Friday 20 October 2017

How Nemanja Matic's defied all logic to become a sporting superstar... and his brother joined him for the ride

Nemanja Matic of Serbia and (inset) brother Uros
Nemanja Matic of Serbia and (inset) brother Uros
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

The tiny Serbian outpost of Vrelo is hardly the natural starting point for youngsters dreaming of sporting superstardom, yet Nemanja Matic and his brother Uros took that minor handicap in their stride.

At a time when Irish youngsters are questioning whether they can realistically hold on to a dream of playing at the highest level of the game, the Matic boys have proved that anything is possible if you reach for the stars.

While midfielder Uros has enjoyed a successful career with NAC Breda in Holland, Sturm Graz in Austria and now with Danish champions FC Copenhagen, his elder brother Nemanja confirmed his rise to the top of the game by securing a move to Manchester United this summer.

Emerging from a population of just 1600 in a tiny village with a picturesque church as it’s most notable landmark, the Matic boys have leapt over hurdles aplenty to achieve their sporting goals.

The legend goes that the football obsessed Matic brothers used to run to the training ground at his local football club in his formative days, doing keepie-uppies with a ball all the way there and back.

Vrelo FC, who were being coached by Matic’s father Dragan, had never produced a star name in the modest history, but young Nemanja was picked out as a star in the making during a game as against local village side Obrenovac.

“I remember the coach of Obrenovac calling my father to ask if I would go there to train, but I didn’t want to go from my village. I wanted to stay there,” recalls Matic, who will lead Serbia into battle in their crucial World Cup qualifier against Ireland on Tuesday night.

“When I realised the team in my village was not that good, I changed my mind. We didn’t have a good league so I went to Obrenovac and from there, I went to Red Star Belgrade, which is the biggest club in Serbia and this was the starting point of my career.

“Sometimes I look back and wonder how I have got to this level.

Playing for Chelsea, for Benfica. It is amazing, but we are always very grateful. When you don’t have much growing up, you appreciate what comes now.”

It was not just off the field that Matic’s resolve was challenged, with his first stint at Chelsea coming at a moment when he was not ready mentally or physically to cope with the enormity of the challenge.

Signed by the west London club as an attacking midfielder, the leggy Matic was not ready to be a first team performer and he admits the opportunity to move to England came too soon.

“Maybe I was too young,” reflects Matic, who was signed by Chelsea from Slovakian side Kosice for around £1.5m in August 2009.

“I did not leave Serbia at all until I was 18 and suddenly I was in the big city of London, with no friends and trying to adapt to a big club.

“Coming from the Slovakian league to play in England, with big players like John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba….it was a massive step for me. Too big at the time.

“I had time on loan in Holland (with Vitesse), but I knew it would be tough for me to get into the Chelsea team.

“The Premier League was not for young guys who had no experience and I realized this, so this is why I took the chance to join Benfica.”

David Luiz arrived at Chelsea as part of the deal that saw Matic move to Benfica, with the Portuguese football proving to be the perfect platform for the 23-year-old to mature into a powerhouse midfielder rebranded as one of Europe’s most wanted men.

Benfica coach Jorge Jesus identified Matic’s position to play a more reserved midfield role and that altered role reignited a career that could have stalled after his Chelsea experience.

Matic admits his young family cried when he told his wife and young son that he had accepted an offer to move back to Chelsea in January 2014, but this time manager Jose Mourinho assured him that his moment had come to be a Premier League regular.

Two Premier League title triumphs at Chelsea were to follow as he confirmed his status as one of Europe’s most dominant holding midfielders, yet his powerful presence on the field is not so noticeable off it.

“He’s a quiet guy,” confirmed Matic’s former Chelsea team-mate Frank Lampard, in an exclusive interview with the Independent.ie.

“You see what you get on the field, a warrior who will fight for the cause and that is what Mourinho liked in him.

“He wants players who will give everything and if you don’t do that, you tend to be removed pretty quickly.”

Matic’s reunion with Mourinho at United came as something of a surprise for many, with the second anniversary one of the more embarrassing incident of the Serb’s career now looming large.

It was as Mourinho’s Chelsea empire was crumble at the start of the 2015-16 season that Matic was caught up in one of his more contentious decision.

Thrown into a Premier League game as a second half substitute, Mourinho then replaced Matic just 28 minutes later and later claimed the player was not playing at the level required to be in his team.

“It felt terrible to be subbed, to be honest,” reflects Matic.

“I am a man first of all and, of course, I felt bad at that moment, but as you know, I didn’t react, I stayed professional and I am proud of that.

Normally some of the players react to that and cause some problems, but I showed respect for the coach and for the club and my team and Mourinho spoke to me after that to explain what happened. There was no problem.”

Matic confirmed that one of the reasons why he pushed for a move to United was to be reunited with Mourinho, confirming that high profile spat between the duo is long forgotten.

Such blips are merely incidental for a player who has overcome far bigger obstacles en-route to fame and fortune with England’s biggest football club and now he has his sights set on playing his first World Cup finals in Russia next summer.

Matic is already a hero in Serbia, with his huge salary allowing him to help build playground for children in the village who idolise their local legend, while he has also been known to pay outstanding food bills for impoverished locals on his trips back home.

His £140,000-per-week pay packet at United may be more than most in Vrelo earn in a lifetime, but Matic has earned his fame and fortune the hard way.

As he has proved time and again throughout his career, no mountain is too high for this midfield colossus to conquer.

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