Aleksandar Đurić: One man’s fight against the odds from Bosnia to Singapore

Aleksandar Duric forged a hugely successful career as a footballer in Singapore. As a child in Josep Tito’s Yugoslavia, football wasn’t even among his favourite sports. His autobiography Beyond Borders lends compelling shades to an already colourful journey.
Aleksandar Duric's parents wanted to name him after the great Greek warrior. Little did they foresee how much their son would live up to it.
Aleksandar Duric‘s parents wanted to name him after the great Greek warrior. Little did they foresee how much their son would live up to it.

One of the most popular names in the modern era, Alexander is the name derived from the Greek word Alexandros, which means “the defender of the people”. It is a combination of the word alexin, which means “to defend”, and the noun andros, which refers to “a man”.  

In the ancient times, it was a common name bestowed to a typical Greek male warrior who possessed the exceptional ability to withstand or push back enemies during combat. The most famous bearer of the name during that era was none other than Alexander The Great. Unsurprisingly, subsequent generations of parents would name their sons the same in hope they would grow up to be as prominent as their most famous namesake.

Mladen and Nada Duric, a traditional Yugoslav couple from Lipac, were no different when they were considering naming their second son. To them, the Serbian variant Aleksandar seemed to be the perfect fit for the boy. How inspired the choice of name would be, as his extraordinary life story transcended through personal challenges and moments of tragedy and triumphs to be where he is today.

A story that encompasses many aspects of life through various personal chapters, Aleksandar Duric’s unique journey from obscurity to football stardom in Singapore is alluring as anything one might have read before this.

“Beyond Borders” is his autobiography that was co-written with Glenn Wray. Released by Marshall Cavendish International Asia Pte Ltd in January 2016, the backdrop behind his accomplished and well-documented 17-year football playing career is the main draw that encouraged me to get this book.

The setting in his formative years could be traced back to his family home in today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina (then part of the former Yugoslavia). Under leader Josip Broz Tito, the principle of “Brotherhood and Peace” was impressed upon in every aspect of Yugoslav life. Sport was no different.

Having started out, like many boys of his generation, football was his first love and it gave him a sense of escapism from the tough upbringing and environment at home. If his formative years had been entirely dedicated to football, his life path would have been like so many others before and after him.

What makes the early chapters of the autobiography such a compelling read was the influence of another sport in Duric’s early years that would have a significant impact in his sporting career. Introduced to canoeing at the age of 12 to deal with a problem with his chest, the budding footballer would progress to become a potential international athlete in the other sport under the strict tutelage of his disciplinarian coach Jusup Makarevic.

Makarevic was more than just a coach. He was also a father figure and teacher, in the same mould as to how Aristotle was to the legendary Alexander. During Duric’s most troubled times, it was his mentor who would provide him all the support he needed. Whether when he was on the run as a refugee in Hungary or when he was plunged deep into depression upon hearing the loss of his mother, Makarevic – and his family – was the pillar and refuge in those challenging times.

That phase in his life was particularly poignant, as racial hatred inflamed in Bosnia and the Serbs took advantage of the conflict to commit all kinds of atrocities against the Muslims. Their contrasting racial backgrounds (Duric is a Serb while Makarevic is a Muslim) was in contrast no barrier to the close bond they forged, as he would learn to see a person beyond creed and religion and appreciate the love and care in the backdrop of hatred and war.

Having become a refugee as a result of the Balkans conflict, the journey to participate in the 1992 summer Olympic Games in Barcelona was another remarkable highlight. After all, competing in the apex of sports against the world’s best is something no athlete in any discipline will refuse when the opportunity comes along. After being recommended by his mentor to participate as part of the newly-independent Bosnian delegation, Duric was no different.

The thing is, it is no ordinary road to the Games. To represent his nation is the athlete’s honour, but Bosnia then was fragmented by the immediate scars of war and open racial division. Participating under the Bosnia flag comes with plenty of connotation from the Serb militias back home. Moreover his dad, who was still involved in the conflict, did not take this faintly. His disapproval of the decision saw the father-son relationship deteriorate and it would take years for them to reconcile.

On the brighter side, there was the fascinating journey where he trekked 700 kilometres from the Hungarian town Szeged to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana with just a backpack, a canoe paddle and 20 dollars in his wallet to join the rest of the Bosnian contingent for the once-in-a-lifetime highlight in Barcelona.

What made me feel personally emotional in this part of the book was the moment on how he reconciled with his father before the latter’s last breath. That moment reminded me of just how much I missed mine despite our rollercoaster propinquity through the decades.

With the Olympics chapter closed, the next phase in Duric’s life saw him venture outside of Europe as he acquainted himself with the game that he fell in love in as a little boy.

Having lost his mother and no country to return to, there was no choice but for him to move elsewhere. Just like Norwegian explorer and Nobel Peace Prize Fridtjof Nansen once said, “I demolish my bridges behind me, then there is no choice but to move forward.

Fascinated upon hearing stories of Bosnians who have settled overseas, he would start to visit from one embassy to another in hoping there is an opportunity for him. That search got him in touch with an Australian coach of Hungarian-Serb descent, Frank Arok. After a painstaking process on his visa application and long-haul flight from Frankfurt filled with fear and trepidation, Duric arrived in the land of Oz in September 1995.

