Miloš Degenek was 16 years old, it was minus eight degrees, and a jacket was not part of his clothing repertoire. “I had, like, two pairs of tracksuits tucked under each other and then four sweaters,” he says, “because I didn’t have the money to buy a winter jacket.”
Every day, the budding Australian defender would layer his clothes in this fashion and then shiver through the 90-minute journey to training for the VfB Stuttgart youth team. Then, once it was done, it would turn around and travel 90 minutes back.
“My first professional football experience was being left in the middle of Germany and having to take an hour and a half to drive to training in the middle of a freezing winter. My first professional contract was 1,000 $ per month, so I wasn’t making a lot of money.
Degenek’s agent eventually bought him a jacket, but by then the most valuable lessons had already been learned. “Those struggles, that’s where I got that mentality,” says the 28-year-old, who made his World Cup debut as a substitute against France on Tuesday.
“Where I was like, ‘I’m training with 20 other guys but I want to be the one to make it.’ Others in this group did too. One of them is a guy named Kimmich, who’s not bad – I learned a lot from him even though he’s younger.
That witty one-liner aside, Degenek is deadly serious. The fight is in his blood, pumped from the ventricles of a heart that is exceptionally big, not just because of being an athlete.
He was 18 months old when his family took refuge in Serbia, having fled their native Croatia in the 1990s during the war of independence. Five years later, they were on the move again, this time escaping the trauma of the Kosovo war. He ended up in Western Sydney wearing a Red Star Belgrade shirt and not much else.
This context precipitates a certain level of perspective regarding simpler issues such as football. Regarding, more specifically, Australia’s match against Tunisia in Qatar. After losing their opener 4-1 to France, Saturday’s return to Al Janoub Stadium is indeed a must-win for any chance of progressing from Group D. A draw would leave them with a glimmer of hope. A defeat would end the campaign.
“It’s not pressure,” says Degenek. “The pressure is me as a baby fleeing a war. The pressure is me as a six-year-old in the middle of a war. The pressure is not ‘I have to win a game football’. Because you can win or lose, but I don’t think anyone is going to die.
“It’s just the joy of wanting to improve, having something to say to your grandkids and your friends back home when you’re having coffee and thinking you’ve won a game at a World Cup, that we left the group.
“Obviously we want to win the game, there’s no doubt about it, and I think we have him in our squad. If we match them in terms of intensity and drive, I think we’ll win.
Degenek, a centre-half who can also slot in at right-back, isn’t guaranteed to start. But he wants. It’s evident in the way he speaks. He lives for games like this. For battling not only the 11 Tunisians on the pitch, but also the nearly 40,000 others in the stands – the fiery contingent of expats in Qatar who helped draw Denmark 0-0.
“I’m not a technician,” he says. “I’m not a guy who’s going to dribble with 10 players – I don’t have that ability in me. But I have that heart and that desire that no one else can match.
He also has big-game experience, having spent three years in Belgrade with Red Star. In 2018, shortly after signing, he helped seal the club’s unlikely return to the Champions League after a 26-year absence, providing two assists in two minutes to rally 2-0 against Red Bull Salzburg in their final qualifying match. As they finished bottom of the group, he played a key role in a 2-0 win over Liverpool.
The Serbian SuperLiga and its exuberant fans have further shaped what he calls its ‘lion mentality’. In June, before Australia’s World Cup qualifying success against Peru, he explained it to his teammates.
“Either you eat or get eaten is the easiest way to put it,” says Degenek, who recently signed with MLS side Columbus Crew. “I said to the boys, ‘There’s bread on the table, either we eat tonight – my children, my wife and my family – or they eat and my children and my wife go home to sleep hungry. I don’t want that to happen.