar go, and the next day Duric and his team were given the keys to a few Land Rovers and told to make himself scarce.

“I illegally crossed the border and never looked back. There was huge pressure on a young me. I was basically left on my own in the middle of Europe with no state, no money, no language — to survive was really tough.”

He had left his homeland with just 300 Deutsche Mark (about £150 in today’s money), knowing he may never go back to see his family. Duric would never see his mother again.

Jusuf, president of Duric’s hometown kayaking club and father to his girlfriend Lana, helped him lie low in Belgrade, Serbia and then Szeged, Hungary, where he trained half-heartedly with little hope of competing at the Olympics as Yugoslavia collapsed around him.

Hitchhiking to the Olympics: “I was scared of the backlash.”

But in July 1992 he got a call, the call from the Bosnian Olympic Committee. Would he represent them at the Barcelona Olympics? Duric, who to this day has no clue how they got his number, thought it was a joke.

The trouble was, ethnic Serbs in Bosnia were fighting against the Bosnian flag he’d be representing at the Games. People went to his home and threatened to cut him to pieces if he ever returned. Even more poignantly, his dad threatened to never speak to him again. Did that stop him? Did it, hell.

He said: “In early 1992 my father and brother were fighting — all Serbs in Bosnia were fighting in this stupid civil war and I was scared of the backlash from them. But I always wanted to be at the Olympics, I was born in Bosnia, so it was the right decision to go. I’ve never regretted it.

“I was already a refugee, I went without a paddle, with nothing but hope that I would do my best. That’s the Olympic dream!”

So, with nothing but the equivalent of $20 in his pocket and the desperate hope of hitchhiking circa 1,300 miles from Hungary to the Catalonian city in time for the Games, he set off.

“I didn’t have money or a valid passport, just a World Olympic Committee letter. I remember taking a bus from Hungary to the Austrian border, and the official asking me where I was going. I told him and he said ‘Yeah, we’re going there tomorrow to do the skiing as well.’ One guy called the number on the WOC letter, came back and said ‘Actually he really is going!’ It wasn’t glamour Olympic travel but it was good enough for me.

“The 10 of us were the first Bosnian Olympians ever: we made a path for all other Bosnians. It was a great honor.”

He had only two weeks of preparation and no training equipment — borrowing from the Spanish camp, not unlike a certain Jamaican bobsled team.

After rubbing shoulders with Carl Lewis and Boris Becker, he exited in the repechages after just four minutes and 11 seconds of racing, knowing — heartbreakingly — his personal best time would have taken him through to the semi-finals.

But canoeing wasn’t the sport in which he’d make his name.

(JAY DIRECTO/AFP via Getty Images)

Making it in soccer: “People say I was so lucky, I never believed in luck.”

Turning back to his first love soccer, as canoeing couldn’t support him financially, he stayed in a refugee camp in Sweden in an attempt to sign for Stockholm-based side AIK, but went back to Hungary empty-handed.

Duric wandered the streets of Hungary as a stateless refugee, changing foreign currency beside cafés and restaurants before a friend helped get him a trial at the local club, FC Szeged.

He added: “I had the opportunity to train with a third-division team — this was my only hope of a better life. I got my first pro contract aged 22, not much money but it was a new chapter.

“People say I was so lucky, I never believed in luck. I believed if I worked hard I would succeed, and I did.”

Duric found out his mother was killed in an artillery attack on Sunday, Aug. 8, 1993, four days before his 23rd birthday, and would get home from training and cry, using soccer as a distraction from his pain. It was time to move; to a country whose language he only learned by watching John Wayne cowboy movies: Australia.

He said: “I had three OK seasons in Hungary but I didn’t have a passport so I couldn’t travel anywhere. I heard so much about Australia and what they give their citizens, but was scared for my dad and brother — I already lost my mum Nara.

“I left and my coach told me ‘I hope I don’t see you back in the next few months’. After a 10-day trial I signed for South Melbourne, one of the biggest Australian clubs at that time – it was a breakthrough.”

Despite an inauspicious beginning, when he shocked future Australia men’s national team coach Ange Postecoglou with his lack of match sharpness, Duric scored 11 in his first 12 games; his foot was in the door.

After hopping between six clubs in three Australian cities, Duric found himself playing for West Adelaide, a team in severe financial difficulties. In their final game before liquidation, a fierce local derby against Adelaide City, he scored a screamer but it was too late: the club was dissolved and the players’ contracts ripped up.

One of the best goals of his career put him in the shop window. Pastures new beckoned; Duric had another continent to conquer.

Homecoming: “I really felt Singapore was part of me.”

By an odd twist of fate, Duric had previously encountered Singapore during a 24-hour stopover on the way to Australia in 1995. Now in May 1999, at the age of 28, he was back.

