Sometimes I think I was just born with it.
Everyone in this life has certain talents, and I think mine is scoring goals.
I don’t know how I ended up playing as a striker, but as far back as I can remember I’ve always been obsessed with scoring. When I was a child, I used to have these two VHS tapes of all the goals from every single World Cup up to 2006, I think. I remember being mesmerized by Roger Milla from Cameroon at the ’90 World Cup, and of course Ronaldo — the Original Ronaldo. I was obsessed with how he did that step-over dribble against goalkeepers. I remember it being so fast, like a magician’s trick, and I would practice how to do it at home. Ronaldo would play football with such ease, almost as if he was at 30%, and I thought it was incredible. His style and confidence left a mark on me.
I guess my coaches must have seen that instinct in me, because they put me at striker from my very first steps in football. My father signed me up for this team called FK Omladinac in Loznica, Serbia, and I remember everything was blue. The fence around the pitch was blue, and there was a little hotel right next to the ground that was painted blue. I was in awe. If you actually saw a photo, you would laugh, because it was a very small ground, but it was my first time on a real football pitch. Every footballer, they feel it inside, even when they’re young.
I thought every football pitch in the world was covered in blue when I was young. It was only after the scouts from Red Star Belgrade noticed me that I realized there were other colors in the football world. I was eight years old then, and I had no idea all the places that football was going to take me.
I grew up in a place called Batar. I don’t expect you to know it — don’t worry. It is this really small place, with only 105 houses in the entire village. But for me it’s special. I remember this man from Batar once said, “My village is prettier than Paris.” And that’s really how I see it, too. Nearly all the people there work in agriculture, and if you ask them what they believe in, they will tell you two things: to work hard, and to dream big. Everyone in Batar gives their all to save enough money to help their children leave for college or move to a bigger town for work.
This was the same for me. My parents worked hard to help me find my way in life. When I was growing up, my dad owned a supermarket. But if he had a bad year, he’d get help with a bank loan so he could keep taking me to training every day. My uncle worked in Russia, but if he heard we were having troubles financially, he would buy football boots and trainers and send money to my dad when he needed it. Serbian families are special like this, I think. We’re very, very close. We needed to be.
I don’t talk about this a lot, but when I was nine or 10 years old, my older sister got really sick. And this was the moment that marked our lives. The doctors found out that she had leukemia, and she was in and out of the hospital for a long time. My mum had to stop managing the supermarket to look after her. For a whole year, our family was split up. I was living with my dad and my grandpa, going to and from training sessions at Red Star Belgrade, while my mum stayed with my sister.
It was a very difficult time. What I most remember is the feeling when I went home from Belgrade to Batar after a game. One day, while he was giving me a ride home from training, my dad stopped and picked up my uncle and my cousin. I didn’t know what was happening at first, but then I realized we were having a big celebration. We went home and I remember my sister was wearing this paper hat, like it was her birthday. They told us that she was cured. And it was just an amazing feeling, knowing that she was going to be O.K., because we had been very scared for a long time.
When my sister beat her illness, it gave me a fire to succeed. I wanted to be a winner like her. My dream was like every kid in Batar – to play for Red Star Belgrade and to score against Partizan in the Eternal Derby. For people outside of Serbia, maybe you don’t understand. Red Star is different in a way I can’t properly describe. Maybe you know the club because of our tunnel? When people come to play Red Star, they say it looks … haunted? There’s some graffiti on the walls, and it’s very dark. I guess some guys are scared of this? But for me, it was completely normal. I used to go down to the tunnel when I was eight, nine years old, when they let the youth players be the mascots. When you hear the atmosphere in that stadium, you can’t believe it.
At Red Star, everything is about winning. If you don’t win, then it is a failure. There’s a story from a few years ago, when the team was struggling and having some financial difficulties. Some of the players wrote a letter to the fans in the newspaper that said something like, “Look, things are tough right now. The club can’t even afford shampoo bottles for the showers.”
The next day, some fans broke into the players cars and put shampoo bottles on the seats.
You see what I am saying? This is more than a football club. But growing up in this environment gives you the confidence to never be scared by anything.
