Socceroos defender Milos Degenek has opened up in candid detail about the ‘lion mentality’ he forged during his early life and career struggles, and how he’s trying to instill it in the Aussie squad ahead of Saturday’s World Cup clash (AEDT ).
Degenek came off the bench to make his World Cup debut in the 4-1 loss to France and will push for a start if Arnold chooses to tinker with his line-up.
Based on the intensity and clarity the 28-year-old showed when he presented to Australian media in Doha on Thursday, Degenek will be ready to go when called up.
Even when he doesn’t start, the Columbus Crew center back serves as an important mentor to some of the team’s younger members with his wisdom and experience.
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“The lion mentality is, eat or be eaten, and that’s the simplest way to put it,” Degenek said.
“I used this term for the game in Peru with the boys, I said ‘there is bread on the table’.
“Or we eat tonight; my children, my wife and my family have dinner tonight, or they eat and my children go home hungry to sleep and so does my wife – and I don’t want that to happen. I use that term, and when the bread is on the table, I want to grab it and keep my kids and my wife happy.
“.. I tried to instill (the mindset) in the younger players, especially the ones who are new here and who are constantly asking for advice every day.
“I don’t have to say things like that to Matty Ryan or Aaron Mooy or Matty Leckie. They have their own ways. But most of the other guys know what I’m talking about and they understand where I’m coming from.”
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Degenek is one of the most experienced players of this Socceroos team when it comes to the big stages, having played Champions League with Red Star Belgrade before moving to the MLS.
But it was the rough early days of his career that really made him.
It (the lion mentality) is something I’ve developed throughout my career. I was very young when I moved to Germany as a 16-year-old, and my first experience was being dropped in the middle of Germany, in Stuttgart, and taking an hour and a half to train in the middle of a freezing winter,” he said.
“It’s minus 8, and it’s like two pairs of sweatpants and four pairs of sweaters because I didn’t have enough money to buy a winter coat – until I got one from my agent.
“That’s where I learned my first struggles from people thinking ‘oh, you’re going to Europe, you love football, you’re going to be a pro and make a lot of money’. My first professional contract was $1000 a month. I didn’t make a lot of money and that’s where I learned the struggles and got that mindset and thought to myself, ‘I’m training with another 20 guys, but I want to be the one who’s going to make it.
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“I can say that I am lucky to be one of those who made it. There are several more in that group who have also made it, one of them is a boy named Kimmy (Germany international Joshua Kimmich) who is not bad. I learned a lot from him, even though he is younger. It’s something that stays with me.”
Degenek’s journey, including his early years in war-torn Croatia, has given him a keen sense of perspective.
It shows when asked how the Socceroos would handle the pressures of the situation, needing at least a draw – probably a win – against Tunisia.
“When you say ‘must win’, you think it’s busy. But I also said to the guys the other day, I said that’s not pressure,” he said.
“I am under pressure like an 18-month-old baby on the run from a war. Pressure is that as a six-year-old I am in the middle of a war.
“That’s busy. A football match is not a must-win. Because you can win or lose, but I don’t think anyone will die,” Degenek said.
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“It’s not pressure. This is just the joy of wanting to get better. Because you wanted to have something to say to your grandchildren, to your friends at home when you’re having coffee and saying, you know, we won a game at a World Cup, you left the group.
“That’s what the guys understand and that’s how we’re going to take this.
“And of course we want to win the game. There is no doubt about it.
“And I think everything about yesterday’s practice is focused on that and winning that game. And I think we have it on our team.
“If we match in intensity, the will to win will be greater and I think we will win. “