Born in Titovo Užice, Serbia, in 1981, Vidic was signed to Red Star Belgrade’s youth system at 15, and by the age of 20 had won the Yugoslav Cup with Red Star. The captain’s armband soon followed and he led Red Star to a domestic double in 2004, before moving to the Russian Premier League and Spartak Moscow. In 2006 he signed for Manchester United. Alongside Rio Ferdinand, Vidic began a defensive partnership that has proved to be one of the most formidable in English football. Vidic picked up Premier League winner’s medals in 2007 and 2008, and was part of the squad that won the 2008 Champions League. He played in every one of United’s record-breaking run of 14 clean sheets in 2008/9 and helped the team to victory in the Club World Cup, before finishing the season with more Premier League glory as United won their 18th League title. Loved by the Old Trafford faithful for his aggressive defensive style, and his ability to score goals from set pieces, Vidic was short-listed for the PFA Player of the Year in 2009 and was Manchester United fans’ and players’ Player of the Year. This is the incredible story of a player renowned as one of the best defenders in Europe, if not the world.
|Publisher:||John Blake Publishing, Limited|
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About the Author
Frank Worrall is the author of Rooney: Wayne's World and The Magnificent Sevens.
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Captain Fantastic The Biography of Manchester United's Superstar Defender
By Frank Worrall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Frank Worrall
All rights reserved.
HE ALWAYS wanted to be a professional footballer but his school pals and teachers would laugh at him, calling him a silly dreamer. 'Just how do you expect to even escape your troubled hometown, let alone make it as a footballer in Belgrade or further afield?' they would ask. But what they failed to realise was that this was a boy who thrived on adversity and one who would prove that miracles can happen, even in the most difficult environment and circumstances. Indeed, in the case of Nemanja Vidi , it would be this that would propel him towards his dream.
In 2009 he admitted as much when he said of his tough streak: 'I think you are born with that. My personality is like that – I don't like to give up, I like to fight for everything. Not to fight in a bad way but to go hard to chase something. That is how I am.'
Growing up in a harsh situation would make him tough – and far more determined than other boys to get just what he wanted. And in Europe, it didn't come much tougher than growing up in a war zone in western Serbia, in a grey industrial city, battling against the odds to make a name for yourself as a footballer – and then being forced to watch your best friend die of a heart attack at the age of 20, just as you were making that breakthrough.
This was no cosseted footballer enjoying the easy life, as many singled out for stardom in the English game now do. Here was a boy who had to do it the hard way – and one whose drive, durability and toughness would be reflected in his play when he finally made it.
This is the story of Nemanja Vidic – the hardman who won the hearts of thousands of football fanatics at Manchester United. Like Jaap Stam – one of his illustrious central defence predecessors at Old Trafford – he is a one-man defence, a man-mountain carved out of granite, who might as well hold up a sign to rival attackers bearing the proud, obstinate words: 'Thou shalt not pass'.
This is the story of a modern icon, one that made it against all odds: Vidic, the dreamer from Serbia, who would become a defensive rock at the Theatre of Dreams in Manchester.
It all began on October 21, 1981 – one year after the death of President Tito, the man who had directed the rebuilding of a Yugoslavia devastated by World War II – in the town of Uzice (formerly Titovo Uzice) when Nemanja Vidic was born to parents Dragoljub, a worker in a copper rolling mill, and Zora, a bank clerk. A medieval town with a population of around 50,000, Uzice – which is 150 miles west of Belgrade – had been renamed in honour of President Tito in 1946 but reverted to its former name in 1992. At the time of Nemanja's birth it was – and remains even today – renowned for its non-ferrous metals, particularly copper and aluminum. It is also a livestock-breeding and fruit-growing region.
The Vidics were not working-class people nor were they affluent, but they certainly weren't poor. They lived a frugal lifestyle, but they never went without. From the age of 3, Nemanja had kicked a ball about regularly, encouraged by his father, who was a fan of the Beautiful Game. By the time he was 7, he had become more serious in his kickabouts, but he was only small (later, he would shoot up in height during his teenage years) and would, according to family friends, 'zoom around the field like a bumble bee'.
It was at 7 that Nemanja was to make his first impression on the game, as he followed his older brother Dusana – who was then 9 – to play for the youth team of local outfit FK Jedinstvo Putevi. He did well at Jedinstvo and was then spotted by a scout at neighbourhood rivals Sloboda Uzice at the age of 12. His parents were delighted – although Nemanja wasn't allowed to neglect his schoolwork and continued to attend classes while training with the club in his free time.
Sloboda had their own ground, with a capacity of 12,000, and had been Serbian champions 14 times over. They also boasted some major name former heroes – chief among them Radomir (Raddy) Antic, who starred for the club in the 1967–68 season, before going on to serve at Partizan, Fenerbahce, Real Zaragoza and, most famously in England at least, Luton Town, where he ended his playing career in 1984 after making 100 appearances and scoring 9 goals for the Hatters.
Anti would also go on to become a top-notch manager, taking command at Real Madrid, Barcelona and the Serbian national team.
