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Milivojevic discusses friendship with ‘positive guy’ Sasa Curcic

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Luka Milivojević is looking ahead to his 31st birthday two weeks’ time (April 7th). He’s feeling nostalgic, reflective. Next season will be his 15th in professional football, and the past year has been a turbulent one for him: as he’s discussed before, he lost his father last summer, and sustained an injury at the start of this season.

So the Crystal Palace captain is talkative and thoughtful, reflecting on his journey so far, his current ambition and what lies ahead.

He starts in the present, discussing his efforts for the squad. “This season is a little bit confused, but I’m very honest with myself,” he says. “I think I’m doing great in training, giving my best. The game I played in the cup [v Hartlepool United] I was satisfied with how I did.

“Me as the captain of the group I have to show always an example, especially in difficult moments, because there are plenty of young guys who can be in a similar situation in the future.

“I’m always there to fight and will never give up. Until the end of my career I will fight and do my best and the manager can decide if for him it’s good enough. I’m doing what I think is the most important, and that is to give my best.”

Milivojević reached what many consider to be the peak of global football, the Premier League, in January 2017, signing for Palace and playing an immediate role in their fight for safety.

As a young man he thought he’d reached his career high with just his third professional club: Red Star Belgrade. Milivojević says every Serbian supports either Red Star or Partizan, and then any local club they have connections with. His family followed Red Star, so when he signed for them aged 20, he thought football would get no better.

He says: “When I got an offer to go to Red Star, you can imagine our happiness – for my father, for myself. I remember when I signed for Red Star, my father told me: ‘I wish for all your career to stay at Red Star.’

“That was the dream, from when I was young to go and play for Red Star. When I signed, for me it was like an end to everything: that was it. My dream had come true. I signed for Red Star so, for me, I didn’t have to achieve anything else.”

But it wasn’t that simple. Milivojević played under the Serbian icon Robert Prosinečki, competing in the Europa League alongside seasoned internationals.

He saw there was more to achieve, and further to go. Anderlecht provided the next step, with Milivojević sold to raise funds for a struggling club. “They had to sell me to survive,” he says.

Survival is a constant theme for Serbians of Milivojević’s age. They lived through the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s and NATO bombing campaign of 1999.

While Milivojević and his family sheltered from the bombs, which the captain discusses here, then-Palace player Saša Ćurčić was leading the public protest. He stopped playing, carried a placard around Selhurst Park and demonstrated outside Downing Street.

As it happens, he and Milivojević are close today, with the Palace No.4 saying: “I’ve met him many times and we speak on the phone. He’s a very positive person. I didn’t speak with him for a while but when I meet him it’s always a pleasure, he’s a very nice guy, very positive and always optimistic. I know at the moment he’s in Serbia coaching a team.

“There were plenty of players protesting. In Italy I remember there were a few players, and Ćurčić as well. I mean, that’s I think what everybody should do. It’s very tricky because your country, if that happened now, what can I do?

“I have two options: to go back to my country and try to stay with my people, or if I cannot go back, give somehow support. When you play football you know a lot of cameras and people are watching so you try somehow to give support. That was the right decision.”

Ćurčić is far from the only Serbian in the public eye, and he and Milivojević make up a tiny percentage of the number playing professional football. The country of six-million people (two-thirds the population of London) has produced Nemanja Vidić, Dejan Stanković and Branislav Ivanović and countless others, once sitting as high as fourth in the FIFA World Rankings.

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"When I meet him it’s always a pleasure, he’s a very nice guy, very positive and always optimistic."

Luka Milivojević

But, Milivojević says, it’s not just football in which Serbia punches above its weight.

“We are a small country but we’re a very talented country,” he says. “Football, you know what, we are a very talented generation. I can’t say why, but maybe difficult times make stronger people. When you go through difficult times you need to be strong to survive, you start to strengthen your mentality, your character, you start to respect very simple stuff. Because when you go through difficult moments you realise how little you need to just be happy.

“As kids we had luck because this generation, what I see from my perspective, it’s very difficult for new generations – and I speak for Serbia – to be like us. When I was a kid and went to primary school, we didn’t have phones or social media – we didn’t have nothing. We had two options after school: to do homework or to go and play with friends. That was it.

“When you’re out and playing it doesn’t matter what you’re playing – basketball, football, rugby, like here – it’s important because you’re active and moving. You try to find your sport.”

Now, looking ahead to his 31st birthday, Milivojević has half an eye on the future. He says he misses his family in Serbia, but otherwise isn’t sure what’s next.

“There is a couple of years to play and I’m going to try to push myself to the maximum, honestly. But family is always missing. Here [England] my wife and kids are always with me, and my mother, brother and his family are there [Serbia].

“In Serbia we are a very religious nation, so we say: ‘You plan, He [God] is laughing.’ It’s difficult to plan… to tell you what age I can play I don’t know – until my body follows me. My head is leading but my body is behind.

“We will see if my body can follow my mentality and my mind, then I will keep going. When my body stops producing what my mind wants I will need to stop.

“Honestly, at the moment I haven’t decided what I want. I think soon I will have to start [deciding], but I’m not in a rush. If I want to stay in football I will try to be involved. If I don’t want to stay in football I will try to enjoy life with my family. I have a lot of hobbies, fishing, a lot of stuff, and want to maybe spend time in Serbia. So we will see. I’m not in a rush and there are plenty of years in front of me.”

“I’m very happy at the moment, enjoying playing football, very thankful to God that I’m healthy, in one of the best leagues in the world. We as a club do amazing for the players –the club tries to prepare everything for us and to give us just one thing in our mind: to be the best on the pitch.

“Everything around us is top class, honestly, and as a professional football player you can’t ask for more than we get at the moment.”