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Putting his best foot forward

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PAUL LAMBIS meets a young South African Cypriot making a name for himself on the football field

In August 2023, South African defender Marko Veselinovic signed a two-year contract with AEL Limassol FC in the Cyprus First Division, marking a significant milestone in his professional career.

Veselinovic understood that relocating to Cyprus from South Africa would be an important step towards a successful football career, bringing him closer to the world of European football.

“I emailed the AEL Limassol Academy in July 2019 and they offered me a trial opportunity one month later,” Veselinovic said. “I caught a flight to Cyprus for the trials, and they liked me, so I joined the U17 team and made the decision not to return to South Africa.”

Of course, Veselinovic acknowledges that his decision to stay in Cyprus would not have been possible without his parents’ complete support, given that he was only 16 at the time.

Despite being thousands of miles away from his family and country of birth, Veselinovic claimed the move to Cyprus was rather straightforward. “All of my coaches and teammates have been extremely helpful in introducing me to the unique lifestyle of Cyprus, as well as offering support and guidance along the way.”

Veselinovic was born to a Serbian father and a South African Cypriot mother in Johannesburg in 2003. Like all diaspora Cypriots, Veselinovic recalls spending days with his cousins at his grandparents’ home, influenced by his Greek Cypriot heritage and its familial traditions. “We were taught about family values, respect, and never giving up, which are key aspects of my daily life and I believe have led me to where I am today.”

Veselinovic’s maternal grandfather comes from occupied Rizokarpaso, while his maternal grandmother was born in Nicosia; however they met in South Africa. “My grandfather Adonis was a well-known football player during the 1960s, and he played for Corinthians Football Club in Johannesburg,” he told the Cyprus Mail. “I had the privilege of playing for the same football club many years later.”

His father was born in Serbia but emigrated to South Africa in the 1990s. “From a young age, my father encouraged me to play football, which later turned into my religion.”

diaspora2Veselinovic began playing football at the age of five, and he particularly enjoyed tackling and heading, “which has transpired into the playing style I have today.

“I used to watch former Serbian professional footballer Nemanja Vidic, who played as a centre-back, and I loved the way he tackled and showed aggression on the field, and I aspired to be like him.”

After his first successful match, winning the Galaxy Cup with the Black Aces Football Club Academy in South Africa at the age of 12, Veselinovic recalled the opposition coach approaching him and congratulating him on his talent, “which gave me the motivation to push myself to the limits and see how far I could progress in the football world.”

For over 15 years, Veselinovic has realised the advantages of the sport, which have helped him grow as an athlete. Football, according to him, teaches focus and respect, in addition to a healthy lifestyle and the amount of discipline that comes with the hard training the sport requires. “As a footballer, you must regard everyone around you as an equal. Without it, you cannot win anything. You have an advantage in every game if all of the players perform well, while working together as a team.”

Veselinovic recognises that footballers encounter certain challenges, such as the emotional stress and disappointment that comes after an unsuccessful match, affecting psychology and leaving a player wondering what could have been done on the field to better performance. “When football is your primary passion, your mental health suffers significantly, especially when things do not go as planned,” he said.

When it comes to his heritage, Veselinovic attributes his parents for creating an environment filled with all of the Cypriot and Serbian traditions that have helped shape who he is today. “Having attended various schools and lived in such a diverse country as South Africa it has taught me to respect other traditions and cultures, and I am also very proud of my South African heritage.”

Veselinovic is currently on loan to Ermis Aradippou FC in Larnaca, playing in Cyprus’ second division. “This will give me more experience in terms of the speed and strength required to play in the first division, and it is thus an important step in preparing me both mentally and physically to play at the highest level.”

Whether he represents South Africa or Cyprus internationally one day, Veselinovic is determined to be the best player he can be, motivated by the same ideals that brought him to the island in the first place: putting his best foot forward in a sport he passionately lives and breathes.

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