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Defying the stereotype

Earlier this month Daniel Bogdanovic officially signed on for Sheffield United. James Calvert talks to the Maltese footballer about sacrifices, families and flight simulators.

Ask any group of normal, red-blooded young boys what they want to be when they grow up and the answers will be fairly predictable. A smattering of future fireman, a few train drivers, one or two astronauts and the intense, slightly too serious kid at the back who thinks it might be challenging to be Prime Minister.

But one career more than any other is likely to come up in this conversation, one thing more than any other they would love to be: a professional footballer. For hundreds of millions of youngsters all over the world, it is the ultimate dream.

And, given that star footballers earn vast sums of money for doing what a child is perfectly happy to do for free, it is not hard to understand why.

Sadly for most, this dream evaporates in a puff of logic by the time they reach their early teens. Either more mundane but achievable careers paths take over or, like me, you suddenly realise you have the football talent of a bucket of lemons.

But once in a while, when the moon is at its bluest, a young boy manages to grow up and make that dream a reality. Against the odds he grabs his aspirations by the scruff of the neck and seizes the moment.

Daniel Bogdanovic is one such person.

When I set off to meet the 30-year-old for coffee, I have to admit it was with a fair bit of trepidation. The popularly accepted image of the modern professional footballer, especially those who ply their trade in England, is not a nice one.

Fast cars, excessive money, a passion for bling and a very feint grasp of the concept of monogamy are the things that spring immediately to mind. And that's just Ashley Cole.

However, it doesn't take more than five minutes in Bogdanovic's presence to realise this is a man who defies the stereotype. Fair enough, he does have a couple of the obligatory footballer tattoos and a pretty decent watch, but that's where any serious comparison ends.

Maltese international Bogdanovic is polite, eloquent, intelligent and honest. And it is his passion for honesty that has led to some people in Malta questioning his attitude.

"One aspect of my character which has caused me a lot of problems in Malta is that I say what I think. Because of this, people either love me or hate me, and I prefer it that way. At least I know where I stand. They can say a lot of things about me, but they can never say I am not honest," he says.

But whatever your feelings towards the man, it is hard not to admire the way he has fought his way up the football ladder, one rung at a time.

Earlier this month, the striker signed a two-year deal (possibly stretching to three) to play for Sheffield United, the English club sponsored by the Malta Tourism Authority. It is the latest, and unquestionably biggest, move for a player who has plied his trade in a multitude of countries.

Bogdanovic was born in Libya to a Slovenian mother and Macedonian father. It is often reported that his parents are Serbian although he insists that is entirely inaccurate.

With his father a professional football manager, it was almost inevitable that he would take up the sport in some capacity. But few could have predicted just how good he would turn out to be and, by the young age of 14, he was making his first team debut for top Libyan side Alittihad.

This was soon followed by a first, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to kick-start his career in Malta. At the time, local teams were reluctant to give young, inexperienced foreign players a chance.

Tunisia was his next port of call before he returned to Malta in 1998 where this time things went decidedly better, both on a football level and a personal one. It was early in this second attempt at making a life here that he met and married in 1999 his Gozitan wife Alison.

"I always say football gave me everything in life and it did. Even my marriage and my family," he explains, "I met Alison by chance while watching a game at the stadium in Gozo." And, from the short time I spent with Bogdanovic, it is strikingly obvious that his family means the world to him.

With his personal life steady and secure, his life on the pitch began to blossom. He had spells for teams like Sliema, Naxxar and Valletta before enjoying a remarkable season with Marsaxlokk, scoring 31 goals in 31 games.

But while things appeared to be running smoothly for the striker on the pitch, off the pitch Bogdanovic was fighting a running battle with a succession of 'greedy' football agents.

"They gave me plenty of bad advice. They were interested in their pockets instead of in my future as a footballer. My problem is that I have trust in people and I trusted them. But I think I can say that in this business, 80 per cent of football agents are crooks."

It soon became clear that their ambitions did not match his own, which was to play overseas at the highest level possible. So Bogdanovic took matters into his own hands and set up a series of trials abroad, eventually winning a short-term contract with Cisco Roma where he played alongside Italian legend Paolo Di Canio.

A move to Bulgaria and Locomotive Sofia followed before his sparkling displays brought him to the attention of English Championship side Barnsley. A successful 18 months at Oakwell, where he became a firm fans' favourite, was followed by the career-defining move to Sheffield United, a team whose Malta connections are growing rapidly and bearing fruit.

But while all this moving from country to country and playing football sounds glamorous and exciting, the truth is somewhat different. It is actually hard work, with life revolving around training, matches and then more training.

"The last time I actually went out for the night was with the team for Barnsley's Christmas party," he explains.

And, to make it harder, Bogdanovic has had to do it all without his young family by his side.

"The hardest part was being away from the children. Each place I went I was spending six months at a time without seeing my kids. They were growing. My youngest daughter Sanja was three, and when I came home after one six-month trip she barely recognised me," he says.

Bogdanovic believes an unwillingness to make this type of sacrifice is the main reason more Maltese football stars are not playing abroad.

