The 26-year-old speaks to Henry Winter about a tough upbringing in Serbia and inspiring Palace’s revival and we republish the article that appeared in today's edition of The Times.
Every team has a heartbeat and Luka Milivojevic is fast becoming Crystal Palace’s. Bright as a button and hard as nails, the Serb is the all-action cult hero for Palace in their fight against relegation, scoring six in ten, stepping in strongly when Burnley went for Wilfried Zaha, and always taking responsibility.
With Zaha out for a month after damaging knee ligaments against Newcastle United, Milivojevic has become even more important. A visit to Palace’s training ground finds Roy Hodgson admiring the type of “disciplined”, tactically smart defensive midfielder that native academies still need to nurture. Palace fans “absolutely love him”, in the words of one, with Milivojevic hailed “the definition of an on-pitch general . . . never shirks his responsibilities”.
The man himself is a mixture of polite and forthright, briskly opening up to explain how his upbringing in conflict-afflicted Serbia shaped this intense commitment. “Listen, I remember waiting in a queue for two hours to buy one loaf of bread and then queuing for two litres of oil. I was six, seven years old. I swear it,” he says. “That teaches you to respect many things. I respect life and money. And family, of course.
“In the last 30 years we survived three wars, and you become stronger after that, it is learning how to survive in life. To survive three wars is crazy. In 1998 we had war with the USA [over Kosovo]. It is hard for my people.”
He recalls a conversation with Ed Richmond, the physio who works for Palace and Wales, when Wales visited Belgrade to play Serbia last June. “He asked me, ‘You have many buildings destroyed?’ I told him 20 years ago, they destroyed a whole city, and it’s very hard to recover from that, to rebuild even, we are not very good financial country. But this government now are doing a good job. We are a strong people.”
Only Brazil, France and Argentina have more footballing exports than Serbia’s 460. “And our population is only 7 million,” he says. “That strength, for sure, makes settling in other countries easier.
“If we look at the past few years, in the Premier League from Serbia we had [Nemanja] Vidic, who is a top player, [Aleksandar] Kolarov, top player, [Branislav] Ivanovic, top player, [Nemanja] Matic and [Dusan] Tadic as well. That’s very good scouting from Premier League teams as well as scouting their personality, the character of the player.
“The problem in Serbia is we have many talented players but we don’t have enough financial support. You know today in football, many players first of all think about money, how to buy good cars, how to spend the money. They’re already thinking about spending it even before they’ve earned it. It is bad decisions of the players in my opinion, they need to go step by step, as I did when I went from Serbia when I was 23. We have a generation who took the [under-20s] World Cup [in 2015], and 15 went from Serbia but now some have come back.” It is about sensible judgment, about character.
Milivojevic’s character was shaped by his father. “When I was very young, he told me never lie, never steal anything and be a good man,” he says. “From the beginning he started to build up my personality. When I was four years old, we play football one against one, first to ten. It was 9-6 to him, and then 9-9. Normally parents, what are they going to do? They’re going to let the kid win. No. He beat me. I lost and was crying for hours and hours. I didn’t want to lose.
“He built up my character. Every time after games, he is the first one who gives me criticism. He never claps me on the back and says ‘perfect’. He always says, ‘Whoever claps you, go away from those people’.” Because praise softens. “I make my decisions but I’ve had the best advice in my life from my father. We work like friends.”
Milivojevic was raised in Kragujevac, scene of one of the worst atrocities of the Second World War commemorated in a huge V-shaped statue, a monument to commemorate pupils and teachers who were executed. “Interrupted Flight”, as it is known among Serbs, is located at the site of a mass grave of local children and civilian adults murdered by Nazi occupiers in 1941.
“Two thousand [were shot], many of them schoolchildren,” Milivojevic recalls. “That was a bad historical moment for Serbia. There is a very big memorial there.”
He pauses to reflect, shaking his head in horror at what befell the youth of his city. Kragujevac’s main football club, Radnicki 1923, was inevitably deeply affected by the war, losing countless players, officials and fans, but it slowly rebuilt, although it was still a second-tier club when Milivojevic played for them aged 16.
He quickly moved to Rad Belgrade, learning from Radomir Kokovic, the captain and defensive midfielder. “I tried to follow him and become like him because he was a good example, a leader,” Milivojevic says.
