AIS to Champions League - Ergic and Milicevic's parallel careers

On a recent summer afternoon, at a cafe outside the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, Ivan Ergic, a former Serbia international, leant back in his chair and recalled the first time he met Ljubo Milicevic - his oldest friend in football.

Ivan Ergic Ljubo Milicevic

Ivan Ergic, left, and Ljubo Milicevic in action for Perth Glory in 2000 Source: Getty Images

The year was 1998, Ergic and Milicevic were both 17 years old and had been awarded scholarships to the Australian Institute of Sport. Ljubo, tall and gangly, with a cleft lip, stood out.

“He was so big and charismatic,” Ergic said.

“I always say when he walks in the room it’s as if ten people walked into the room.”

The pair had every reason to be wary of one another. Ergic, born in the Croatian coastal town of Sibenik, is ethnically Serb and always identified as Yugoslav.

Milicevic, born in Melbourne, is the son of Croatian migrants who had fled the former Yugoslavia for political reasons.

Ergic’s great-grandfather died fighting for the Yugoslav Partisans in World War II; Milicevic’s father has a bullet wound in his head from when his village was machine-gunned by Partisan soldiers during the war.

In other words, the Milicevic family had been refugees from the formation of Yugoslavia; the Ergic family were refugees from it’s dissolution.

During the 1990s, as war raged in the Balkans, Serbs and Croats in Australia generally kept to their own communities.

Football was often the site of most tension, particularly when players of Serb background turned up to play against Croatian clubs such as Sydney United or Melbourne Knights in the old National Soccer League.

According to Ergic, there was “some kind of reservation” when he and Milicevic met.

“There was no tension,” he recalled, “but we were both aware that we should be… ‘enemies’, you know?

"Ljubo was really Croatian at the time, he was really proud of his identity. But it was the playing, and our skill, that brought us together. We had a perfect understanding.”

Both men, who were blessed with immense natural talent, remember the AIS as pure football, some of the most memorable days of their lives.

The program was disbanded by Football Federation Australia in August 2017, but it used to bring together the best of the best teenagers from around the country, in turn helping to launch the careers of players such as Frank Farina, Mark Viduka, John Aloisi, Mark Bresciano, Craig Moore, and the former Croatia captain Josip Simunic.

Ergic and Milicevic belonged to the class of 1998. They were standout players in the AIS side that won the National Youth League that year, thrashing Adelaide City in the grand final.

The AIS was a hive of education, football, and culture, remembered fondly by alumni who were nurtured by coaches Ron Smith and Steve O’Connor.

The footballers were always the most diverse group of athletes at the Institute, but as Ron Smith said in 2016, “one of the things that was recognised by every sport at the AIS was how close-knit the soccer boys were.”

“Before we even got there, Block 21 was known as the ‘wog block’, and Block 20 was known as the ‘skip block’,” said Milicevic, recalling the playful divide between the ethnic and Anglo students.

“More often than not everyone would end up in Block 21 because we were having more of a laugh. It was the best of times.”

Twenty years have passed since their first meeting. Ergic retired from football in 2011, and now divides his time between Belgrade, in Serbia, and Basel, in Switzerland.

Milicevic, who played his last professional game in 2012, and recently announced his retirement from all forms of football, lives in an apartment overlooking Bondi Beach in Australia.

Their careers unfolded in a remarkably similar arc — from playing together at Perth Glory in the NSL, to European football in Switzerland, to international appearances for Australia and Serbia and Montenegro, to their public mental health battles. And they remain as close as ever.

Milicevic calls Ergic his “oldest, closest mate in football… I love him like a brother”; to Ergic, Milicevic is “the friend that I trust fully.”

Even in retirement, separated by thousands of kilometres, they lead strikingly similar lives.

Ergic has become a writer, publishing a book of poetry and political columns in outlets such as Politika, the Serbian national daily, and TagesWoche, a Swiss-German news website.

He is known throughout Europe as the alternative footballer, who can speak clearly about everything from the theories of Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci and Albert Camus, to the corporatisation of football, to the rise of nationalism in the Balkans.

One article about his life, published by the quarterly football magazine The Blizzard, was titled “The Thinker”.

Milicevic, meanwhile, has become something of a cult hero in Australia for his unpredictable lifestyle, as well as his outspoken critiques of Australian sporting culture, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Western medicine, ex-teammates and coaches, and so on.

“Life after football, for both of us, is much more interesting,” said Milicevic on the day he announced his retirement, as he watched the winter sun rise over Bondi Beach.

“We’ve got freedom now. When you’re in that game you’re not free. Ivan’s chosen to hang out with intellectuals in Belgrade, and I’ve chosen to live on the beach and work in my mate’s cafe.”