When I was 16 years old, I made my debut for the first team against FK Vojvodina. And here is a story for you … I was in the hotel in Novi Sad the night before the match, and you have to understand that when I was on the youth team, there was no curfew before a match. I was sitting in the hotel with my roommate, and we got really hungry, so we went out to the market to get some food. We come back, and we see our coaches sitting at the bar, having a drink. They looked at us like they were shocked. We didn’t understand.
The manager said, “Do you know what time it is?”
We looked at the clock and it was 11:30.
He was screaming, “You were supposed to be in bed by 11!”
I really didn’t know! I was 16! He was pissed that night, but all I can tell you is that when I stepped onto the pitch the next day, I was full of confidence. For me, scoring goals is an instinct. I think this is my best trait. No matter what is going on, if you tell me to put the ball in the net, then I am completely focused.
And then I went out and scored that day. I remember looking at our away fans as they were celebrating, and it was the most incredible feeling. Red Star is almost like a family member. I always wanted to play for them, and even when I had chances to move to bigger clubs, I really didn’t want to go. In fact, this is true —when Benfica wanted me in 2016, I remember telling my mother that I wouldn’t leave. I remember her words. She said, “Honey, we know that you love Red Star more than us, but you need to put yourself first.”
I think that says everything about Red Star. My mother worries that I prefer the club to her.
In the end, I decided to move to Benfica to advance my career. But I think everything happened too fast. My family means the absolute world to me, and I really wasn’t ready to leave them. To be 18 years old and move 3,000 kilometers away to a place where you don’t speak the language, it is not just about football anymore. Your life is not simple. When I first arrived in Lisbon, I would think about my home and I would just start crying for no reason. It was a really bad time in my career because I felt so alone. But thankfully, everything changed when I was able to move to Eintracht Frankfurt.
I will always love and appreciate Eintracht, because this is not a club that is about money or expensive players. Instead it is about chemistry and an incredible feeling of togetherness with the supporters. I really started to enjoy my football again when I moved there. When we won the German Cup in 2018, the whole atmosphere in the stadium and the city was electric. It felt a lot like Red Star, and I made a lot of friends in Frankfurt that I will keep forever.
My only regret is the Europa League semifinal against Chelsea. This is probably one of the only times in my career I cried tears of sadness, and it wasn’t even right after we lost the penalties. It was when we were walking off the pitch and I saw the Eintracht supporters in the front row singing our anthem with tears in their eyes, even though we had lost. It was a different experience for me, playing for fans who support you even when you lose. That is rare in the world of football, and I am sad to be leaving Frankfurt, because the club changed my career.
Because of my move to Germany, and because I was playing at a high level again, I had the chance to play for my country in the 2018 World Cup, which is a feeling that you cannot explain in words. I remember before we played against Brazil, I was doing a pre-match warmup with Marko Grujić, from Hertha Berlin, and we literally felt like we were going to explode in that stadium. When we went back to the locker room, we were soaked in sweat. For the entire match, you can’t even feel anything. You are numb. Then after the match, you can finally see the entire picture — what you have done, and everything you have accomplished. For me, as a kid who grew up in a little village in Serbia, who was always watching tapes of Ronaldo, to have that moment against Brazil was so special.
Things have happened very fast for me. A few years ago, I was just dreaming of playing for Red Star. To play in a Europa League semifinal, to play in a World Cup, and now to move to Real Madrid, it is incredible. But I think the most important thing for a striker is confidence. I’ve never doubted my worth. I just feel like I have a quality that I was born with, and I will never doubt it.
It’s funny, the last time I played for the national team, one of my teammates, Stefan Mitrović, said something like, “Man, the things I could do if I had your confidence.”
But for me, it just makes sense. How can you be a striker without confidence? For this position, the most important part is not the beginning, it is the ending.
Same for me. In the beginning, I was born in a small village in Serbia with 105 houses, a place that you have probably never heard of before. Where is this story going next? What will I achieve? What is the ending? I don’t know, but I have really big dreams.
I am very excited to come to Real Madrid, and once again, I would like to thank the club and the supporters of Eintracht Frankfurt for making me feel at home the last two years.