Olyroo watch: Is Ugarkovic the next Vince Grella?

Croatia-based Steven Ugarkovic will get another chance to cement his spot in the Green and Gold after being called up to the Rio-chasing Olyroos.

Ugarkovic, referred to as the “new Vince Grella” will take part in the AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers in Chinese Taipei later this month.

It will be the 20-year-old’s second camp with the Aurelio Vidmar’s men as they begin their bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Previously, he was part of the squad that competed in the Chinese International friendly tournament in November last year against Brazil, China and South Korea.

“Being called up and getting the chance to represent my country again is a great honour,” Ugarkovic said. “I can’t wait for it all to start.

“Being in camp was great, I loved every minute of it. I knew a few of the boys – playing against each other growing up – and it’s really a great bunch of guys in the team. It was easy to get along with everyone.”

Ugarkovic, who has played twice for the Croatian U-19s, got some decent game time in last year’s tournament, coming on midway through the second half to make his Australian debut against Brazil and then playing the full 90 against China and South Korea.

“It was a great experience and very grateful to all the people involved, coaching staff and team mates,” he said.

“In our first game against Brazil we had a 2-2 draw, it was a great performance by all of us. Also it was great to finish off with the win against South Korea in our last match.”

The former Sydney United junior, now in his third season in Croatia, says he was pleased with the way he played for the Olyroos.

“There is always pressure when you step out onto the field but it was made easier thanks to all the boys on the field which made me feel comfortable on and off the field,” he said.

 “The coaching staff encouraged (the team) to play football with minimal pressure. I was happy with the way I performed.  There is always room for improvement but the next step is to perform as a team to qualify for Rio.

“Aurelio was great when I came in, he just gave me advice to do my best and there is no pressure which was a big help and I am grateful for the opportunity to play for my country.”

Since his time in Croatia, Ugarkovic has played 31 games in the Prva HNL Croatia’s top flight for NK Osijek including surviving a final-game relegation battle last season and playing against powerhouse teams such as  Dinamo Zagreb and Hadjuk Split.

This season Ugarkovic made eight appearances before moving down a division to current leaders HNK Gorica to ensure he gets more game time.

“During the Christmas break I decided to go on a loan deal to get more game time every week which has paid off and I haven’t looked back,” he added.

“There was some interest from Germany second division but for now I’m focused on performing well every week at my club.”

Ugarkovic trialled with Dinamo Zagreb as a 14-year-old but explains he chose to play for NK Osijek instead because of the reputation of its youth program.

“While I was playing under 15’s at Sydney United, Dinamo Zagreb selected me for a three week camp in Croatia,” he said.

“My coach Davor Bajsic suggested I also trial with NK Osijek while I was in Croatia, because their football youth program is regarded as one of the best in the country. ”

Ugarkovic spent time in Andy Bernal’s Stockdale Canberra-based gym, working on strength and conditioning, football skills as well as training with his elite boxing team before he went overseas to begin his career with NK Osijek.

“You could see that straight away he’s a great passer of the ball, he reads the game well,” Bernal said.

“As an athlete he’s world class – top, top level in terms of fitness and strength. He had a lot of attributes and the minute I saw him I thought I’m looking at a new Vinnie Grella here, that’s kind of the level I thought.”

Con Stamocostas is an Australian football writer. Check out Episode Six of his latest A-League Snobcast: with co-host Rob Toddler.