As Duric had learned time and over in his life journey, the race is not complete until you cross the finishing line. Arriving in Australia was only half of the battle won, the other part was to try to impress Arok and his assistant, future Socceroos head coach Ange Postecoglou for a professional contract as a footballer.

Having not trained for a prolonged period of time and out of shape, this was going to be his Battle of the Persian Gate. It was a disastrous first day of trials just as much as when Alexander walked into an ambush set up by Ariobarzanes of Persis. But just as how Aleksandar Đurić kept pushing on his conquest to rule Persia, Duric gave everything on the field.

From initial dismay and horror, the coaches did eventually see something in Duric the player and offered him a contract. Australia will be his home over the next four years but his real ‘homecoming’ would only happen in 1999.

There is a saying that your first impression always counts. In Duric’s case, it was the first time when he landed in Singapore while on transit to Melbourne. His experience of Changi International Airport and what it had to offer gave him enough reason to say yes to an opportunity to play in Singapore. Philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen once said, “Singapore has been incredibly well-managed. It was created out of the swamp with strong emotional idea“.

Singapore has propelled itself into the world for its first class service in commerce and industry but football was a different matter. Duric’s first impression with Singapore’s football had more to do with surrounding aesthetics than football infrastructure.

It didn’t take long for Duric to realize what he had signed up for after he put pen to paper to play for Tanjong Pagar United FC, the first of the several professional Singaporean clubs he would eventually play for. On his first day, the club president took him to visit the team’s home ground at Queenstown Stadium. Built in the 1950s, it resembled a community field, with kids playing on the pitch while senior citizens were strolling on the running track. Duric could not help but laugh when the truth hit him from the scenes he witnessed.

To put it in Bergguren’s way, football in Singapore, unfortunately, was and has remained in the swamp. The country’s professional league was only launched three years earlier. Salaries were not the most attractive but Duric needed a job. At least the city life gave him a welcome change from what he had endured living at Lipac or even Szeged.

After all, if Alexander was determined to push his conquest into the Indian subcontinent, Duric too needed a challenge and was up for it. His coach in Singapore, Tohari Paijan, also saw the potential in converting him into a striker, a position he never played before. The switch was handsomely rewarded as Duric netted 11 goals 16 appearances for his club who finished third in the league.

At the age of 29, Duric’s first year in Singapore would become the most important breakthrough in his football career. Many players at that stage would have either peaked, achieved plenty or were beginning to slow down. But not for Duric, he was a typical Macedon warrior who is full of masculinity and was just getting started.

Over the next 15 years in Singapore, Duric would go on to play for Tanjong Pagar, Home United, Geylang United, Singapore Armed Forces FC and Tampines Rovers. Whichever team he played for, Duric would lead the cavalry by wrecking havoc with goals after goals. He would collect seven S. League titles, three Singapore’s Cup, four Golden Boot awards, 200-goal and 300-goal milestone special awards and was named as League Player of the Year thrice!

With a distinguished career at club level, it was only inevitable that Singapore would open the door for Duric to play for their national team when it was opening its arms for foreign talents. Truth to be told, he was never in contention due to his age. But here’s a guy who trained like a typical Greek warrior all the time, age was a non-existence matter. Stories about him waking as early as five in the morning for a five kilometre jog was stuff of legends, for he kept a strict diet and health regimen that he still practices to this day.

Landing a permanent place where he can finally call home after spending time in the wilderness is one thing, it is another to merit citizenship in his adopted country. Having spent the majority of his nomadic adult life in Singapore, it was only natural that he make it home.

Even though tried several times unsuccessfully to transition from permanent residency to the much cherished Singapore passport, it took an article in Singapore’s national newspaper The Straits Times on June 2007 to eventually gain some traction. A senior immigration official noticed it and he finally became a Singaporean a few months later.

That paved the way for Duric to open a unique chapter in his professional career in November that year. At 39 years young, he made his international debut in a World Cup qualifier against Tajikistan at home and instantly repaid his new nation’s faith in him with a brace. This was to eventually lead to a seven-year international career, spanning 53 caps with 24 goals and an Asean Football Federation Championship winner’s medal in 2012, in the season of his football life where other players would have typically wandered into the sunset.

Duric playing for Singapore against Lebanon.

By the time Duric hung up his boots in 2014, he had managed to get his name pencilled into the annals of Singapore football. An impressive tally of 376 goals in the S. League is an outstanding record achieved in a single professional league worldwide, leave alone in a sport you picked at a precarious age.

If Tito’s “Brotherhood and Peace” were the guiding principle in the former Yugoslavia, then “Meritocracy” was (and still is) Singapore’s equivalent. Infusing the cultures of his nation of birth and adopted home, he embodies the best of both fundamentals. His carefree attitude, together with his diligence and perseverance in taking care of his football career, makes him an easily endeared character by Singaporeans from all walks of life.

Singapore’s bestselling author Neil Humphreys once remarked that the country is lucky to have Duric as an ambassador for their game. Which is why I would highly recommend this book, not just for the football purist out there but also anyone who is intrigued to find out more about his life story and the unique journey he undertook to be where he is today.

Special thanks to Gary Koh, South East Asian football writer for helping out with his inputs.
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Sivan John

Huge Huddersfield Town & Argentina fan with an enthusiast to share the beautiful game stories from around the world.