Class is permanent
The pristine streets of the equatorial island paradise that he now calls home are a far cry from the war-torn country that Singapore Player of the Year Aleksandar Duric left behind.
Sitting in the intoxicating, open-air hawker centres where mouth-watering local delights like Curry Laksa and Nasi Lemak sell for only US$2.50, Duric still vividly remembers his poor childhood growing up in Bosnia and the Balkans conflict that tore it apart.
Duric, now the star striker and captain of Singapore league and cup champions Singapore Armed Forces FC (SAFFC), is as big a superstar as is possible in the modest S-League.
But behind the ready smile and condominium lifestyle of the recently naturalised Singaporean is an aching sadness: the memories of losing his mother to an artillery attack on his family home in 1993 and his difficult years living as a refugee in Hungary.
Duric's long journey to Singapore - from eastern Europe via Australia and China - and his outstanding success are remarkable in themselves. But what makes his story more unlikely is the fact that at 38 years old he has become Southeast Asia's answer to Teddy Sheringham and Roger Milla except Duric starts almost every game for club and country, instead of coming off the bench.
His coach - Richard Bok - is just one year older. Even teammate Therdsak Chaiman, the ageless, talismanic Thai with 59 international caps, is only 35.
"I call him grandfather," a smiling Therdsak told me as SAFFC celebrated wrapping up the S-League title after a 1-0 victory over archrivals Home United on November 14.
With 28 goals, Duric is again Singapore's top scorer and Player of the Year for the second straight season. But until a few years ago, the tall and skilful target man - with shades of his distant friend Mark Viduka with whom he crossed paths in Australia's old National Soccer League in the 1990s - was a left-sided utility player.
Former S-League coach of the year Steve Darby, and now assistant to Peter Reid in charge of Thailand national team, has followed Duric's career for the past 15 years.
"He has almost re-invented himself as a footballer," Darby said. "What has amazed me is that he's 38 and he's still playing and playing well. It's a credit to his off-field discipline and his intelligence."
Before professional football, he was better known for his feats in another sport - kayaking - after representing Bosnia at the 1992 Olympic Games, using equipment borrowed from the Spanish and Italian teams because of his birth nation's precarious plight at the time.
Duric hitchhiked to Barcelona for the Games, travelling without a passport from Hungary where he'd been playing for local club, FC Szeged. A year earlier, his father had ordered him to flee his Bosnian hometown of Doboj because of the deteriorating security situation.
After secondary school, Duric, from an ethnic Serbian family, underwent mandatory military training and would become an officer during a turbulent period in Europe during which the Berlin Wall came down.
He credits the testing fitness regime in the Bosnian army - including 60km walks carrying a 30kg pack and gun - for the toughness he brings to Singapore football almost two decades later. The training sometimes took place in the brutal Balkans winter: a stark contrast to year-round warmth and balmy evening breezes of his new land. Duric is a giant of a man - a towering but agile 6'3.5" - with barely an ounce of body fat. Indeed, steering clear of the tempting Roti Pratas and Masala Dosai whose scents waft around the island's numerous hawker centres is one way this highly disciplined physical specimen keeps so trim. He does, however, allow himself to occasionally indulge in his favourite Loy Kee Chicken Rice.
His first sample of Singapore life came during a 24-hour stopover in 1995 on the way to Australia where he'd play for six clubs, including South Melbourne and Marconi, in three different cities in the NSL.
It was in Melbourne in 1998 where he was introduced to Natasha, an Aussie woman with a 'dinky-di' accent and zero knowledge of soccer, who would become his wife and mother of his two children.
With the distant hope of playing for the Socceroos, Duric took out Australian citizenship. But in 1999 when his NSL club West Adelaide went bankrupt, he accepted an offer came to play for S-League club, Tanjong Pagar United.
The only problem: he had to change from his favourite left midfield role to centre forward. He scored 11 times in 16 games and the conversion was complete: Duric had an instant reputation in Singapore as a man who could produce goals.
Successful stints at other S-League clubs, Home United and Geylang United, followed, but it was only after joining SAFFC in 2005 that Duric - already in his mid 30s - reached his peak.
By claiming the 2008 title, SAFFC became the first club in S-League history to win the league three years in a row. And, with Duric scoring and creating crucial goals, they achieved Singapore Cup success for the second straight year.
"He's a target-man, goal poacher, goal maker and the ultimate pro all rolled into one," said S-League commentator and former Geylang United assistant coach, Dez Corkhill. "If he had more pace, he might have been able to make it in one of the better European leagues."
