Europe Dreamer: Dzoni looks to S.League alumnus Velez for inspiration

Once tipped for stardom in Croatia, Ivan Dzoni is now hoping to jumpstart his career in the S.League instead. FourFourTwo caught up with the former Croatia under-17 captain to understand how he landed in Singapore...

As a 16-year-old, Ivan Dzoni was on the same pitch as Andre Iniesta, David Villa and Victor Valdes.

That was in 2011, when Croatian giants Hajduk Split played a friendly against Barcelona as part of the club’s 100th anniversary celebration. 

A month on from that game, Dzoni, captain of the Croatian under-17 national team and considered the brightest talent in Hajduk’s academy, arrived in England for a 10-day trial with Premier League giants Manchester City and he scored on his debut in a friendly game against Oldham Athletic.

City were impressed with him and wanted him to come back the following year. There was talk that Arsenal were interested as well. Dzoni’s star seemed all set to rise.

Fast forward six years and Dzoni now finds himself in Singapore, thousands of miles away from the big money and glamour of the top European leagues, fighting to resurrect his career with Tampines Rovers.

His fall from a potentially big-money move began when Hajduk refused to release him for his second stint with City.

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Dzoni once trialled and impressed at Manchester City

“The coach wanted me to stay. I was a bit angry with him for not letting me go, but I thought at that time it wasn’t so bad, because that meant I was in his plans,” Dzoni told FourFourTwo.

“But 10 days later, he was gone. They brought in a new coach and I was sent out on loan to a second-tier side.“

After the loan spell ended, Dzoni returned to Hajduk only to break his left foot while playing football tennis before training, which kept him out of action for much of 2014, and he was released by the club the following year after only two appearances for the first team.

In football, it’s really crazy how your career can just go down like that, in a free-fall

“In football, it’s really crazy how your career can just go down like that, in a free-fall,” the 22-year-old shared.

“The injury really turned my life upside down, my confidence was affected because I had to learn how to walk again. I was not the same player for a while after that."

Reflecting on his missed chances, Dzoni refused to mull over what could have been.

“You know, I was captain to Mateo Kovacic and he is at Real Madrid now, while I am here in Singapore, but that’s life you know, there’s all kinds of stories, good things, bad things, it constantly surprises us.  We cannot dwell on the past we have to always look forward.

“I feel great in Singapore, it’s a beautiful city, one of the best cities in the world to live in. It’s a chance to experience a new culture. My teammates have made me feel very welcome and I am excited for the season to start.”

Dzoni does not believe his chance for the big time has passed and he hopes to emulate the likes of Nico Velez and Grant Holt — players who used the S.League as stepping stones to move on to bigger things.

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Velez's displays in the S.League earned him further moves abroad

Holt played for Sengkang Marines (now known as Hougang United) in 2001 before moving back to England and managed to reach the Premier League with Norwich. Velez, who represented Warriors FC in their title-winning year in 2014, on the other hand earned a move back to Hajduk after playing in India.

“I know of Velez, who came to my club, Hajduk,” Dzoni said. “He did very well in the S.League and then in India and from there to Europe. That’s something I hope I can do.  

“I am not so old now, so if I train hard and do my best for Tampines, who knows, one day I could be back in Europe, playing for Hajduk Split.

“Hajduk Split is always in my heart.  I never managed to score a goal for the first team, so if one day I can return and score for Hajduk in front of the fans at the Poljud Stadium, I will be able to die happy.”

Photos: Weixiang Lim/FFT