Sydney teen cracks Croatian first team

Young Sydneysider Steven Ugarkovic has broken into the starting line-up of NK Osijek despite three senior coaching changes and is loving life in Croatia’s top flight.

The 19 year-old from Baulkham Hills, who moved to Croatia two years ago, has made a successful transition to the Prva HNL side and the step up from under-19s to first-team football.

A Sydney United and Marconi junior, Ugarkovic is currently back in Australia during the competition’s Christmas break.

The defensive midfielder is relishing the chance to play in a European league.

"I got an opportunity at the right back position and I made the most of that,” Ugarkovic said. “A new coach came in, then another and then another. I’m loving every minute of it.

"I'm now playing in midfield, centre midfield and right midfield, so I’m playing everywhere. I prefer centre mid, being in the middle of the action. I was a centre midfielder growing up.”

NK Osijek have already had three managers this season with Tomislav Steinbruckner departing in August, Davor Rupnik leaving in October and Ivica Kulsevic currently in charge.

The son of former NSL footballer John Ugarkovic, Steven’s highlight in his Croatian stint so far has been playing against in front of 10,000 people at Hadjuk Split’s Stadion Poljud.

"It was a dream of mine to play in that stadium,” he said.

Ugarkovic’s club NK Osijek finished seventh in the league last season and currently sit in ninth position.

"It's a small club,” he said. “They have great fans". 

Ugarkovic has made two appearances for Croatia’s Under-19s side against the Czech Republic, but harbours an ambition to represent Australia. Born and raised in Sydney, he admits it would be a very difficult choice to make if he was selected by both countries.

"It was a great experience [playing for Croatia],” Ugarkovic said. “I would love to play for Australia but at the moment I’m focusing on my club football. It [choosing between the two] would be the toughest decision of my life."

Ugarkovic has reportedly attracted interest from other clubs, after making a fast start to his career, but is remaining focused and is contracted to NK Osijek for another two seasons.

"I've heard some rumours [but] I'm keeping my head down,” he said. “Just work hard and focus on my football. I always wanted to play in the English Premier League or Germany, that would be a dream come true."

Former Socceroo Andrew Bernal manages Ugarkovic and described him as a wonderful footballer with an impressive work ethic.

“Steven would travel many weeks to Canberra from Sydney to work with me privately on his football and conditioning and both mentally and physically ticked all the boxes,” Bernal, player manager at Route1 Management UK, said.

“After being ignored here, I advised him to go to Croatia, as he had that opportunity available to him, and to be honest it is a country with a wonderful football system that produces great footballers, his present club Osijek having produced the great Davor Suker.

"It was a no brainer. I know he really wants to play for the Olyroos and Socceroos one day so hopefully his performances in Croatia one day make this happen.

"Time will tell, but it won’t be for a lack of hard work and dedication as he has that in abundance."