As a boy, Milos Degenek was inspired by the stories he was told of Red Star Belgrade and their heroics at the highest level of European football.
It was the club he followed as a youngster, plying his trade in Australia – a country he moved to in the year 2000 after spending years in war-torn Croatia and Serbia.
It’s more than most have endured in a lifetime, but for a young Degenek it was a way of life. Fast forward nearly twenty years though, and Milos Degenek is back in Serbia with his boyhood club.
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Although it’s with an Australian accent and a desire and a drive to represent his adopted home on the international stage, the 24-year-old admits it’s an odd feeling to be back in the country he spent his most junior of years in.
“We moved from Croatia to Serbia and again from Serbia to Australia, twice a refugee, twice you lose everything and start life again,” Degenek told the BBC World Service.
“Now I’m back here [in Serbia] when life kind of took its turns and bubbles and everything happened here…I’m back here where it’s home, but it’s away from home. Mixed feelings in all sorts of ways.”
The Belgrade that was
When Degenek and his family fled Belgrade at the turn of the century, it was a war zone.
In the midst of a series of battles and bombings which devastated swathes of Eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia, Degenek did his best to maintain his childhood innocence.
It’s a time in his life which the Australian defender is happy to leave in the past.
“I was 18 months old, I don’t like to look at it that much, but it was just, a war between two religions, two people, for no reason. Political reasons and I don’t get into that I don’t like that,” Degenek said.
“It was a war that took its toll, a war that a lot of people lost their lives, lost their homes, both Croatian, Serbian, Muslim, everyone lost their lives, some relatives, some lost houses and everything.
“It’s not something we talk about much at home, it’s not something you go bragging about, you have done, this you have done that, it’s part of life, you move on.
“You look at bigger and better things, you look at the future to try to forget the past and build something beautiful in the future that you can talk to your kids about, so you don’t have to talk about the bad things.”
The Belgrade that is
If you’re a believer in fate, then it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that it was just that which has brought Milos Degenek back to the city where he grew up.
A professional career which begun in Germany and took him to Japan has now brought him back to Red Star, a club which he and his family have long supported.
They were once a powerhouse of European football. The club won the 1990-91 UEFA Champions League (then the European Cup), but this season qualified for the European competition group stages for the first time in its current format.
The last time the club played in the top European competition was 1991-92, and Degenek was the man who got them back there thanks to a pair of assists in the play-off against RB Leipzig.
“You really felt that [weight of history], the club's won the European Cup, its something that not every club gets to do,” Degenek said.
“I wasn’t even born the last time they played Champions League so it was a dream come true for me and a dream come true for the 52,000 people that were in the stadium. Some of them witnessed what happened 26 years ago, most part maybe didn’t so it’s a dream come true for us.
“It’s something that gives us a nation, us as a club, us as a people a big boost... it shows the Serbian football isn’t dead, that Red Star is still alive and kicking about really well.”
Making it as far as the group stage was hard enough. And then, the draw.
They knew it’d be tough, but maybe not this tough: Liverpool, Napoli, and Paris Saint-Germain are the other three teams in Group C.
For Degenek, it’s a chance for Red Star Belgrade to show the world that football isn’t totally dominated by money and that history and passion can make all the difference.
“When the draw came out… Napoli has never won it, Paris has never won it, Liverpool has won it five times. Look at it financially, those clubs have the financial ability to win whatever they want whenever they want,” Degenek said.
“For us, it’s different. One Napoli player cost €60 million, our whole squad cost €44 [million]. That doesn’t matter, when you put in the history, the fans, what this club has done and what this club stands for, it’s unbelievable.
“That’s why us players we play with heart, we don’t play for money, it’s nice to be a part of this club.”
Red Star Belgrade have already sprung one upset, playing out a 0-0 draw with Napoli on Wednesday morning (AEST). Their next challenge is away to PSG, on October 4.
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