Miloš Degenek was 16, the temperature was minus eight degrees, and a jacket was not part of his fashion repertoire. “I had about two pairs of trackies between each other and then four sweaters,” he says, “because I didn’t have the money to buy a winter jacket.”
Every day, the budding Australian defender would layer his clothes like this and then drive shivering through the 90-minute drive to VfB Stuttgart’s youth training facility. Then once it was done he turned around and drove back 90 minutes.
“My first experience in professional football was being dropped in the middle of Germany and taking an hour and a half to train in the middle of a freezing winter. My first professional contract was $1,000 a month, so I wasn’t making a lot of money.”
Degenek’s agent eventually bought him a jacket, but by then he had already learned the most valuable lessons. “These fights, I have this mentality,” says the 28-year-old, who made his World Cup debut as a substitute against France on Tuesday.
“Where I was like, ‘I’m training with 20 other guys, but I want to be the one to make it.’ I can happily say that I’m one of those who made it. There are others in this group who have also made it. One of them is a guy named Kimmich who’s not bad – I learned a lot from him even though he’s younger.”
Aside from that hilarious one-liner, Degenek is dead serious. Fighting is in his blood, pumping from the ventricles of a heart that is unusually large for more than just being an athlete.
He was 18 months old when his family took refuge in Serbia after fleeing his native Croatia during the war of independence in the 1990s. Five years later they were on the road again, this time fleeing the trauma of the Kosovo war. He landed in western Sydney wearing a Red Star Belgrade shirt and not much else.
This background leads to some perspective on simpler matters like football. Especially regarding Australia’s game against Tunisia in Qatar. After losing their opening game 4-1 to France, a return to the Al Janoub Stadium on Saturday is practically a must for any chance of progressing out of Group D. A draw would give them a glimmer of hope. A defeat would end the campaign.
“It’s not pressure,” says Degenek. “I’m under pressure like a baby fleeing a war. When I was six years old, I was under pressure in the middle of the war. Pressure is not “I have to win a football game”. Because you can win or you can lose, but I don’t think anyone’s going to die.
“It’s just the joy of wanting to get better, wanting to say something to your grandchildren and friends back home, when you’re drinking coffee and saying you’ve won a game at a World Cup, you dropped out of the group.
“Obviously we want to win the game, there’s no doubt about that and I think we have it in our squad. If we can match them in terms of intensity and desire, I think we will win.”
Degenek, a centre-back who can also play at right-back, is not guaranteed to start. But he will. It’s obvious in the way he speaks. He lives for such games. For battling not only the 11 Tunisians on the pitch, but also the 40,000 or so others in the stands – the spirited group of expats in Qatar who helped their team draw 0-0 with Denmark.
“I’m not a technician,” he says. “I’m not a guy who’s going to dribble to 10 players – I don’t have that ability in me. But I have this heart and this desire that no one can match.”
He also has big-game experience, having spent three years in Belgrade at Red Star. In 2018, shortly after signing, he helped seal the club’s unlikely return to the Champions League after a 26-year absence, providing two assists in two minutes to go 2-0 in the final qualifier against Red Bull Salzburg in falling behind. He played a key role in the 2-0 win over Liverpool while they finished bottom of the group.
The Serbian SuperLiga and its fierce supporters continued to shape what he calls his “lion mentality”. In June, ahead of Australia’s successful World Cup qualifying playoff against Peru, he explained it to his teammates.
“Either you eat or you get eaten, that’s the easiest way to put it,” said Degenek, who recently signed with MLS team Columbus Crew. “I said to the boys, ‘There’s bread on the table, either we eat tonight – my kids, my wife and my family – or they eat and my kids and my wife go to bed hungry. I don’t want that to happen.’”