One-on-one: Home United hotshot on freak injuries, famous friends and AFC Cup success
Once upon a time in a scenic town called Split, Croatia, Home United hotshot Stipe Plazibat was amongst a group of promising young footballers tipped to make it all the way to the big time.
After all, he was the club captain of one of Croatia's finest youth academies and under him was his closest childhood friend, Ivan Perisic, who can now be seen running defenders ragged in Serie A with Inter.
I was very happy to see him (Perisic) perform on a big stage and for me, it's also like an inspiration
Fast forward about 10 years, Plazibat is with Home United in the S.League while his dear friend Perisic is one of the hottest prospects in world football – just ask Manchester United head honcho Jose Mourinho, who seems desperate for the winger's services at Old Trafford.
Recently, at the International Champions Cup, the old pals caught up over dinner dates and sightseeing. Plazibat also went down to the Sports Hub to watch his former teammate closely, with Perisic scoring past Chelsea in a 2-1 Inter win.
The moment Perisic galloped past Cesar Azpilicueta, leaving the established Spanish defender behind to finish empathetically past the otherwise dominant Thibaut Courtois, Plazibat had an epiphany.
His friend's climb to the top levels of the footballing tier has become an inspiration for Plazibat to make up for lost time.
Therefore he has an ideal opportunity to start doing so when Home United face their most crucial game of the season in the AFC Cup zonal final against Ceres Negros.
"When I watched him live (Perisic in ICC), and when he scored the goal, I had goosebumps," Plazibat revealed to FourFourTwo.
"I was very happy to see him perform on a big stage and for me, it's also like an inspiration. I asked myself ‘if he can do it, why can't I too?'"
This back injury was during the most crucial period of my youth ... because of this freak injury, it was very hard to come back
The 28-year-old Plazibat, who has 29 goals in 23 games in all competitions this season, believes that he would have made it in Europe himself if not for a back problem that struck when he was a growing adolescent.
Lumbar scoliosis is a disorder of the spine in which the lower back or any area of the spine is either curved to the left or right.
"When I was young and going through puberty, my body was small. And suddenly, I grew up too fast but my muscles didn't follow my bone growth." Plazibat opened up.
"This back injury was during the most crucial period of my youth. It was the last two years in the academy. Because of this freak injury, it was very hard to come back for me."
Due to the injury setback that often decides the unfortunate faith of many young footballers, Plazibat was forced to go down a less desirable footballing route.
Following four years in Europe and a two-year sojourn in Japan, Plazibat's roller coaster career has now placed him with Aidil Sharin's Protectors as both the Croat and the local club face one of Singapore's most important matches in the AFC.
"If we win this, it will be the highlight of my career, for sure," Plazibat explained as he cited his league title with Dugopolje in 2012 as his current biggest success.
"This is an international competition. Ceres might have lost to Hougang but they used their second team. But our form in the AFC gives us great confidence, we only lost to Yadanarbon and managed to beat a team like Global."
Despite the opportunity in front of them, Home United's season could still be titled ‘achitect of their own destruction' in some ways.
Just last week they blew the chance to go top in the S.League, drawing 1-1 with Warriors FC, much to the disappointment of Plazibat.
"We had a very good chance to put pressure on Albirex but now it seems hard to catch them," he said with a sigh.
Plazibat was quick to explain that the team had a ‘critiquing session' after that game. Players advised each other on where to improve as they took the Uniformed Derby as a valuable learning curve for the match-up with Ceres.
"Last week was last week,” he added. “We were coming back tired because we were training for this game (AFC) really hard. Now I am confident and eager.”
While he may not have reached the heights enjoyed by his great friend Perisic, Plazibat is still hungry for success and knows a big opportunity awaits this week.
It has clearly been a purple patch of a season for him and he will be raring to go at Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday night.
"I really, really, want this,” he said. “This can be the beginning of achieving silverware for now and it is a big one. I am really motivated for this game."
Photos: Home United unless stated