This interview is printed in full in the Palace v Burnley matchday programme, which you can read here. The below is a short, edited section.
When Luka Milivojević’s father took him to the 100th Eternal Derby, Red Star v Partizan, he was four-years-old. For the uninitiated, the Eternal Derby is arguably Europe’s fiercest: it is filled with smoke, heat and noise, and is no ordinary induction.
“My parents and tradition was to be a fan of Red Star,” Milivojević remembers. “My father came with me six hours before the game into the stadium. He was in a big group with friends – six or seven people. Policemen asked: ‘Are you crazy? How can you go with that young guy on your back?’
“We were in the ultras of Red Star, because my father was a crazy fan. I just watched as a kid – I don’t remember that game but I was with him, so maybe that stayed in my mind. After that I was just watching football, loving football.
“Everything was positive, everyone was happy and maybe that just stayed in me. Maybe after that it comes from you… especially when you’re a kid, you can see what you love and don’t love and football was just,” Milivojević points at his wrist, “in my veins.”
The Crystal Palace midfielder is trying to answer why, at six-years-old, he persuaded his father to mislead the authorities. By law Serbians were not allowed to play football until the age of seven, but Milivojević’s father got him into a team one year early, such was the youngster’s passion.
These stories – the Eternal Derby and sneaking into a team – are Milivojević’s first recollections, and the first he shares in a lengthy conversation. They both involve his father, which is telling in itself: he died last summer, when “life totally changed.”
Milivojević is at a transitional point today. Turning 31 in April, he knows retirement is no longer theoretical, and his father’s passing altered his worldview. It’s made him nostalgic, he says with half a smile.
It shows. As soon this interview begins he picks up a discarded keyboard, and starts to recall that, at school, he and his classmates were taught to touch-type. He says this with fittingly childlike enthusiasm, clacking at redundant keys, energised by another fond early memory.
But then for a Serbian born in 1991, fond early memories are keenly cherished, scattered amongst scarring early memories; those of warfare and bombing, looting and hunger. While Milivojević has always been forthcoming, it’s only now that reliving his traumas comes so naturally.
Milivojević grew up during a period of crisis. The Yugoslav Wars began when he was two-months-old, and by March 1999, weeks before his eighth birthday, NATO began its 78-day bombing campaign of Yugoslavia. His city, Kragujevac, was badly damaged.
“I remember the day NATO started to put bombs to our country,” he says. “I was a kid, I’d just started going to school, but I remember everything was confused in that moment; a lot of people panicked. Me, as a kid, I didn’t understand why. What is happening?
“I was on the sofa one afternoon with my mum and my brother – my father had gone to close the shops he had because as soon as the war starts people are going to go out, break the glass and steal stuff.
“When a bomb goes off – after, when you start to listen and speak with others, [you realise] it was two kilometres from your house – the moment it touches the ground it’s crazy… When you’re a kid you just see something is wrong and start to panic, because you don’t know what’s happening. You try to get help from your mother but you see she cannot help you because she’s panicking as well.
“I remember when we’d go out to play with friends our parents would tell us to be careful – be careful from what? [“Nowhere was safe; a bomb can come anywhere,” Milivojević later adds, explaining that being careful made no difference.] For us it [became] normal, a normal life: there was no training, no school, not enough food. But there was football - always.”