When Marko Basa arrived in France in 2005, it was clear he was a man of few words. "I prefer to do my talking on the pitch, and to show that I'm constantly playing to the best of my ability," the defender, who has 30 caps for Montenegro, said after joining Le Mans from Serbian side OFK Beograd.
Eight years on, and after a spell in Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow, Basa is still not exactly the talkative type. A rare interviewee, the towering, blue-eyed former kick-boxer continues to let his tackling and aerial prowess speak for him. But with Lille, his current club, racking up victories in Ligue 1, and Montenegro defying the odds in their qualifying group for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the 30-year-old agreed to speak with FIFA.com. And this time, unusually, he had plenty to say.
"To be honest, I'm not completely happy with my level of performance. I'm just having an adequate season," said Basa, who has, in fact, been instrumental in both Lille's recent resurgence and the rise of the Montenegro national team. One man in no doubt about Basa's influence is Lille coach Rudi Garcia, who signed the defender for Les Dogues in 2011 and worked with him while in charge of Le Mans. "I'm pleased with him," Garcia said recently. "He's a very important player. His aerial ability is very valuable, as we do not have the tallest team."
"In any case," Basa continued, "I find it hard to be satisfied with what I do. I always work on the principle that we can do better." If Lille's recent form is anything to go by, the experienced defender's high standards are starting to rub off on the rest of the squad. After a difficult start to their Ligue 1 campaign and a disappointing first-round exit from the UEFA Champions League, Lille have regained their rhythm and are on a run of five straight wins, with a top-three league finish now a real possibility.
"We firmly believe we can finish in the top three. If we win all our matches from now until the end of the season, it's achievable. We're capable of doing it," said Basa, before reflecting on his side's early-season struggles. "We've always been able to keep the ball and play attacking football. We just lacked a cutting edge and a bit of luck in front of goal. We've fixed that now and the good results have returned. There was no trigger for it, no single match that served as a turning point. There was nothing specific. We just kept faith in ourselves and persevered, and it has paid off."
Lille's change in fortunes, however, came too late to save their European season. Their performance in this year's Champions League marked a step backwards compared with their maiden campaign, their only victory coming against BATE Borisov in their penultimate group match. "Last year wasn't bad for a first effort," said Basa. "We very nearly qualified for the Round of 16. It was in our own hands, at home to Trabzonspor, but we could only manage a [goalless] draw. It's true that, this season, the competition passed us by. We probably still lack a bit of experience."
No inferiority complex
Experience is also what Basa credits for Montenegro's recent progress. The Hrabri Sokoli (Brave Falcons) reached the qualifying play-offs for UEFA EURO 2012, and currently top Group H, ahead of England, in the Brazil 2014 preliminaries. "I'm not surprised by our rise," he said. "The Montenegro side has players with lots of experience: big names, from big clubs, who are going to fight to reach the World Cup. Getting to the World Cup would be a dream, especially for a country like ours, which has a population of just 600,000. We are not rated quite as highly as some of the other countries of the former Yugoslavia, but we have no inferiority complex."
Basa is, in fact, from Trstenik in Serbia, and won three caps for Serbia and Montenegro in 2005. His mother is also Serbian, and he learned his trade as a professional footballer at OFK Belgrade. So what made him choose to represent Montenegro? "Yes," he said of his Serbian heritage, "but my dad is Montenegrin and my family lives in Montenegro. It seemed the more logical choice, and I have no regrets."
Next up for Montenegro on the road to Brazil 2014 are Moldova and England, whom they face on 22 and 26 March respectively. No doubt Basa, as ever, will be keen to save the talking for the pitch.