Manchester United and Serbia's Nemanja Vidic has emerged as one of the game's most impressive defenders since moving to England in 2005. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the big centre-half explains how he acclimatised to life at Old Trafford to become a key component in, arguably, the most formidable defence in world football.
The former Red Star Belgrade and Spartak Moscow man also discusses his hopes of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa™ and what it means to him to play in a United side that is on the verge of creating history.
FIFA.com When you first began to play football with your brother Dusan as a child, did you always play as a defender?
Nemanja Vidic: No. I liked to play in many different positions, like every youngster. But, I always liked to play on the right side. I played as a striker until I was 13, then I was deployed as a right-back and almost immediately after that I became a central defender.
How excited were you when Red Star Belgrade wanted to sign you?
I was absolutely delighted. I was a Red Star supporter as a kid growing up. In those days, Red Star were European and world champions, so to wear the shirt was the dream of most kids in Belgrade.
What were the most important lessons you learned there?
I gained a winning mentality. Before that, I had been playing for smaller clubs and the expectations were far less. But, at Red Star everything was different, there was pressure on us to win every game we played. I accepted that challenge and I still keep this mentality, that detail is very important, especially at Manchester United.
You went on loan to FK Spartak Subotica in 2000. How important was that spell in terms of your career?
It was a new challenge. To play for a smaller club made me more professional and made me realise how important it was to do well so I could play more games for Red Star. I had new lessons to learn which, looking back has helped me develop as a player and as a person.
Was it hard to leave Serbia for Moscow?
Not really. There were quite a few Serbians in the Spartak squad when I arrived, so they helped me acclimatise. I have great memories of my days in Moscow and they mean so much to me.
What qualities do you think alerted Manchester United to become interested in you?
I was a good defender. I played well for Spartak over a number of years and especially for the national team, especially when we conceded only one goal in ten qualifying matches for EURO 2004. They had been monitoring my progress for a long period of time and must have been impressed enough to sign me. You will have to ask their staff the exact qualities they saw in me, I'm just so pleased that I had the chance to play for such a great club.
Did you feel nervous when you first signed for Manchester United?
I must admit I was surprised when they signed me, but I was also extremely happy. I knew how big a club United were before I arrived and knew they had lots of great players. I just put my head down and worked hard. I wasn't nervous, but anyone can feel nervous sometimes.
How helpful were the other players in making you settle in to life in England?
My team-mates were fantastic, they really helped me a lot. It was hard for me at first to settle in England, but everyone at the club made me feel extremely welcome. I worked on my English from day one, so now I can say a big thank you to everyone at Manchester United!
You have a fantastic on-pitch relationship with Rio Ferdinand, do share a good friendship off the pitch too?
Yes. We spend a lot of time together during matches, training, travelling, meals, or other activities, so of course we have a great relationship off the pitch just as we do on it.
Manchester United's players seem to be very close. Does that help on the pitch?
You cannot have good results without a great atmosphere in the camp. That is a reality, every club needs that. But, the most important thing is that the atmosphere is not fake, it must be genuine and good-natured. We have a great team spirit. After that, when you have quality players like we have at United, good results are normal.
What is the secret behind the fantastic defensive record this season?
We have no secret, that is true. During the last few weeks, some players who were not playing earlier on in the season have came in to the team and been brilliant, showing what a strong squad we have. They've done really well. The most important thing is that we are strong collectively, as a team.
As a defender, are you more pleased with a 1-0 win than a 3-1 victory?
Not really. Each victory is the same, three points are three points at the end of the day. Of course, not conceding a goal is always a nice bonus for defenders and goalkeepers. As long as we keep winning then I am happy.
How does it feel to be part of a club that is the champions of England, Europe and the world?
It is fantastic and I am very proud to be part of such a great team. We're winning trophies and we're one big happy family at United at the moment. But we never have enough time to think about celebrating, we always pick up from were we left off. We have new targets, and the fans demand that we hit those targets.
Turning to Serbia, how excited were you when you made your debut against Italy?
I have fantastic memories from the match. That was one of the greatest landmarks in my career. That was the moment my career took off, people started to recognise who I was and it put me on the map. I remember Predrag Mijatovic's goal and the fact we got a 1-1 draw, which was fantastic for us at that time.
What does it mean for you to represent your country?
I have a lot of responsibility, but it means everything to me. In the past our country has had a bad image and, as sportsmen, we have really tried to change it. We are doing charity work off the pitch and during games, we‘re keeping that focus. I believe that we are changing people's perceptions of Serbia and that is something I take very seriously.
How disappointed were you to miss out at Germany 2006? Has that made you even more determined to qualify for South Africa?
Everything turned bad during the last qualifying match against Bosnia and Herzegovina when I was sent-off. After that, I had a bad injury and I had to miss the World Cup. Now we have a better team and a better chance of qualifying, and I shall do everything to be in South Africa. This is my dream.
You were drawn in a very difficult group with the likes of France, Austria and Romania - have you been pleased with the start you've made?
You said start and I agree with you. We have had a promising start, but nothing more than that. It is important that we keep our feet on the ground and take each game as it comes. On 28 March in Constanta we have a crucial match against Romania and it is one that we must win to maintain our ambitions of qualifying. I am optimistic about the future and I believe that Serbia can qualify.
What is the greatest strength of the Serbian side?
Youth. This generation can play together for at least the next five years and that will be very important. I deeply believe that we have the quality and desire to succeed, but we can still improve and we will have to play better if we are to qualify. But I believe in our squad.
Do you see any similarities between Serbia and Manchester United?
It is hard to compare. For me, you can not compare two teams or clubs, it is almost impossible. We in the Serbian national team want to build a special and unique style of playing. We have the qualities to play nice, attractive, offensive football and I hope that the public will see that in South Africa.