This was the environment the young Vidic had always craved – one where the team and its history was well signposted, where he could make a name for himself and get noticed, thanks to the size of the club. Despite his size, he settled in well and quickly at the club – he was still 'tiny' according to family friends. When he reached 13, he had a growing spurt and this, in turn, brought a newfound confidence. He moved from 'buzzing around everywhere' to occupying the centre of defence, a position he liked because he could see what was going on and direct operations.
Two years later the biggest club in the country came knocking at his door and he was signed as a junior by Red Star Belgrade, where he would eventually begin his professional career. He would need that tough streak of his when he moved to Belgrade in 1996.
He was 15 and living in alone in a hotel. His mother made the journey with him, but she soon had to return home to work, leaving the teenager to fend for himself. Zora shed many tears and would later admit that 'it had been the hardest day of my life', but her son consoled her, telling her that he was going to be a star footballer and one day she would be able to give up her job and follow his career, whenever or wherever she wanted. He would certainly be proved right on that count.
Dragoljub was also distraught that his son had to leave home, but somehow managed to hide his emotions well. He told the boy that he needed to be well organised if he was to make the big-time with Red Star and apparently tried to cover up his sense of loss by giving Nemanja a series of instructions to live by concerning his training, social life and relaxation. Dragoljub stressed the importance of the latter: if his son was to progress he needed to ensure that he was fit, healthy and ready for training. He must take it easy when he was away from football and had to make sure he got enough sleep.
Nemanja later recalled: 'I left Uzice when I was 15 and moved to Belgrade to live and play football for the club. That was the generation of '91 [when they won the European Cup]. [Dejan] Savicevic, [Robert] Prosinecki, [Darko] Pancev, [Vladimir] Jugovic ... they had a great team at that time – they were my idols. At Red Star it was like here [Manchester United]. Every game we played we had to win. You never think about drawing.'
Heeding his father's advice to look after himself, his career moved forward at a rapid pace. He worked hard and dedicated himself to his dream. Physically and emotionally, he grew bigger and stronger, and enjoyed his first three years in Belgrade.
Then, in 1999, he experienced the other side of life: the gloom, hopelessness and darkness as the bombs fell on Serbia during Operation Allied Force. Both his hometown, Uzice, and his new home, Belgrade, were bombed by NATO planes in the offensive against Serbian forces in Kosovo. Uzice suffered its worst damage on 6 May 1999, when NATO forces bombed a number of roads, the airport and government buildings. Ironically, just 20 days later and about 1,000 miles away, the club that he would eventually join in England were finally breaking a 31-year jinx. On 26 May 1999, his future employers Manchester United would win the European Cup for the first time since 1968 and the glory days of George Best and Sir Matt Busby.
In western Serbia, however, the locals had much weightier issues on their minds than football matches – such as staying alive.
Homes were also destroyed that dark grey day in Uzice – leading to thousands of civilians gathering to protest in the main square against the random bombings and killings and the ruin of their town. It was hard for Nemanja to take as he heard from his parents by telephone what was happening back home – he was fraught with concern and also had to contend with the regular bombing incursions on Belgrade, where he was still living.
He said: 'It was a very bad time for our country and for us people as well. Everything stopped in the country, you could not do anything. People stopped working. As a boy [in Belgrade] I couldn't play football for three or four months. Belgrade was a dangerous place to be; you just couldn't train because of the planes. It was a bad time, many people died. I don't really know what to say. It shouldn't happen to anyone.'
But he had to set the darkness in his soul aside and get on with his life – and his career. Now 19, he was ready to become a professional footballer and Red Star were glad to grant his wish. Years of hard work, determination and self-sacrifice had paid off.
The club's management team decided the youngster was not quite ready for action in a Red Star shirt, but felt that he would benefit from first-team workouts, so he was loaned out for his first season (in 2000) to a smaller Serbian club side, FK Spartak Zlatibor Voda. The team played in the Serbian Second Division and Vidic found his stay worthwhile, as he battled against rough-and-ready forwards. In this part of his career he learned to give as good as he got – there were no frills or fancy play in the Second League; your reputation lived (or died) on the strength and courage of your game.
That season Nemanja Vidic the hardman was constructed and developed and when he returned to Red Star in the summer of 2001, he was ready and raring to go. Now he wanted to test himself against the best players in the country – and, he hoped, in Europe and beyond.
Sure enough, he was parachuted straight into the Red Star first team the next season and quickly gained a reputation for his hard-tackling, no-nonsense approach. The fans loved him and so did his team-mates. Vidic and Red Star embarked on a fine run of performances that would ultimately lead to them claiming the Yugoslavia Cup in the summer of 2002.
But, just as everything was going so well, more darkness descended upon Nemanja's life – swiftly and agonisingly in the autumn of 2001. His best friend and team-mate Vladimir Dimitrijevic, who also came from Uzice, died during training following a heart attack on 1 October. The striker was just 20. The previous June, he had signed a five-year deal with Red Star and had won plaudits on his debut for the club against Mladost in August of that year.
Nemanja's official website sums up the heartbreak he must have felt: 'First October 2001 will be written in black letters. Red Star and Serbian football have lost one of the biggest talents.'
