Named last week as part of Serbia's preliminary squad, Neven Subotic is poised for a trip to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Thrilled at the prospect of lining up on football’s biggest stage, the 21-year-old had no shortage of options when the time came to choose an international jersey. Having played for USA at youth level, the defender was also eligible to line up for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Germany before finally pulling on the red of the Beli Orlovi.
“Serbia is my home and the Serbs are my people,” the youngster, who speaks fluent English and German, told FIFA.com. “I didn’t decide against any other nation, I simply chose in favour of Serbia. It was a decision that came from my heart.”
Born in Banja Luka in 1988, Neven’s family fled the former Yugoslavia’s civil war and settled in Germany’s Black Forrest when the boy was only six. After German authorities decided to send the Subotic clan back to their homeland four years later, the family opted for a move to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Neven’s father had a distant relative. The USA proved a land of opportunity for the youngster who, regardless of locale, always had football in his heart.
It was during a kickabout in a park in Florida, where the family ended up after only a short stay in Utah, that Subotic’s future as a budding footballer first took shape. The self-assured teenager saw an organised team training, marched up to the coach and asked if he could join. That coach just happened to be one Keith Fulk, then assistant of the USA U-17 national team. He was so impressed with Subotic’s raw technique, size and enthusiasm that he sent him directly up the chain at the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).
“I was invited for a trial and I was with the American U-17 team for a year and a half," said Subotic, who played briefly for the US U-20s after lining up at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Peru 2005. "It was a big step forward. I really learned to play football there and also about tactics.
"If I hadn’t been in the park that day, things could have turned out very differently for me. Maybe I would still be living in the US, working in a fast food restaurant or something.”
A falling out with U-20 coach Thomas Rongen soured Subotic’s rise in the USA ranks, prompting the player to consider his many options for full national team football. In the meantime, his club prospects were heading toward the stratosphere. Coach Jurgen Klopp brought the 17-year-old to German Bundesliga outfit Mainz in 2006/7, and served as both his coach and mentor. So, when Klopp moved to Borussia Dortmund the following season, Subotic followed.
Subotic has since become one of the hottest prospects in the Bundesliga, prompting a call-up from Serbia coach Radomir Antic in the run-up to South Africa 2010. There has also been speculation that he might be tapped by Manchester United, where Subotic would join up with international team-mate and fellow centre-back Nemanja Vidic.
Penchant for goals
His safe and cultured defending aren’t the only strengths that have caught the eye of such elite bosses in the world game - Neven also knows where the goal is, a rare and cherished trait in a central defender. “As a defender you rarely get the chance to go forward into the attack and even think about scoring goals,” he said in a recent interview. “So when you score a goal as a defender it’s twice as special as when a striker scores.”
He attributes his 13 goals in three seasons in the Bundesliga to courage. “Some players can jump high, but to be a good header you need to be brave and throw yourself at the ball with everything you have.”
Though he only played five times in Serbia’s qualifying campaign for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup, in which they conceded just eight goals in ten games en route to a first-placed finish above France in their group, Subotic’s star is every inch on the rise. And if he gets the chance to parade his potential South Africa, he will certainly throw himself head-first into the fray.