Anfield offers another new life for Liverpool new boy Dejan Lovren
Liverpool’s £20m summer signing knows better than most that football isn’t all Bill Shankly said it was. He explains to Ian Herbert how a tough upbringing, fleeing civil war in Yugoslavia, prepared him for any challenge the game brings
It is hard to keep the significance of football in much perspective on this of all weekends, because dreams and ambitions are floating free around the place. Few of them are fresher than those of Dejan Lovren, as he sits in Liverpool training kit, gazing at Johan Cruyff’s legendary paean of praise to his new team’s supporters that adorns one of the walls at the Melwood training ground, and reflecting on his new manager’s recent observation that he can be the next Jamie Carragher.
It is when the Croat has circled that compliment and briefly reflected on some richly auspicious beginnings in last weekend’s 4-0 demolition of Borussia Dortmund – the 25-year-old was outstanding – that we reach the territory which reveals these are not the most significant topics for him.
A matter of life or death? Lovren first discovered the fine line between those two concepts in war-scarred Yugoslavia 20 years ago; he knows football is not more important than that, whatever Bill Shankly might once have said.
Lovren was too young to register a vivid memory of how his Croatian parents hurried him out of Zenica, the Bosnian city where they lived, in 1993, as ethnic conflict tore Yugoslavia apart. But the events which befell that place weeks later told him that without their frantic escape – the family belongings flung into a few bags and thrown into their tiny car – he might not be here today, talking about Liverpool and leadership.
It was on 19 April 1993 that the marketplace at Puticevo, nine miles from Zenica, was shelled, leaving 15 dead and a further 50 injured.
“I don’t know what would have happened if we had stayed,” Lovren reflects. “I think somebody would have been killed – I don’t know. Because it was horrible in that time. I think in 1992 we were [first] preparing to go to Germany, so my parents took the decision and said, ‘We don’t have a choice any more’. My father and mother’s parents were already there in Germany and we were the last to go. My parents literally took their bags, one little car and went to Germany.”
Only now, with the benefit of the years, and having arrived in an England where he still considers himself in many ways “a stranger”, does Lovren appreciate how his parents, Silva and Sasa, would have felt, taking leave of the country where they had built their lives over 28 years.
“You don’t even speak German, you know nothing about the country, so you are going like a blind man,” he says. “And with a three-year-old child like me to take too, it was really difficult for them.”
The Premier League is dotted with footballers from both sides of the ethnic divide who struggled through that Balkan conflict. The Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, a Bosnian, talks about the escape tunnels still visible on the Sarajevo airport runway. His family too found sanctuary in Germany, and eventually Canada, after packing up their old car and pulling away. The Croatian Lovrens found no such lasting peace of mind. Brendan Rodgers spent £20m on bringing Lovren to Anfield
Their escape from Zenica came so late that they could not secure the paperwork which would grant them permanent exile. “A lot of people had gone to Germany because of the war and they couldn’t help everyone,” Lovren says. “Germany had to choose who to help. So they couldn’t give us the papers.”
His grandparents did possess the vital documents, because they had taken flight three years earlier. But though the young Lovren couple worked – Sasa putting in long hours as a cinema worker and Silva in a hospital – they were permitted only to extend their stay by one year at a time. “So my parents didn’t know when we would go. Every year they were prepared with the bags.”
Lovren, like his brother Davor, grew into German life in every way. He spoke the language, took the metro to the Bayern Munich training ground, had his photograph taken there with Giovane Elber, Mario Basler and Bixente Lizarazu, dreamt of playing for the club.
He joined a small junior club side, which now has pictures of him hanging on the walls. “It’s nice, you know, to still be remembered at this club,” he reflects. But the family’s borrowed time in Germany ran out and in the depths of winter 1999 they experienced a form of deportation, back to Karlovac, south-west of Zagreb, in the land from which they had fled.
“It was really difficult for them and for me too,” he says, blowing his cheeks out at a memory which makes the shiny new life at Liverpool suddenly seem like a background detail. “Because I had friends. Really good friends. Imagine: I was three years in the nursery in Germany, four years in the school. In Germany, I didn’t speak a lot of Croatian at home with my parents, so it was really difficult to write in Croatian. I didn’t know how to do that. It took me two years. It is a difficult time when the kids are laughing at you.
“But I think this is what gave something to me, made something stronger inside me. It showed me that life is never easy. You will earn everything with work and that was it.”
That work was football, the sport which allowed him to reintegrate into the country of his birth. He began playing it more seriously “to try and fit in” and impressed enough with youth teams of the local NK Karlovac club to be asked to join Dynamo Zagreb.
That meant a 30-mile drive to and from training most days, with the petrol costs covered by his father – by then a painter and decorator while his mother worked in a supermarket.
He began as a striker, only moving into central defence at the age of 16, but when the game took him out on the open road across continental Europe again – he selected Lyon over Chelsea in 2010 – there was another difficult chapter. There never seemed to be much appreciation of him in France. Lovren as a youngster at Dinamo Zagreb
“They criticised me in many ways,” he says. “Even from the beginning when I arrived there. They were asking, ‘Why did this guy [cost] €10m?’ It was always, ‘Why this? Why this? Why this?’ Always something. When I was playing good, nobody was saying I was playing good. When I was playing bad, I would be the first one on the front of the journal. It wasn’t easy for me. They didn’t respect me like a player.”
His credentials were affirmed quickly enough at Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton. And the quality of Lovren’s leadership excites the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers. Carragher talks of the “personality” he sees in Lovren and contributes to the notion that we may be observing a future captain. Daniel Sturridge simply declares Lovren to be one of the best defenders he has played against, whose goal at Anfield in last season’s 1-0 win for Southampton underlined his presence.
“It’s football! But it was a great moment for me!” Lovren says, reflecting on how, mathematically speaking, he cost his new club last season’s title.
It is in keeping with the dramas which his life has brought that his competitive debut for his new club comes against Southampton – who have been a reluctant Liverpool production line this summer. His own £20m departure was certainly fractious because Southampton did not want him to join the exodus to Liverpool, who had already signed Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana.
Yes, he regrets the way it ended, he says, though Liverpool seemed to represent a destiny. It is a few years since the club’s then director of football Damien Comolli came close to signing him. “I was really close but in the end I don’t know why it didn’t happen,” Lovren says.
Now this city of opportunity – which built a rich history around the welcome it has afforded to so many of the displaced who arrived through its port gates – has a footballer with a broader view in its midst
“I know where I came from, you know. It will always be in me,” he reflects. “Maybe it was better for things to happen like this than maybe to have a good childhood. But [sometimes] you don’t know real life.”
And to those many on these shores who would close their doors and their minds to those immigrants who seek asylum from civil war, he offers a perspective.
“What can you say to [those people looking for refuge]?” he asks. “Say ‘no’ to them and send them back and they will be killed? Of course I understand the situation and I’m still a stranger here. But everyone needs to accept who will work for this country and who will make money for this country. Of course people need to be given a chance.”
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