A 21-year-old tied the shoelaces on his walking boots, flung a crammed backpack over his shoulders, and departed the flat at which he was residing in southern Hungary. He trekked for approximately three miles before a truck responded to his outstretched arm. It was one of multiple vehicles that would enable him to hitch-hike 1,500-plus kilometres towards Barcelona.
Weary-legged and sleep-deprived, the youngster, who, less than a year earlier in 1991, fled the war-torn former Yugoslavia with chump change in his pocket and nowhere to stay – he was only spared sleeping rough by the grace of a local family - arrived at passport control. “I didn’t have a valid passport because of the Bosnian war,” explained Aleksandar Duric to FIFA.com.
“All I had was a letter from the Olympic Committee stating that I was participating at the Barcelona Olympics. But when I handed it to the officer he burst out laughing. He couldn’t believe that a competitor would have to hitch-hike to the Olympics, and refused to believe I was who I said I was.”
It was a reasonable assessment. Olympians were supposed to arrive on chartered flights, first class, enveloped inside a flashy entourage – the manner in which Michael Jordan, Steffi Graf, Oscar de la Hoya and Carl Lewis had recently touched down in Catalonia. Following countless phone calls, though, the officer was persuaded that the young man was, in fact, Aleksandar Duric.
“I was exhausted by the time I arrived in Barcelona, but it was worth it," he recalled. "Competing in the Olympics was an amazing experience. It’s funny because I didn’t take up kayaking with the aim of going anywhere with it. Football was my first love and I always dreamed of making a living out of it. But when I was young I had a growth disorder, and my doctor suggested kayaking could help.”
That prescription was absolutely justified. Duric became a four-time national junior champion. He became a 6ft 4in, broad-shouldered colossus. He became, most crucially, a professional footballer.
“Shortly after I got back from the Olympics I got signed by Szeged, who were in the Hungarian second division. It was a big break make for me and a year later I got the chance to go and play in Australia, which appealed to me. Australian football wasn’t what it is now, but I really enjoyed my time there. I liked the country and the lifestyle, and I met my wife.
“Then in 1999 I got a call from my agent. He said there was an offer from a club in Singapore. My first reaction was: ‘Are you sure they play football in Singapore?!’ But I felt ready for a fresh challenge, so I joined Tanjong United.
“I had always played down the left – at left-back, on the left-wing – but when I started training with them they put me up front. It was new to me but I thought I might as well give it a go – I’ve been a striker ever since.”
Not just a run-of-the-mill striker, but arguably the greatest in the history of the S-League. Duric, indeed, scored almost 350 league goals in less than 300 games in his maiden decade on the island. He inspired Geylang United to the title in 2001, and Singapore Armed Forces to glory in each of the past four seasons, finishing as the competition’s leading marksman in the past three.
Ahead of this year’s S-League, aged 39, Duric penned a deal with Tampines Rovers, who, with eight rounds remaining, occupy pole position, one point clear of Etoile and four above third-placed Home United. The Stags’ infallible No9 is, despite turning 40 on Thursday, is the division’s 12-goal third-top scorer.
Duric’s forcible endeavour at the spearhead and finishing ability has earned him comparison to another native of Doboj, “I’ve never met him but I’m very proud to come from the same city as Edin Dzeko,” the veteran, who has represented Singapore since 2007, revealed.
"I follow all Bosnia’s matches and I’ve been delighted by their progress. They just missed out on a place at the World Cup but I’m sure they’ll qualify for the European Championship in 2012. Dzeko has been a huge influence for the team.
"People say we have similar styles. We’re both big and powerful, strong in the air and good inside the box. But he’s a big star in his prime - I’m just a small player in my forties!”
So, what’s been the secret to his incomparable longevity? “It’s down to sacrifice - hard work and dedication,” Duric explained. “Clubs in Singapore train once a day, but I always go out and do another session with the fitness coach of the Singapore national team. He’s very experienced and really knows his stuff.
“I’m very fit. I’m always chasing down defenders and can run for the full 90 minutes without any problem. I think that if you look after yourself right, age is not too much of an issue – just look at Teddy Sheringham, who was playing in the Premier League in his forties.”
Duric nevertheless believes retirement from playing is imminent. “I was discussing it with my wife. She told me I’m still fit enough and scoring goals, and that I should continue playing,” he said. “But being a footballer at the age of 40 just doesn’t sound right, does it? It sounded ok at 39.
“I still keep getting offers. An Indonesian club rang me two weeks ago with a proposal. I asked them, ‘Do you know how old I am?’ But I don’t think I’ll play for too much longer. I’d like to play for Singapore in the Suzuki Cup in December, but I’m not sure I’ll play in 2011. I might, I might not.
“What I want to do is win everything possible this year. I’d love to finish as top scorer in the S-League again and help Tampines win the title. It won’t be easy. My strike partner Qui Li, who’s a really good player, has just picked up a knee injury. But we're top, so it’s in our own hands. We're determined to do it. Everyone remembers champions; no-one remembers runners-up.”
And when he finally does bring the curtain down on a two-decade-plus career? “I would like to go into coaching. The sport’s been a big part of my life since childhood and I want to remain involved. I just love football.”