• Milos Degenek grew up during Belgrade's war-torn years
  • His international career with Australia has blossomed in the past year
  • Degenek talks about his childhood, and a possible World Cup appearance 

No-one can say Milos Degenek has had an easy road to international football. In fact, the defender had endured more by kindergarten age than most do in a lifetime. Living in Belgrade just before the turn of the century, the youngster took every opportunity to kick a ball around the streets.

However, the Belgrade streets were invariably filled with rubble and, occasionally, the searing sound of a bombing raid provided an even further terrifying backdrop. This was a time of conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Young Degenek and his family would be forced to bunker down hoping the cruel vagaries of war would not mean this was to be their last day on earth.

“I can remember pretty much everything from that time,” Degenek told FIFA.com. “Not knowing if you are going to wake up tomorrow because of the bombings.

“You would see a lot of crazy things the next morning when you woke up. A lot of things in flames. And a lot of things that a normal human mind can’t comprehend. You just have to deal with it at a young age.”

(You would see) a lot of things that a normal human mind can’t comprehend. You just have to deal with it at a young age.

Australia defender Milos Degenek on living in Belgrade during the conflict

That all changed with a move to Australia just in time for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It was a world away from the chaos of Belgrade in every sense. Fast forward nearly 20 years and Degenek is lapping up every moment of his new-found status as an international footballer.

Last year, Australia coach Ange Postecoglou called up the defender, this after years of hard work and sheer determination paid off as Degenek earned a first-team berth at 1860 Munich. The new boy immediately set about making an impression. Virtually his first touch at international level – a wickedly delivered cross from the sideline - resulted in a goal as England’s Eric Dier could do nothing but bundle the ball into his own net.

Then came Degenek’s first experience at a senior FIFA tournament, with the versatile defender putting in two strong showings at June’s Confederations Cup in Russia. Now another milestone moment looms as Australia seek to put one hand on a return ticket to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup™.

Big in Japan
The opponents are Asian football powerhouse Japan, the country where Degenek now earns his keep for J.League side Yokohama F. Marinos. The two nations will meet on Thursday on the outskirts of Tokyo in a decisive contest that will go a long way towards determining Group B’s two automatic qualifiers.

Japan against Australia has turned into arguably the showpiece contest of Asian football over the past decade. Add in the lure of World Cup qualification glory or agony, and it is little wonder tickets for the Saitama Stadium contest were snapped up months ago. The contest is undoubtedly the all-consuming topic in Japanese sport of late – a fact Degenek knows all too well.

“Literally after every training session for the past month I have been asked about this game,” Degenek said from the Socceroos’ camp in Tokyo. “After every club match I don’t get asked how the team played as a club, I get asked about this game. It has been quite full on.

“The club supporters have wished me good luck, and even my Japanese team-mates are sort of on our side, wanting us to win.

“Any qualifier is a big game but this one is a bit different because of the fact I ply my trade here in Japan. And of course it is a very important game for us, and hopefully we can get three points and get a step closer to the World Cup.”

Japan’s Samurai Blue faithful create an electric atmosphere at Saitama, and Degenek is looking forward to potentially playing his first match at the home of hugely popular J.League outfit Urawa Red Diamonds. “I have played in other big Japanese stadiums and the atmosphere is good. It is not as hostile as you get in say Thailand or Saudi Arabia, where we played before, but it will be a great football atmosphere.”

Whatever the atmosphere on Thursday, Degenek, who has taken to international football like a duck to water, is unlikely to be flustered.

“I had kind of seen everything by the age of six, so a lot of things don’t faze me so much these days.”