By Mike Woitalla
Neven Subotic, who spent part of his childhood in Utah and Florida and played for the USA at the 2005 U-17 World Cup, will line up on the backline for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final on Saturday. He’s the subject of the Youth Soccer Insider's latest edition of "When They Were Children."
With war on the horizon, Neven Subotic's Serbian family fled Bosnia in 1990 when he was 18 months old and settled in Schoemberg, a small town in Germany's Black Forest. As refugees with few options, the family moved into the clubhouse attic of a local soccer team that his father joined.
"We lived there because we had nowhere else to stay at that moment," Subotic told Soccer America back in 2008, two years after starting his pro career in Germany. "So with the soccer field right in front of the door, it all started. I was always playing with my dad, and I always watched when he played with the team. Whenever I wanted to kick around, I could find someone to play with me."
Neven's father, Zeljko, had played pro ball in the former Yugoslavia. Neven started playing organized soccer for TSV Schwarzenberg at age 7 while spending time on the ball whenever he could.
"Pickup games were standard there," says Neven. "We played before school, during school, in breaks, and after school.
"There was a religion class at school, and when it took place a few other students and I had to go to another empty classroom, because we were of another religion as the one being taught. And there we would play soccer with a tennis ball until the class had finished and we could return to our normal class."
Neven enjoyed his life in Germany and was disappointed when his parents announced that they would have to leave -- their German residence authorization having expired when he was 11 years old. The family opted to move to the USA in 1999.
The Subotics settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, where a cousin of Zeljko's lived. Neven had English classes in his German school, was especially eager to understand TV shows, and within three months became fluent.
He was disappointed that the kids in school didn't play much soccer, but his father bought him a ball and he kicked around on a nearby tennis court. Eventually, he played for Sparta Gold and Impact Black youth clubs.
After a year and a half, the family moved to Bradenton, Fla., so that his sister, Natalija, could attend the Bollettieri Tennis Academy at the IMG Academy, which is also home to the U.S. U-17 national team residency program. The Subotics lived across the street from the academy and Neven would train on his own and with his father at GT Bray Park.
That's where he was spotted by Keith Fulk, then one of the U.S. U-17 assistant coaches.
"I saw a tall, lanky, thin kid with a bag of balls," said Fulk. "I was there for a friend's son, and I saw this kid who had probably 12 balls, and he was just ripping balls into the goal, over and over. But the thing that impressed and always stuck with me, was that when he finished shooting, he started running. He would shoot the balls, then would run two laps around the soccer field at a very good pace.
"Then he'd go get the balls and shoot 12 balls with his left foot. Then he'd run two more, then he'd go and do volleys. Then he'd run more. And he could strike a ball!"
Fulk said he first saw him on a Tuesday, then on a Wednesday. And the next week he'd see him on a Thursday -- making it safe to conclude that this was one dedicated young player.
Fulk introduced himself to Subotic, who told his story and said that he was about to get his U.S. citizenship. Fulk informed John Ellinger, then the U-17 head coach, and they invited Subotic to a tryout. Subotic said he was a forward, but they tried him at defensive midfielder and central back -- and offered him a spot in the residency camp.
"Boom, we brought him in," said Fulk. "He lived across the street of the Academy so he remained at home, which meant he was a bonus player. His dad actually worked in the school. He cleaned the school. He had three or four jobs. He was a very hard-working man and a good person. The rest is history. It's amazing."
For the second time in his life, the Subotic family had found a home that furthered their son's soccer ambitions.
"At that time, I had not had a club team for about a year or two," says Subotic. "I was overwhelmed after they accepted me. I remember Coach Ellinger telling me that I made it. So then back at the changing rooms I made it official and just screamed it out in front of everyone."
Subotic played 89 minutes in four games at the 2005 U-17 World Cup, where the Americans reached the quarterfinals. He was headed to the University of South Florida. But while with the U-17s in the Netherlands, where they played against Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven, he was approached by player agent Steve Kelly, who asked him if he was interested in playing in Europe.
Subotic answered in the affirmative and said his preference would be with a club in Germany near his childhood friends. A tryout Mainz 05 was arranged and Subotic impressed.
After two years with Mainz 05, including the 2007-08 season in which Kicker Magazine named him the Second Division's top central defender, he moved, on a $5.5 million transfer, to top-tier Borussia Dortmund, where he's starred ever since as a central defender.
FIFA regulations allow players switch national teams after the representing a nation at the youth level if they’re eligible for another by citizenship. Subotic was courted by Germany, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- while the USA hoped he’d again wear the red, white and blue.
Germany, likely Subotic’s first choice, was ruled out because he had never been a German citizen and he ultimately picked Serbia, for which he played at the 2010 World Cup and has now represented more than 30 times.
With Dortmund, he won Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012. On Saturday, if all goes to plan, Subotic, now 24, will be the first man who played American youth soccer to take the field in a UEFA Champions League final.
Previous editions of the YouthSoccerInsider’s “When They Were Children” series:
Darlington Nagbe, Sean Johnson, Nick Rimando, Luis Silva, Juan Agudelo
Mario Balotelli & Philipp Lahm
Nani & David Silva
Cristiano Ronaldo & Danny Welbeck
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Andres Iniesta & Andriy Shevchenko
U.S. Women World Cup 2011 (Alex Morgan & Co.)
Logan Pause, David Ferreira, Fredy Montero, Dwayne De Rosario, CJ Sapong, Perry Kitchen, Tim Ream