"These are the type of sacrifices Maltese players do not know about and they are not prepared to make. They need help, someone to maybe give them a push. We had Maltese players who went abroad but didn't succeed. Not because they are not good but for many other reasons like family, girlfriends. Either you want it or you don't."

Bogdanovic is full of praise for the likes of Justin Haber, Andre Schembri and Michael Mifsud - three players who have all forged successful careers overseas.

"These are the type of people who wanted it, made sacrifices and achieved success, and I am sure if they carry on like this they will achieve more," he said.

Which brings me to my next question: how is his relationship with Michael Mifsud? As two of Malta's most prominent players, rumours have surfaced that they don't see eye to eye.

But Bogdanovic dismisses this instantly.

"One of the things I hate about this country is that people say things that are not true. Before we played together at Barnsley we had a respectful relationship but we weren't close friends. I never had issues with Michael. Now we know each other better and we are friends. We call, we text," he says.

Which is probably for the best as rumours that Sheffield United are also interested in signing the diminutive striker refuse to go away.

One problem the two players don't face is communicating on the pitch. Unlike many naturalised citizens who have made Malta their adopted home, Bogdanovic speaks fluent Maltese.

In fact, in yet another departure from the stereotypical footballer image, he speaks a quite amazing 10 languages, something he puts down to genetics. And a talent his children are already matching.

But, for the next three years, there is only one language that is really going to matter to Bogdanovic and that's English.

"The UK Championship is a big league. As a level of football it is really huge. To be part of it you need to consider yourself lucky but you need to believe in your own ability too," he says.

"Whether I will play regularly or not is up to the manager. But I will do my best as always. I believe in my qualities and if I do things right on the pitch I will be playing and I will be scoring."

His driving ambition is to play in the Premier League and he believes he will be able to live that dream with Sheffield United. But he knows he will have to play his part if he and his club are going to reach the Premiership promised land.

This time, finally, he won't have to do it without the close support of his family. His wife and his two younger children, Dejan and Sanja, will be moving out to Sheffield as soon as possible, while his eldest daughter, Manuela, will join them when she finishes junior school. Seven-year old Dejan has already been enrolled in the Sheffield United Football Academy.

That should make the transition to yet another new life that much simpler. However, Bogdanovic is not taking any chances. Although he is supposed to be on holiday, he is already putting himself through a gruelling training schedule.

It would no doubt be easier for him to relax and take it easy during this rare period of down time, but instead he is doing what is effectively a 'pre' pre-season programme. It's all about sacrifice, and that is the word that comes up over and over during the course of the interview.

And when asked what he hopes young Maltese players will take from his success, the word comes up again.

"I hope to be an example of what can be achieved if you are prepared to make the sacrifice. What matters is what you do on the pitch and everything else comes afterwards - the media, the promotional activities," he says.

"The first example has to come from the parents. I know it's hard for mothers to send their kids abroad and not to see them. But if they want to succeed in football they have to forget their family, forget friends, forget everything," he says.

Which brings us to another of the things Bogdanovic has reluctantly had to put on a back burner during his time abroad - going to church.

"I am a very religious person and I pray a lot. I rarely missed a Sunday or Wednesday Mass when I lived in Malta. But when I went abroad I spent a year without going to church," he says. And the look in his eyes tells you instantly this was a painful thing to do.

But despite the hardships of being a footballer, the long hours, the loneliness and the constant sacrifice, the player has no intention of walking away from the beautiful game when he hangs up his boots.

"I can't see myself living without football. Football gave me everything I have in life, even my family. And I want to give something back. I want to be a football manager, I want to help Maltese players make it abroad as footballers. I am already doing it, coordinating for two Maltese kids to go abroad for trials," he says.

The final question is hypothetical, but how would Bogdanovic have seen his life develop if he hadn't achieved his dream of becoming a professional footballer? What would he have done?

And there isn't a second of hesitation before he replies: "A war pilot."

"I had this passion as a kid for aeroplanes. The first film I saw was Top Gun when I was about seven. In Libya we lived on a Russian military camp. They had all the flight simulators, and a friend of my dad was a pilot and he got me in to fly them. I spent a year-and-a-half using these simulators every day and I became pretty good at it," he says.

Luckily for Sheffield United and Malta, his father didn't let Bogdanovic take that particular path, instead constantly guiding him towards football and making huge personal sacrifices along the way.

"First of all I have to thank God for keeping me and my family healthy. He gave me a gift which is a talent at football, and it is up to me to thank Him by doing everything I can on the pitch.

"And, of course, my dad and my family, who believed in me, and my wife's family, because they allowed me to marry their daughter. If that had not happened I might not even still be playing football," he adds.

As Bogdanovic walks away to rejoin his young family who have been waiting patiently on a nearby table, I can't help but think this is one man who deserves to be living the dream.

By his own admission he has had some pretty tough times on the way to where he is, but hard work and sacrifice have seen him through.

He may not have ended up as a fighter pilot, but next season for Sheffield United you can rest assured he will be gunning for the top flight.

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