Socceroo Dino Djulbic aims to make mark in Malaysia with Felda
Dino Djulbic has been in Kuala Lumpur barely two weeks, but already the former Perth Glory defender says he feels at home at Malaysia Super League side, Felda United. The giant centre-back adds steel to an ambitious club who finished second in the top flight last season, but lost their way at the start of 2017.
The twice-capped Socceroo is making his second foray into Asia, having played for Guizhou Renhe in the Chinese Super League in 2011-12.
Malaysia may not seem like an obvious next destination, but the well-travelled Djulbic was happy to follow the lead of fellow recent defensive imports Robbie Cornthwaite, Jon McKain and Steve Pantelidis.
"I always wanted to come here to the MSL as many Aussies have played here previously, and had success. I love to learn about new cultures, and the people are friendly," Djulbic told ESPN FC.
"So far, I have enjoyed every minute here at Felda. It's a very professionally run club which makes the transition very easy for me."
Djulbic is living around 30 minutes from Kuala Lumpur in Putrajaya, a planned city and administrative capital which is Malaysia's equivalent of Canberra. His wife Bonnie, and young sons Esad and Charlie, are due to arrive next week.
He was a stand out for Perth Glory in the 2016-17 A-League as they came within one victory of the Grand Final. He played 24 games for Kenny Lowe's combative side, blessed for choice at the back with fellow internationals Rhys Williams and Shane Lowry.
The highlight was Glory's stunning 2-0 victory away to Melbourne City in the A-League finals' series on April 23 when Djulbic helped keep City's Bruno Fornaroli and Tim Cahill quiet. City midfielder Michael Jakobsen described him as "a nut case" for his willingness to put his head and body on the line to block shots.
"Personally, I thought I did alright last season at Perth Glory, but as a club we underachieved, before we lost to the champions Sydney FC in the semifinals the following weekend," he said.
Even at the age of 34, Djulbic had the option of staying in the A-League. But he was keen to pursue a new challenge in Southeast Asia, and work under respected former Malaysia national coach B. Satianathan, who took over a struggling side in February.
The mid-season transfer window saw Djulbic come onboard, alongside Brazilian forward Thiago Augusto and Nigerian striker Ifedayo Omosuyi, who both moved from clubs in Bahrain.
With the season due to resume next week after the international break, Djulbic will anchor Felda's defence with Shukor Adan. The Felda captain is a highly respected former national skipper who is still going strong at the age of 37. And so far, the pair have gelled well in practice games.
"Shukor is a great footballer and even better person. I get really well on with him and I think we are forming a good partnership in defence," Djulbic said.
"I hope I can help the team reach the targets this year to finish in the top four, and, hopefully, make the Malaysia Cup final as well. Also, I want to guide the younger players in the club with the experience that I have to offer."
His tough childhood and teenage years in Bosnia, where he was born, and in Germany where his family fled, have shaped his approach to his career. While some imports have had problems adapting to Asian life, Djulbic seems to embrace the differences.
During his two seasons in China with the Beijing-based Guizhou, Djulbic played 55 games and scored eight goals, and earned a place in the CSL All Star team in 2012.
"Some local players in China, and now Malaysia, are surprised when they see an import player wanting to eat local food or engage in the local customs. But for me, it is part of the experience of being here. I think it helps me fit in," he said.
"I have also played in Germany and the United Arab Emirates, and it's the same everywhere I go."
Djulbic and his family arrived in Western Australia when he was 16 years old. He was quickly signed up by NPL club Perth SC where he'd play 150 senior games before a move to Melbourne helped him get recognised by the A-League.
An unlikely journey was completed when, as a China-based 29-year-old, he earned Socceroo caps -- against Guam and Chinese Taipei -- at the 2012 East Asian Cup qualifiers in Hong Kong.
"My proudest moment was putting on the green and gold jersey for Australia, and representing my country on an international stage, which made my family very proud especially, my father, Esad," he said.
Sadly, Esad Djulbic passed away from melanoma cancer two years ago, with Dino's eldest son named after his grandfather.
Malaysia provides an exciting new chapter for the Djulbic family, with Dino playing his first competitive match on July 1 against Pahang, captained by his former Perth Glory teammate Matthew Davies.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.