SAFFC wrapped up the league crown by edging out Home United on the tricky plastic pitch of Jalan Besar Stadium, a short walk from Singapore's Little India district. A noisy, drum-beating crowd of over 4,000, complete with Warriors cheerleaders, celebrated exuberantly as Duric and his team soaked it up. And, yet, even as he received the good-natured ribbing in the dressing room - a Tiger Beer shower and banana skin on his head from behind as he tried to conduct a serious TV interview - Duric seemed subtly detached from his teammates, some a little more than half his age.
"He's a clinical professional who never says a bad word about anyone," Corkhill said. "I've never come across anyone who dislikes him but that clinical professionalism also means that he's not one of the boys."
Duric may seem like a football mercenary - who changes his nationality in search of the best opportunity - but he declares himself a proud and humble Singaporean who wasn't given favourable treatment from the nation's controversial Foreign Talent Scheme on his road to his new nationality. He applied himself and was rejected twice before queuing up to finally get the green light in 2007.
In November of that year, he made his international debut in Singapore's AFC World Cup qualifier, scoring both goals in the 2-0 victory over Tajikistan. His first 12 caps yielded five goals and he has also captained his adopted homeland, possibly the first-foreign born Singapore player to start a game wearing the skipper's armband.
Duric is expected to play an important role as Singapore defend their ASEAN championship title starting on December 5 in Jakarta. And, yes, he intends to play on during the 2009 S-League season when he'll celebrate his last birthday before turning 40.
Until he stops scoring goals for club and country - and beating the youngsters in the lung-busting beep tests - no-one will dare tell the man known affectionately as "uncle" that it might be time to hang up his boots and give his body a break.
Q: What would you have said two decades ago when you were starting out your footballing career if I'd told you that at the age of 38 you would still be playing professional football and being a top scorer and multiple trophy winner?
A: I would have probably said you were crazy. But, honestly, I expected to play until my late thirties. I always believed in my fitness and that my healthy lifestyle would keep me playing until this age. No false modesty, I feel I've deserved to get to this stage: from all the hard work I've put in. I feel my trophies just show my hunger to win games and show the effort that I've put into my training and playing.
Q: What is the magic of this Singapore Armed Forces team?
A: The team spirit, the mixture of the experienced players and the younger players willing to learn from the older guys. There's also a strong management behind the team and a good coach who understands the players. Q: How can you explain the fact that you've survived so long?
A: It's a simple explanation: it's all hard work and determination. I've put in the effort and I've got the goals for it. I just love to play. If you don't have that initial drive and love for the game then you're doomed from the start.
Q: What was it like representing Bosnia in the 1992 Olympics in kayaking?
A: It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I think it's one of the goals of every sportsman to reach the level of the Olympics. I was surprised to be called in for the kayak team as even then soccer was my main sport.
Q: What were the highlights of your time playing in Australia? Did you ever think you had a chance of playing for the Socceroos?
A: One of the best memories I have of Australia is scoring my first and only goal for West Adelaide against Adelaide City. I played for all the biggest clubs in Australia like South Melbourne, Sydney Marconi and Sydney Olympic. If I stayed longer I would have liked to have played for the national team. I feel I had a chance.
Q: Some people are critical of footballers who change their nationality, calling them mercenaries and yet you've done it twice. What do you say to the critics?
A: In my case I didn't have a chance to play for Bosnia or Australia and I think it's any footballers dream to play for the national team. So, to the critics, I can say I've been in Singapore for the past ten years. And in those ten years I've been proud to say that I'm a Singaporean. I feel that playing for the Singapore team is a way for me to repay Singapore.
Q: How big a decision for your was it to take up Singapore citizenship?
A: It wasn't easy to give up my Australian citizenship, but I feel it was the only way for me to reach the next level in my football career.
Q: Will you stay in Singapore once you retire from football or follow the lead of another nationalized striker Egmar Goncalves, of Brazil, and return to your country of origin or somewhere else?
A: It's hard to say where I'm going to be, but my next steps after my professional career will probably involve coaching, hopefully. I've just started my own soccer school and I hope to improve that when I finish playing. I feel coaching is a way to pass on my skills, as other coaches have passed these skills to me through my career.
Q: What's the funniest thing an opponent has said about your age during a match?
A: They usually call me 'uncle' or ask me if I have collected my CPF (retirement fund).
Q: How would you like to be remembered as a footballer?
A: I want to be remembered as a team player who gave everything for his team, not just working for goals for myself but scoring them for my team... a true professional.
Additional research from Les Tan/redsports.sg
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.