By Paul Kennedy
For most top players coming out of high school, college is the obvious route. But Gabriel Borges, who made a name for himself playing for Northern California youth power Santa Clara Sporting, took a different route. He could have returned to Brazil, where he was born, or tried his luck in Mexico, where he previously trained with Pachuca after starring at the Dallas Cup. But after graduating from Albany (Calif.) High School in June, he was spotted by scouts of Croatian champion Dinamo Zagreb, which has developed in extensive scouting network in the United States, and moved to Zagreb. He provides a look at what his life is like in Zagreb and provides advice for young players looking to move abroad ...
The plan was for Borges to sign with Radnik Sesvete, a Dinamo feeder club in the Second Division, but he arrived after the summer transfer window closed, so he is playing and training with an amateur team, Dubrava Zagreb, in the Third Division.
DAILY ROUTINE. "My roommate [fellow American] Saalih [Muhammad] and I wake up and go to gym to get a workout in and then go to lunch, which starts from 11 o'clock. We come back home and rest until about 3:30 when I have to leave to catch a bus and then take a tram to training, which starts at 4:30. It takes pretty much 45 minutes to get to training with public transportation."
DAILY TRAINING. "On Monday, we take it easy, but for the players who didn't play on the weekend, there is fitness with the ball. On Tuesday, the entire team does fitness work. On Wednesday and Thursday, we do finishing drills, movement off the ball. Training is serious, fast-paced. Everything is usually three touches max, but people try one touch.
"It's physical. Sometimes you don't want to go in because you don't want to hurt your teammates, but the coaches and people like that physicality here. Coaches like to see how you adjust to the play and if you can do it with the minimum of touches. For both coaches I've trained with, it's one touch. Boom boom, boom. They want the ball moving. It's high paced and physical so since I'm still adapting to the style I take training even more seriously.
"I've picked up Croatian words like 'Dai,' which means 'give me.' 'Lega' means like 'man on' but most players and the coaches speak English so it's OK. They like when I speak English, but they also teach me Croatian."
OFF THE FIELD. "I live on Remete Street, which is in a good neighborhood of Zagreb, in a house with 9-10 other Dinamo players. There's another house next door with 9-10 more players.
"In my free time, I spend it mostly with my roommate Saalih. We always try to work on our game. Either we go to gym or go to play street soccer or tennis soccer inside or we just hang out with two other Americans, Thomas Ziemer and Alex Molano, and Mykola Chachula and go on our laptops and watch movies, shows or highlights of games.
"On the weekend, we go the city square, which is nice. There are a lot of cafe bars so we just go out with friends and relax, enjoy the day and get some drinks like coffee or juice or soda.
"The food at the Dinamo restaurant is very good. You can't complain. They give us options every day: mashed potatoes, spaghetti, fish, chicken, beef, calamari, and the people who work there are nice people."
FUTURE PLANS. "Well, my goal is to get back to Radnik and hopefully have a good season in the second semester and next year and work on my game. Most players at Radnik are Croatian youth national team players, so I would like an opportunity on the U.S. U-20 national team just to show my skills and see if Tab Ramos likes me. It's always been my dream to play in a Youth World Cup for the United States since I have dual citizenship.
"I think all this would be great exposure for me here in Croatia to move up the ladder. Playing at Radnik is already a great opportunity. If you have a good season there, you can easily get sold to a First Division team. My goal is to reach Dinamo Zagreb or Lokomotiva or another First Division club. I just want to keep improving as a player and hopefully I will have a great career."
ADVICE. "Well, it's tough at first adapting to the culture and being away from friends and family. It's a big move but an even bigger and more important step for your career soccer-wise. You have to look at the big picture and set goals, self-motivate yourself. If you do, you will end up enjoying yourself. Sometimes you get lonely or you have homesickness but you just got to fight through it.
"It's not easy making it, but once you're here, you will enjoy the experience culturally. You have to remember that each club you train at will look for different type of players. When I went to Mexico, it was at a rough point in my life. Some things had happened, and I wanted to quit soccer. But when I came to Croatia, I was prepared. I knew this was my last opportunity. Fortunately, they like the way I play. Each coach likes different kind of players. Mexico is more Latin in focus, a lot of individualism. I think Croatia is a better fit for me."