Roko Strika is the latest Australian young gun to make his professional debut in the European topflight.
Strika came on for NK Zagreb in their scoreless draw against his former club Dinamo Zagreb last week, describing it as the biggest moment of his life.
It was an occasion three years in the making for the Canberra-born attacking mid who left his home for Croatia at just 17.
The dual national has received tentative approaches from Australia and Croatia national team set-ups but admits he is yet to nail his colours to the mast.
“I came on in the 72nd minute, we got a red card and I didn't get time to go warm up – the coach put me on straight away,” Strika said of his Prva HNL league debut.
“It was intense with a man down but we battled until the dying second and gratefully grabbed a vital point against the defending champions.
“I stepped in to the right back position (which is a bit out of my usual position) which the boys had a little giggle over but, all in all, it felt great to make my debut and help the team get a good result!”
After arriving in Croatia, Strika – who can also play on the left wing – spent a year at Dinamo Zagreb’s celebrated youth academy and says it gave him a keen insight into what it takes to play at a top club.
“Dinamo Zagreb has one of the best academies in Europe,” he said.
“Some of the finest players and coaches in Europe have come up through their academy. I had the privilege to train and learn from their expertise and experience.
“I was involved in many youth tournaments that Dinamo were invited to and that gave me a great insight to other top clubs.”
While at The Blues he went on loan to Croatia’s lower leagues to get first team experience and says that linking up with coach Ilija Loncarevic at HNK Gorica as a key moment in his development.
Loncarevic is well regarded in Croatia, having won the Croatian championship with Dinamo Zagreb in 1999.
Strika added: “After juniors at Dinamo Zagreb I went to a third league team named NK Maksimir and after six months there I moved to the second league team NK Gorica. My aim was to get experience in senior football.
“I played first team football (in the lower leagues) for a year-and-a-half. It was a lot more intensive physically, a lot more demanding and the quality of players is much higher than at the junior level.
“At the start of the 2013/2014 season I played with NK Maksimir. During my time there I was happy to score three goals.
“When I moved to HNK Gorica in the second half of the season Ilija Loncarevic was my coach. Being coached by one of the best in Croatia was definitely a stand out moment, mainly because I learnt so much from him and his team.”
But it was signing with NK Zagreb at the start of this season that proved the turning point.
“My most rewarding moment is signing a contract with NK Zagreb,” Strika said.
“They have some of the best facilities in Croatia and great players have come through the club, including Croatian national team players Mario Mandzdukic and Ivica Olic.”
Before heading overseas, Strika spent three years at the ACT Academy of Sport, and has fond memories of his time under the tutelage of junior coach Milan (Milo) Milanovic.
“I started at ACTAS age 14, being the youngest going on tour with them to Korea, and finished as one of the oldest,” he said
“During my time in Croatia I always remember what Milo taught me. Milo and I developed a great relationship and we still keep in touch.”
Strika was also one of the first athletes former Socceroo Andy Bernal coached at his Stockdale gym in Canberra.
The 20-year-old spoke about his close relationship with fellow Aussie Steven Ugarkovic who plays for Prva HNL side NK Osijek and was also mentored by Bernal.
“Andy was a great help during my college years,” he said.
“I used to train with him during my lunch times and free periods before returning back to school.
“He helped me a lot with his intelligence of the game. I learnt a lot from listening to his advice and wisdom being a former pro.
“Stevie Ugarkovic and I are also good friends and we used to train together in Canberra.”
Being of dual nationality, Strika may one day face the choice of lining up for the country of his heritage, Croatia, or the country of birth, Australia.
“I had the opportunity to be a part of a Croatian national team camp which was a great experience for me,” he said.
There has also been contact from Football Federation Australia.
“I was told that an Australian official was coming to watch me play however I don’t know if that was true or not as no one got in direct contact with me,” he said.
At the moment he is keeping his options open.
“An opportunity to play for any national team would be a dream come true,” he said. “We will have to wait and see what the future holds.”
Con Stamocostas is an Australian football writer. Check out Episode Two of his latest A- League Football Snobcast with co-host Rob Toddler.comments