Australian defender Milos Degenek didn’t enjoy his World Cup debut, which perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise given that he lost 4-1 to defending champions France on Tuesday night. Indeed, despite a bright start in which the Socceroos took a 1-0 lead, the final big lead and a short turn to the next game meant there wasn’t much to savor.
However, the 28-year-old probably wouldn’t feel any different if the Socceroos were able to maintain their unlikely one-goal lead, given that he says he doesn’t pause to enjoy any of the games he plays. were played immediately after them, regardless of the case. Of course, there is an immediate joy in winning, but once the adrenaline wears off, it takes a while for the emotions to return.
Degenek, for example, did not enjoy a 2-0 win over Liverpool in a packed Champions League match at the Rajko Mitic Stadium, where he played for Crvena Zvezda Belgrade back in 2018. to celebrate their landmark victory, he stayed at home to rewatch the match with his brother.
“I didn’t like this game,” Degenek said. “I wasn’t happy after that.”
It wasn’t until Liverpool won the entire tournament that Degenek allowed himself to realize the magnitude of his accomplishment.
It all sounds a bit Spartan; denial of the sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and gratitude that comes with periods of introspection and reflection.
But for Degenek, who is looking to start for his country in a high-stakes matchup against Tunisia on Saturday, this self-imposed anhedonia goes a long way in maintaining what he calls his “lion mentality.”
“The mentality of a lion is: you either eat or you get eaten,” he said. “That’s the easiest way to put it…when we had a meeting with the boys. I said, “The bread is on the table. Either we eat today – my children, my wife and my family – or they eat, and my children and wife go to bed hungry.
“I don’t want this to happen, and I use this term – when this bread is on the table – I want to take it, I want my wife and my children to be happy.”
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Born in Knin, the capital of the unrecognized Serbian proto-state in Croatia, Degenek’s family fled to Belgrade when he was an infant during the conflict in the region before seeking and receiving asylum in Australia when he was six years old.
Settling in Western Sydney, he subsequently gained a place in the prestigious programs of Westfields Sports High and the Australian Institute of Sports as a teenager. Thanks to his talents, he moved to Europe and to the German club VfB Stuttgart, where he played alongside German international Joshua Kimmich.
This was followed by appearances in Europe (several for Crvena Zvezda), East Asia, the Middle East and currently the United States for Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, as well as 39 senior Australian appearances after he previously represented the youth of Serbia.
Indeed, it was a long and winding road for Degenek, but he says it was in those early days in Germany when his prospects for the future were far less promising than what it would eventually become and where his mentality was shaped. .
“I was 16 years old when I went to Germany and my first experience was being dropped off in the center of Stuttgart and it took me an hour and a half to get to training in the middle of a freezing winter,” he said.
“It’s minus 8 degrees now and I put on two pairs of tracksuits and four jumpers because I didn’t have money for a winter jacket until my agent gave me one.
“People think you will go to Europe to enjoy football, you will turn professional and make a lot of money. My first professional contract was $1,000 a month. I didn’t make a lot of money.
“That’s where I learned to wrestle and got that mentality where I thought to myself, ‘I’m training with 20 other guys, but I want to be the one to succeed.’
“I can say, fortunately, that I am one of those who did it.”
Faced with Tunisia at the start of Saturday’s match in Qatar, the stakes associated with this match will be very clear for every Socceroo that takes the field at Al Janoub Stadium.
With a heavy loss to France, Graham Arnold’s team needs to take at least one point to maintain hope of reaching the round of 16 for just the second time in their country’s history.
While a draw would have kept them alive, with Tunisia needing to take on France in their final group stage game, a win could well put Australia in their box seat ahead of the final matchday.
The stakes seem to be quite high. At least, they would be so if a person did not have life experience and the hard-won point of view of Degenek.
“You say the game has to win, you think it’s pressure. I told the guys the other day that this is not pressure,” he said. “Pressure is me, like an 18-month-old child fleeing a war. The pressure is me, like a six-year-old child caught in the middle of a war.
“Pressure is not a prerequisite for winning football. Because you can win or lose, but I don’t think anyone will die. It’s not pressure.
“It’s just the joy of wanting to get better and have something to say to your grandchildren and fans at home, when you can say you’ve won a World Cup game, you’re out of the group.”