His education intensified when he was spotted by the coach of Red Star Belgrade and signed in 2011. “Robert Prosinecki used to play for Barcelona and Real Madrid [and Portsmouth], took the European Cup with Red Star [in 1991] and as a coach I love him as well. He was an amazing player and many times trained with us when we played boxes, with running shoes, not boots, and he was amazing. Every time he is ready to shoot, he makes a dribble and we go the other way, making sliding tackles and he’s not there.”
Suitably inspired, Milivojevic struck a famous 25-yard goal for Red Star in the derby against Partizan in 2012, leapt the hoardings and ran to the fans as they responded with flares. “In Red Star, the fans really loved me like now I am a true leader [at Palace], but there I never took the armband, one friendly game only,” he says.
“To score in the derby is a dream for us who played in Serbia. From my beginning I was supporter of Red Star because of my father. I went to the games from three years old. He put me on his shoulders. Derby games were amazing with the fans. It is so noisy you cannot speak with your team-mates.”
Sadly, Red Star were strapped for cash, “so they sold me”. He went to Anderlecht but then they signed Steven Defour for £4.8 million. “The coach [Besnik Hasi] just told me, ‘Defour’s the biggest transfer, he has to play.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be on the bench.’ ”
Olympiacos showed interest, especially their coach, Michel. “He was a legend of Real Madrid. He said, ‘I will find a place for you.’ ” Milivojevic had two and a half enjoyable seasons before Palace beckoned in January last year.
“The only hard moment for me was when I signed for Palace, I had to go back to Serbia, to wait for a work permit,” he says. “I was watching the Palace game against Sunderland with my father. I said to my father, ‘If we win this game it will be much easier to get out of the relegation zone. Nil-4 first half! I said to my father, ‘What’s happened?!’ ” The score didn’t change, and Palace looked doomed.
But he was won over by Sam Allardyce, whom he greatly admires and whose Everton side he faces at Goodison Park today. “When we’ve been in hard moments, Sam did very good things. He was good to me. The first game against Stoke was hard for me. With Big Sam it was more diagonal balls, long balls, direct football, against Stoke. I said this can be very hard for me to adapt, but then I changed my mind and started to just follow instructions.”
Allardyce left and Frank de Boer arrived, immediately pulling Milivojevic into defence. “Yes, three at the back! It was the first time in my career to play central defender as a three. I spoke with Frank. He said, ‘I like your passing. I want to build up from the back.’ I said, ‘I agree with everything but maybe I’m not so comfortable there, trying to follow the offside line and the strikers are so big.’
“But he is the manager, I am the player, I have to follow instructions and do the work. I have a nice opinion of him but maybe he was not very experienced about the league. He had different ideas [of playing], and paid the price for that.”
After De Boer’s swift dismissal, Hodgson took over, bringing organisation and calm. “Roy knows everything about football,” Milivojevic says. “He has been the manager of England, Inter Milan and Switzerland, and top teams in the Premier League like Liverpool. He understands the league. He understands the players. Psychologically, he’s one of the top coaches. When it [the result] is very good, he puts things down [reduces hype]. In a hard moment, he’s the first who lifts the players up. He makes you believe the whole time.”
At 26, Milivojevic is playing the best football of his career, becoming almost a successor to Mile Jedinak as a beacon and, at times, a quick-thinking bouncer. He was the first to shield Zaha when tempers boiled over against Burnley. “I just want to protect him because sometimes he cannot control his reaction, and for us as a team if we lose Wilfried we know how difficult it will be for us.” With Zaha injured, Milivojevic’s words carry even greater poignancy.
He did feel after the Burnley game that some opponents were targeting Zaha. “Maybe, yes, as he’s the best player in our team,” he says. “A lot of teams when they scout our team they try to put him out of their goal, or kick him, or how they want to stop him. In that situation my head was to try to take him out, as there were two or three Burnley players against him, and they maybe try to provoke him, and maybe he’ll react, red card, so I go there to protect him.”
When his Palace exertions are finished for the season, Milivojevic turns his attentions to Serbia and a “very tough” World Cup group comprising Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica. “Brazil’s favourite and then with the fight for second place, the chances are even for all three teams,” he says. But Serbia have such heart. “Sometimes heart is not enough, you need quality as well. We have that and we will prove it in the World Cup.” Palace’s heartbeat is Serbia’s.
Serbs in Europe’s top five leagues
(played in 2017-18)