Another fortuitous phone call guided Duric’s next step, this time from his future best man and former Australian international Eddie Krncevic, who told him a club in Singapore needed a striker. He did not even know there was a professional league in the country.

No matter that Aleksandar as a boy started as a goalkeeper due to his height and had mainly patrolled the left flank since then: Tanjong Pagar United and their coach Tohari Paijan needed a striker, and Duric was not about to let them down.

His first impression was underwhelming. Pitching up at Queenstown Stadium, the first home of the national team, he asked ‘If this is the training pitch, where’s the real stadium?’, leading to a blank stare and then helpless laughter.

After acclimating to the extreme heat and humidity with solo morning sessions — the team only trained in the afternoons — Duric also had to adapt to the style of play in a league largely populated by quick, technical players but who struggled with the physicality, which suited target man Duric right down to the bloody ground. He scored 11 in 16 games.

Tragedy, however, struck again. In August 2000, he received a phone call from older brother Milan. His dad was dying. Aleksandar returned home, talked to his father for hours, held his hand, and the very next day he died. Losing another part of his family heritage would only encourage him to put down roots when he got back.

Duric said: “I was like a nomad, moving from club to club, I never got my feet under the table. I really felt Singapore was part of me; I wanted to be part of the country and it’s where I wanted to build my family. And I was thinking, should I apply or not? Because my children were Singaporeans. One day, my boy will serve in the army. I applied but it’s really difficult to get citizenship.

“When you get rejected they don’t tell you why, they just say ‘thanks and try again’. So I did. The third time, there was a big article about me after the best season in my life in 2007, when I scored 44 goals and won everything, and it happened.”

Duric, who previously tried and failed to get Australian citizenship, managed without any help from the Football Association of Singapore to become a citizen following a Straits Times story. This meant his domestic exploits could be rewarded with an international call-up for his adoptive country. Theoretically.

He added: “I was happy just to be a citizen, I never thought about playing for the national team – I was 37 and did I really want that? I thought one or two more seasons and I’d go into coaching. Plus international and club football are totally different games.”

Serbian-born Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic disagreed. He explained that he believed the veteran could still contribute to the national team, giving the striker what he called ‘the shock of his life’.

Avramovic assuaged his concerns that Singapore fans would not warm to a middle-aged ‘foreigner’ keeping a Singapore-born player out of the side and his teammates backed that up, calling him ‘uncle’ and teasing him about cashing in his retirement fund. From there, things moved quickly. There was a sudden injury, and he was in the 11 to play Tajikistan.

“My first game I scored twice, we won 2-0, and the rest is history!”

Despite not sleeping the night before, brimming with excitement, the 37-year-old covered every blade of grass, hit the post twice, and, by his own admittance, could and should have scored five goals. Tajikistan did not know what had hit them.

Rather than receiving a handful of vanity caps for Bosnia, this relationship was a genuine marriage between country and player. After years of a nomadic existence, Duric finally felt he belonged to Singapore, and Singapore to him: the man whose motherland no longer existed on a world map had found his new home.

It is easy to be cynical about the proliferation of players turning out for adoptive nations in rugby and cricket and view it as mercenaries chasing a quick payday abroad as they weren’t good enough to represent their birth country.

This is absolutely not the case with Duric. He felt such a natural connection and close affinity that he was desperate to formally become a citizen, and was hugely proud to pull on the Singapore shirt and shed blood, sweat and tears for his adopted country.

He earned 53 caps, scoring 24 goals. A rate of one goal in two matches is generally considered very good for a striker. At the international level, it is outstanding. At the international level between the ages of 37 and 42, it is pure superlative fantasy.

Duric continued: “Being the first foreign-born player to captain Singapore [in 2008] is one of the greatest honors. To be respected by everyone in the dressing-room was the biggest honor I could get. I’ll always be proud.

“I wish I’d started younger and could have contributed more. Not many can say they played professional football until 44 or scored for their national team at 42, so that’s something!”

Aleksandar Duric

(HOANG DINH NAM/AFP via Getty Images)

Legacy

“One of my teammates in Australia said if I was dropped from an aeroplane in the middle of Africa, I would still find a way to survive, get work and learn whatever language I needed. I like that.”

His playing swansong came with a farewell match against Liverpool Masters including Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman. Duric walked on, with hope in his heart, tears stinging his eyes, with his wife and kids ensconced in the stands and his brother watching him play for the first time. The slightly abdominous former pros could not believe the slim striker buzzing around the pitch was anywhere near their age.

The grandad-faced slayer to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s baby-faced assassin, Duric transcends any assumptions based on age, any sportsman who’s seen in a nightclub, any F1 driver with an acolyte holding an umbrella over them, and much more besides.

