Life As A Pro: Danijal Brković
Scouted by Dinamo Zagreb as a teenager, Brković waited to finish school, and the opportunity passed. Dani went on to carve out what has been a successful career in the Bosnian Premier League, winning both the League and the Cup while appearing in the Europa League.

By: Christopher McCollum

When Danijal Brkovic was 17-years old, a junior at Johnson City High School near Binghamton, New York, the Croatian-born striker paid a visit to Dinamo Zagreb. Improbably, one of the legendary teams of Eastern Europe had invited the teenage striker on trial.

He scored five goals in three games during pre-season, and the club offered him a contract. Almost seven years later, Dani wonders how different things would be if he signed the contract rather than returning to New York to finish high school.

Born in Croatia during the dark times of the Yugoslavian breakup and the ensuing wars of independence, Dani fell in love with the game at a young age. His family moved to New York for the chance at a better life and for him to receive an American education, but the passion for the game was never lost.

“I spent the first nine, 10 years of my life in Croatia, then came to Binghamton, to Johnson City,” Dani told SoccerViza.

“I played in the city, in high school it was a different experience. It’s tough to say how it compares playing in the United States to playing professionally in Europe, because it really doesn’t in my experience. I had three years of high school at Johnson City, and I am the all-time leading goal scorer. I think 78 goals in three seasons. How does it compare though? It just doesn’t, it’s impossible.”

Moving to Bosnia at 19 to give it a go with Premier League team Velež Mostar worked out, he earned a contract with the club, and made his professional debut. His first season only saw him get into a handful of games, but by his second season he was the every day striker option for coach Mirza Varešanović, who utilized Dani to his best potential, turning him into a legitimate goal scoring threat for the formerly grand club.

While with Velež, Dani became embroiled in the midst of one of the most dangerous derbies in the world, the infamous Mostar Derby between Velež and Zrinjski, a derby that is fought on the still harshly divided ethnic lines of the region. In a 2011 game, Dani and the rest of his team were chased off the field by Zrinjski Ultras after scoring a goal. The pitch invasion left riot police unable to contain the ultras, but were at least able to guard the field’s exit so the players could escape.

It’s the life of a professional player in certain parts of the world; there is definite danger in sport and sometimes it spills over. Whether it’s directly related to the game as was the pitch invasion in Mostar, or unrelated to the game but still proving dangerous, such as Ryan Adeleye’s life in Israel as a player for Be’er Sheva.

Following a successful two-year stint with Velež, Dani was contracted by Željezničar Sarajevo, one of the modern giants of Bosnian football, winning the title three times and placing runner up four times in the past 12 years. Dani won the league with them in the 2012/13 season, earning a spot in Champions League qualifiers. Unfortunately, Dani came down with a case of mononucleosis that almost sunk his career.

“I had lost so much weight, I had lost muscle mass, my endurance, I couldn’t play, I was ready to leave to come back to America. I missed half the season before I was even cleared as being healthy, and it took the rest of the year to try to get back in shape.”

And just like that, a promising career in the Bosnian Premier League, a spot in the Champions League, and a potential bigger move out of the Balkans was put on hold. After warming up into the team in season one, season two should have been the breakout year for the then 22-year old striker. Unfortunately, we can’t predict when illness strikes, and how bad it will be when it does.

Things were soon to look up once again though, as football once again proves to be a game of who you know.

“When I was at Velež Mostar I had a coach, Mirza Varešanović, who ended up taking a job at Olimpic Sarajevo. I got into contact with him [after failing to renew contract with Željezničar] and he asked me to come to the team. I signed for two years at Olimpic in 2014.”

“The first year went really well when I came to Olimpic. Midway through the season, we were at the top of the table and I had scored six or seven goals. We won the Bosnian Cup and qualified for the Europa League, but this season is a little more difficult. We’re in the middle of the table, but there’s a lot of games to go so we’re trying to get back up to where we belong.”

This season with Olimpic, Dani finally got to taste the fruits of a team’s labor in European competition; with the previous season’s Cup victory in hand, the club advanced straight to the first round of Europa League Qualifiers, against Slovakian club Spartak Trnava.

“Playing in the Europa League was very nice, it was my first time playing in the European league. We played against Spartak and we tied them 1-1 at home, but it was 0-0 away and they went on with the away goal.

“It’s not as electrifying in Bosnia as you might think for the Europa League. But when you go away, it’s a whole other level, a whole different feeling. I live for it, it’s such a rush. The level of play, the crowd, the atmosphere, it’s electric. I want to push Olimpic to the top of the table again this year so I can experience it again.”

Having won both the league and the cup in Bosnia, there’s really not much left to accomplish for Dani, who is set on restoring Olimpic’s place at the top of the table this season, before potentially looking for a bigger market for the future.

“I’m looking to go somewhere out of Bosnia… soccer here isn’t at the best level, but I love it and I owe it for my professional career. But it’s getting close to time to move on to a bigger country if I can. I need to push myself and see how far I can go.”

Despite still being a young professional, the quick start for Dani has yielded the necessary education experiences to provide him the lessons it takes to succeed in the professional world, both with adapting to certain styles of play in the region he’s in, and adapting to the mental side of the professional game.

“In Bosnia it’s about being strong on the ball and physical strength. It’s not as much about technique; the fields are not the greatest sometimes, there is some poor quality so it’s hard for technical players to succeed. But if you’re physically fit and you can run a lot, it makes it easier. When I played in America, if I went one on one with the goalkeeper and missed, they didn’t care. But here… it’s very different. They will swear at you, they will yell. The temperament for the professional game is so different. It’s about being mentally strong, being able to hold up to the criticism and pressure that you face every day.”

While his career has been successful for his young age, the shining moment of regret is that trial with Dinamo Zagreb when Dani was 17. After a tremendous junior year of high school, Dani and his father returned to their homeland to have a trial with the Croatian giants who had expressed an interest in seeing Dani play. He lit the trial on fire, scoring five goals in three games, and was immediately offered the chance to suit up for the club that would go on to defeat Arsenal in Champions League play this past week.

“They asked my father if I could sign with them… and even though we were there for me to trial, he told them that I needed to finish my high school education. I think of how things might have gone differently. That is something I would go back in time and change if I could.”

Having embarked on his journey back to the Balkans out of high school in New York, Dani looks back with a point of view regarding the importance of education but also the importance of making a living.

“So many professional players in Europe have no education past high school. In the U.S. it’s different, and it’s very important to get that education. I would tell teenage players who are trying to decide if they want to play professional soccer or continue on to university to simply weigh their options; if there is a good team who comes after you, who will take care of you and give you a living, then you should do that. But if there isn’t a good team coming after you, get your education. You can keep the option open to play, but don’t waste your time waiting. And remember… if you wait, Dinamo Zagreb won’t wait with you.”

Dani and Olimpic Sarajevo are currently sitting 9th in the Bosnian Premier League table, six points out of the top three and another trip to Europe with 18 games to play in the campaign.