From being coached by Steven Gerrard at Liverpool to carrying the legacy of his forefathers at FK Sarajevo. This is the story of Dal Varešanovič.
In a new country, away from home, Dal Varešanovič stood in his brand new training gear. The big Liverbird crest pressed firmly on his chest.
His legs were trembling a little. It was one thing signing for one of the biggest clubs in the world. It was another preparing to meet its most renowned figure. A figure who would soon become his new manager.
Steven Gerrard is a man indelible in the folklore of Liverpool Football Club. A name every fan in the world would recognise. And now he stood in front of him in the flesh.
‘I had my first meeting with him just before I signed, and I was a bit scared to be honest. I couldn’t believe it, I was speaking to one of my idols,’ Dal tells First Time Finish.
Made in Sarajevo
Liverpool was a million miles from the mountainous city of Sarajevo Dal had called home.
Born in Vienna in Austria, Dal had always belonged to Sarajevo. His father, Mirza, a professional footballer himself, spent time at Bordeaux, Austria Vienna, Bursaspor and Olympiacos, but he would often come back home and had three different stints at FK Sarajevo and even captained his hometown club.
Dal’s maternal grandfather, Mirsad Fazlagić, was another former captain of Sarajevo who played over 400 games for the maroon team and almost signed for Juventus in 1971 which would have made him the most expensive defender in the world at the time. However, a knee injury scuppered the move and he was ultimately forced to retire at 35 a few years later.
Both Mirsad and Mirza managed the club upon their retirement.
From the moment he was born, Dal had maroon blood running through his veins. It was inevitable that like his father, grandfather and his older brother, Mak, he would become a part of FK Sarajevo too.
‘They were the reason I started to play football. My whole family since they were kids, had played football. My grandfather, my dad and my brother all influenced me to start to train,’ Dal recalls.
At Sarajevo the youngster quickly started to catch the eye. The ball stuck to his feet like glue. He’d impress with darting runs through thickets of defenders, and his eye for goal.
When he moved he had rhythm and pace and he was hard to stop.
It was not long before the likes of Barcelona, Dinamo Zagreb and Liverpool became interested.
Despite, the Catalan’s lure or Zagreb being closer to home, Dal joined the Merseyside Reds.
‘When you are 13 years old and a club like Liverpool offers you a pre-contract it is not a hard decision to make. I had other offers, but since I was young Liverpool had been one of my favourite teams.’
Dal also saw parallels between Sarajevo and Liverpool.
‘Liverpool is a bit like Sarajevo because they have their rivals Everton who play in blue, and here we have Zeljeznicar who also play in blue. So they are blue and we are red and red has always been my favourite colour,’ he explains.
A gigantic step
Dal spent just one trial at Liverpool before he was offered a pre-contract.
‘From that moment, I have been going to Liverpool to train for a week, back to Sarajevo for a month and then back to England again, to get used playing and the house-parents.’
Even so to make the permanent step at the age of 16 and to leave Sarajevo was difficult for the young man. He was still just a boy after all.
‘Leaving home was the biggest challenge for me,’ Dal explains. ‘Going to England when I was only 16 years old, it was tough. But I got a lot of positives from it. I became more independent and I think it was the best thing that happened to me.’
Coming to Liverpool came with ample opportunities too.
One which even Dal Varešanovič was not prepared for.
‘I was in Sarajevo preparing for pre-season and I read in an article that he (Steven Gerrard) was going to be our coach. And obviously I couldn’t believe it.
He was one of my favourite players and he is one of the best players in the world ever. So when I knew he was going to be my first coach at Liverpool I was both surprised and very excited.’
At Liverpool, Dal and Gerrard immediately shared a bond. When the young Bosnian first arrived at the club, he was diminutive and smaller than every body else.
In his first year, Dal started to grow. The rapid growth spurt was something Gerrard had experienced at around the same age.
‘I had some growing related stuff I had to deal with. Physically at first I was smaller than everybody else and that was a bit frustrating for me.
He (Gerrard) told me he had the same problems like me with the knee, hip and lower back injuries which I kept getting and how it was all related to growing.
He spoke to me a lot about that, told me keep patient and that time was on my side which helped me a lot.’
In training and on the pitch Dal learnt a lot from Gerrard too.
‘You always listened to him. Even when you thought there was no option for you on the pitch he would give you one.’
Gerrard the boss
‘He always told me to play my game and to not get frustrated if I make a mistake because that’s just part of football and learning,’ Dal recounts with a fond smile.
Of course, it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows. On the pitch as a player Gerrard always possessed a fiery passion and that attitude transcended into coaching too.