Singapore-based football writer and broadcaster Neil Humphreys wrote:

“Singapore football’s favorite adopted son is hanging up his battered boots. When he wasn’t scoring one of his goals for Singapore, he was turning up at the most banal community events to boost awareness for a struggling S-league; sometimes sparsely populated and beneath the man’s resume. He never complained. He just smiled that damn smile and won hearts and minds like a military campaign.

“And it worked. The boy from Bosnia annexed Singapore. His weapons were honesty and integrity. He ruled by positive example and the crowds loved him for it. He was the dominant face of the S-League. At times the only face. But he persevered, shaming footballers half his age with his professionalism and reminding us that a date of birth is not a sell-by date.

“Thanks for being the most perfect professional the S-League has ever seen, Duric. Thanks for being a faultless role model to any kid with aspirations to succeed in any sport.”

Figures vary, but he retired with an almost apocryphal number of goals: 376 in 520 appearances in Singapore club soccer, plus 24 at the international level. A round 400 before you even start counting his time in Hungary, Australia or China.

That’s not forgetting individual honors like four top-scorer and three player-of-the-season awards, club honors such as three Singapore Cups, five Charity Shields and eight S-League titles across 15 seasons in Singapore.

Before a 43-year-old Kilifi Uele scored for Tonga against New Caledonia in 2017, he was the second-oldest international scorer ever, behind Keithroy Cornelius of the US Virgin Islands.

There was also a People’s Choice award (whatever that is), although for Duric one seems insufficient, plus being part of the last Singapore side to win an ASEAN Football Federation Championship (formerly Suzuki Cup) at international level; but he declares his greatest achievement was earning the respect of the Singaporean people.

Other achievements since then include working as (of course) fitness coach at former club Tampines Rovers in 2013; releasing his autobiography Beyond Borders in 2016, and leading young people down the right path in his current job at ActiveSG football academy.

He said: “Today around the world fewer children are playing sport because their lives are taken by computers, Apple phones and PlayStations. The Singapore government invited me to start coaching football to kids aged 3-16, so I run the academy.

“I started in 2016 with just 150 kids, now I have 3000 and 12 football centers around the island. Parents often take some winning over but people here know me very well and know I can do the job. I love working in football, finding new talents, giving them the right values. We all work together as a big family.”

One of the values, presumably, being hard work. The unimaginable psychological toll of the conflict notwithstanding, Duric himself admits the 60km walks carrying a 30kg backpack and a gun in the Balkans winter without a shirt on changed him from a boy to a man. (Goodness knows what he thinks of Premier League players donning trench coats, neck warmers and gloves during winter).

The experience also instilled the core fitness and relentless discipline which served him so well later in his life; his near-superhuman fitness essentially powered his sporting career.

He said: “I still run 15km, diet and go to the gym every day. Sport was a huge part of my life and I can’t change. I’m still a role model to the kids – Pep Guardiola looks exactly as he did when he was playing for Barcelona. I still hate losing, I hate it. I always want to be the best.

“I never rated myself as an excellent player. There were much better players I saw throughout my career, but I had a very strong mindset, was in top shape and very competitive. I never drank, never smoked, a total anti-footballer in those days. Today we see these Spartan guys — that was me 20 years ago!” That’s him today too.

His charity work includes chauffeuring donors around the island for 12 days, raising more than 2,500 Singapore dollars — adding he regretted not doing it for longer — and raising 12,000 more by completing a 21km race.

Duric added: “Charity was always part of my life. My family was very poor and I never forget where I came from: wherever I played I wanted to help kids out. We should be doing it as human beings! I’ll probably do it the rest of my life, it’s who I am.”

You would expect nothing less.

The Evergreen Warrior

“People say I was lucky to play with top team-mates but I deserved it — those clubs wanted me to play for them. I scored goals like crazy but it’s about desire and passion and love. I love football, I live for it. It’s more than life, to be honest.”

Putting aside his undoubted talent, The Evergreen Warrior (as Duric was once described by a pre-match program) has lived a life founded on extreme hard work, grit, determination and drive. It was no Trumpian tale of inheritance or nepotism; he pulled himself up by his bootstraps from when he was a kid and never stopped, lifting himself from the depths of despair to the top of his chosen sports.

He was not destined to be a footballer in the sense George Best or Diego Maradona was. He carved out an astounding, record-breaking career as a domestic and international player and an inimitable personality based on little more than the sweat on his brow and the content of his character.

And that greatness means more when it emerges not from someone sublimely and preternaturally gifted but from a unique everyman who grasped glory by overcoming extraordinary obstacles.


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