Inconsolable, he found the tragedy hard to come to terms with, saying, 'It will stay with me forever. There was no warning; he just went over. I could not tell what was happening, but it was clear something was seriously wrong. That is as much as I want to say about that day. It is too painful to keep going over.
'Vladimir is with me every day, but the memory is not of what happened during that training session. We had so many great times together. Growing up and going to school, kicking a ball about on the streets and being taken on by Red Star. Those are the thoughts I keep with me.
'We were inseparable. We shared the same dreams and wanted to be successful together. We both came from Uzice and we both moved to Red Star. We wanted to touch the sky with Red Star, but unfortunately Vlada is not with us any more,' he said, after captaining Red Star to a domestic double in 2004. 'When I play, I think about my friend and I will do everything I can to save his memory. Every goal I score is for him.
'He would have been very proud of what I have achieved since, and I would have been just as proud of him if he had achieved the same. And he would have done. Vladimir was so talented; he would have been a great player. But now he is gone and I want to preserve his memory for ever.'
In the close season of 2009, Nemanja returned to Uzice to pay a personal tribute to the friend he still misses so deeply. He travelled to the Vladimir Dimitrijevic football school that exists there in Vladimir's memory, where he spoke to his friend's father and took time out to encourage the youngsters who attend the academy.
Indeed, Vidic was also at the school when it first opened in 2002 and Vladimir's father, Nedeljko, explained just how much Nemanja's support had meant to him over the years. In a letter to SunSport in March 2007 he outlined his gratitude: 'Vlada and Nemanja shared the same dream – to reach the highest level in football and, after Red Star, to play together for Manchester United. But fate was harsh on them and, on October 1, 2001, Vlada died.
'They were training and Vlada, who was just 20, had his problem and his heart failed. Nemanja went with him in the ambulance to the hospital but it was too late. They went to Red Star at the same age and at the same time. They were always together, best friends. They respected and cared for each other.
'Vlada told me that Nemanja was the most honest and revered of all his friends. After they finished their time in the youth team they were separated when they went on loan to different teams. They were far away from each other but used to talk on the phone for hours and dream of going back to Red Star.
'They played well and were recalled to Red Star in 2001 and signed contracts with the club they loved. They were very happy and from that time they were like brothers. Nemanja never forgot about Vlada and a year after he died, he came to open a memorial centre. He played all his games in a T-shirt with Vlada's picture under his shirt and showed it whenever he scored.
'He has never forgotten Vlada's family and often comes to visit us when he can, to go to the cemetery where Vlada rests. We are very happy for Nemanja because he is playing for the biggest club in the world. We are always grateful when Nemanja mentions Vlada in his interviews and the many things he does to keep his memory alive.'
In 2002, six months after his friend's death, there would be some light in the darkness when Vidic played a key part in helping Red Star to the final of the 2001–02 Yugoslav Cup. And on 29 May 2002, he was part of the victorious Red Star team that lifted the Cup, after they overcame FC Sartid 1923 Smederevo 1-0 in the final. It was a sweet moment for Red Star as, a year earlier (and without Nemanja), they had lost the final by the same scoreline to their biggest rivals, Partizan.
Now, Nemanja was lifting the Cup as a part of the team that had returned to the final in fine form, a team that had banished the misery of that defeat some 12 months earlier. Vidic was still only 20, but as he paraded the trophy with his jubilant team-mates he knew that finally, he had arrived on the world footballing stage. The Red Star line-up that day – with Nemanja in his favoured centre-back role – read: Randelovic, Markovic, Vidi , Vitakic, Lalatovic, Bratic, Gvozdenovic, Milovanovic, Bockovic, Pjanovic and Bogavac.
After just 20 minutes, Mihajlo Pjanovic would score the winning goal and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly given his reputation, Vidic was not among the six players booked. It was his first major honour in football, but this was just the start.
A year later, at the tender age of 22, Nemanja was appointed Red Star's captain by then boss Zoran Filipovic and went on to lead his team to a remarkable League and Cup double in 2004. Afterwards, he would admit that the only downside to the prestigious appointment was that his friend Vlada was not there to share his joy.
Vidic was under no illusions about the weight of his new role: being captain of Red Star Belgrade would mean pop star-style scrutiny from the club's fanatical supporters and the sports press. 'When you play for Red Star, there is nowhere you can go in Serbia where people are not talking about you and Red Star,' he told Ian Stafford of the Mail on Sunday in 2008. 'Winning the double with Red Star was, for me, as big as winning the Champions League with United, but when it comes to pressure, playing for United is not as big as being made captain of Red Star at 22.'
Excerpted from Nemanja Vidíc by Frank Worrall. Copyright © 2011 Frank Worrall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 THE FIGHTER,
2 TAKE IT AS RED,
3 STARTER'S ORDERS,
4 THE JOY OF SIX,
5 MAGNIFICENT SEVEN,
6 FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE,
7 TERRACE IDOL,
8 LOVE AND EIGHT,
9 SWEET SIXTEEN,
10 WORLD CHAMPION,
11 MAN OF THE PEOPLE,
12 RIO GRAND,
13 NATIONAL SERVICE,
14 CAPTAIN FANTASTIC,