Falling out of love with football has been a long process for both men.

After a short spell with Perth Glory, Ergic was signed by Juventus in the year 2000 and promptly loaned out to Basel in Switzerland.

Milicevic followed him shortly after, leaving Perth Glory for FC Zurich before ending up at Basel on a loan deal in 2002.

Their treatment at the hands of Juventus and FC Zurich — as well as a dodgy agent, in Milicevic’s case — caused enormous mental stress.

Ergic, almost catatonic with depression, checked himself into a psychiatric clinic and was away from the game for two years.

Milicevic, who played for Swiss clubs FC Thun and Young Boys Bern between 2003 and 2007, also struggled with depression.

The only reason he survived, he said, is because he was able to visit the Ergic family in Basel every other week.

“We are similar characters,” explained Ergic.

“We wanted to be authentic, we wanted to play football how we imagined it as kids, just pure heart. Then when you’re in there and you see what’s going on — the animosity, the hierarchies, the agents who are are just sharks… I think we were just vulnerable. We were not prepared.”

And yet, even despite their private battles, both managed to compete at the highest level.

Ergic played more than 200 matches for Basel, including in the UEFA Champions League, while Milicevic helped guide FC Thun, a tiny village club, to the Champions League in 2005.

They also represented their country, but that too proved to be a bittersweet experience.

In 2006, Milicevic was surprisingly overlooked for Australia’s World Cup squad, despite being part of the qualification process.

Ergic, on the other hand, played none of the qualification games yet was a shock selection for Serbia and Montenegro.

For Ergic, a moment of personal triumph stands out from an otherwise disastrous campaign.

Even before the tournament began, Montenegro split from Serbia, in what was the final breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Regardless, the team lined up to the old Yugoslavian national anthem before the group stage matches.

“That’s one of the things that shows the disorder in our society and our country,” Ergic said.

“It’s a completely new country, but you have the old anthem. Political, cultural… there’s so many issues there. But that was the last time it was played, against Cote d’Ivoire, and I started that game.

“For me it was an honour — you’re sending this anthem into history. I was brought up as a Yugoslav and this was a perfect opportunity. There were a few players who also had that sentiment, but they didn’t dare to sing it. But for me, I never hid the fact I’m a Yugoslav.

“It was a rainy day… it was really symbolic, you know? Played sh** against Argentina, the team is falling apart, the country is falling apart, and you see me… the camera goes across… and there I am singing. For me, that’s even bigger than any title, these symbolic moments.”

From that point on, the careers of Ergic and Milicevic began their slow decline. Ergic won a couple more league titles in Switzerland and in Turkey, but retired early, having lost the will and motivation to continue playing.

Milicevic returned to Australia in 2007 and tore through the A-League with short, intense spells at Melbourne Victory, Newcastle Jets, and Perth Glory.

He also played for South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights in the lower leagues, and had a brief stint with Hajduk Split in Croatia.

The fans usually warmed to him — at some clubs they adored him — but almost every professional contract ended after a fallout with the coach, management, or teammates.

In 2013 he “hit the wall”, spent two years depressed, and effectively disappeared from public life.

Looking back, Milicevic believes 2006 was the turning point.

“Instead of going to the World Cup, I went to the Cannes Film Festival in France,” he said.

“I had the time of my life. And maybe it was an indicator of things to come; that my world wasn’t really the football world.”

For many footballers, the years immediately after their career are the hardest. They can lose structure and purpose, and often find it difficult to construct a new identity outside of sport.

In 2017, the suicide of former rugby union international, Dan Vickerman, brought the issue to wider attention.

Ergic has clearly adjusted to life after football.

“I feel more stable after finishing my career than during my career,” he said.

For Milicevic, whose recent retirement was caused in part by a knee injury, that remains to be seen. Dizzying highs and terrifying lows seem to be part of his character.

“Worry is a feeling that I have had throughout my whole friendship with Ljubo,” Ergic admitted.

Yet both men have the advantage of going through the worst experience of depression during their playing careers.

Indeed, it may be that they were never really wired for professional football in the first place, and that their best years lay ahead.

“It’s not a secret that I find that world quite one-dimensional and quite boring,” Milicevic said.

“And that’s why Ivan and I have always been mates, because we didn’t catch up and talk about football. We talked about other stuff.”

Football has given them many things: enjoyment, financial security, the ability to travel, a public profile, and of course a friendship that will last a lifetime.

They haven’t caught up for a drink in many years, but remain in regular contact. Both hope to cross paths again soon.

“Ljubo is the most honest person that I know, and that’s why I love him," Ergic said.

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10 min read
Published 31 July 2018 at 5:49pm
By Joe Gorman