‘He was more strict to be honest, sometimes he could get angry easily but that’s all normal in football,’ Dal explains.
When Gerrard shouted, his players listened. Because of his status the former Liverpool hero was revered by his proteges.
‘Every training was a bit of pressure because of who he is. We were all trying to impress him every time. That’s what I tried to do.’
Dal Varešanovič looks back on his time with a fond smile and gratitude.
‘Everything I learnt in professional football I learnt there. I was taught by the best coaches in the world and the best training set-up. I learnt a lot about the game, about tactics, technique and everything. ‘
Representing a club of Liverpool’s stature also provided an important learning curve.
‘When you play for a club like Liverpool you have this pressure. So I got used to playing under pressure and what it takes to represent a club like Liverpool.’
A bold step
‘I’m very proud of coming from a small country like Bosnia and to have had the chance to play for Liverpool,’ Dal Varešanovič says with a proud smile.
But there is always a ‘but.’
Last summer the 19 year old made the difficult decision to depart Liverpool for pastures new.
‘It was a big decision for me,’ Dal explains. ‘At Liverpool with so many players from all over the world, it’s very hard for anyone to be near the first team. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it, and I saw a lot of others players also not getting chances. I thought for me the best thing was to go to a team where I can play men’s football regularly.’
It was a bold decision from the youngster. Many youngsters are lured in by the pull of big clubs and dither on making a decision ultimately ending up in the academy system until their early twenties.
Dal however, valiantly decided to take a step-back.
He returned to FK Sarajevo for yet another stint. This time as a grown and matured adult.
‘I came back to help the team and tried to get some game time in men’s football. And I’m happy that I made that decision.’
On the pitch
FK Sarajevo is a historic club. Before the Balkan wars it was a Yugoslavian giant. Back in the 60s with Dal’s grandfather in the team, the club almost knocked out Matt Busby’s Manchester United in the European Cup.
Recently, the club have endured narrow defeats against Celtic in European qualifying and secured a famous 2-2 draw with Atalanta back in 2018.
In Bosnia, Sarajevo have dominated domestically and are on course to win their third consecutive league title this season.
Dal has enjoyed settling into the rhythm of things.
‘Men’s football is totally different from U23s. Here the result matters even more, so the pressure is bigger especially as this is the biggest club in Bosnia. The fans always want to win the game, but this is what I needed.’
‘The club means everything to me. I knew where I was coming. I want to show people here that I was good enough for Liverpool and I want to win titles.’
A dream start
After a bit of a settling in period, Dal eventually made his debut for the club’s senior side in late March against FK Krupa.
The 19 year old started the game in the number ten role. A position he frequently featured in for Liverpool’s U23 sides and he slotted in with ease.
In FK Krupa, Sarajevo, came up against a sturdy opponent fighting for relegation. Krupa’s defensive walls were sealed shut for almost an hour.
The game at Olympic stadium Asim Ferhatovic Hase could have easily ended in a stalemate.
But then in the 58th minute a ball floated into the box. Sarajevo’s Slobodan Milanovic latched onto it and fired a sizzling ball across the goal.
It fell to Dal Varešanovič just on the edge of the six yard box.
He made no mistake and thundered the ball into the empty net before wheeling off to celebrate with his arms in the air.
A debut goal on the turf that his father and grandfather had conquered throughout the decades.
‘I don’t know how to describe the feeling,’ Dal reminisces. ‘It was a dream come true scoring in the stadium that I watched my dad play and coach every week as a kid. And that was my first game on that pitch, I’m very happy that my first goal came there.’
The special moment would be mired 25 minutes later when Dal was forced to hobble off the pitch with a knee problem.
His injury has scuppered some of his momentum but Dal is optimistic he will be able to return before the end of the season.
‘It could be worse to be honest, they are saying two months hopefully.’
With FK Sarajevo sitting comfortably at the pinnacle of the Bosnian league the future looks bright for Dal when he returns.
The inaugural Europa UEFA Conference League could be well within the Bosnian outfits grasps which will give him the opportunity to showcase his talent back on the international front.
It could even potentially set-up a tie against Liverpool as things currently stand.
Looking into the long-term future at 19, Dal Varešanovič has his entire career ahead of him and he hasn’t given up on a return back to Europe’s elite leagues just yet.
‘My dream is to play in top leagues like England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy in the future. And to play for the Bosnian national team. To try to qualify for more Word Cups and European Championships. Hopefully, I will be able to achieve that and I’m going to work hard to be able to do it.’
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