The puppy’s name was Rocky.
My dad carried him from the truck up toward me in the pouring rain. His tail was wagging, his tongue was flapping. He was black with a white chest. Part German shepherd, part Australian cattle dog — a mutt.
I was six years old, hanging out on one of my dad’s construction sites near our home just outside Sydney. He was building a garage, so there was a big dig-out — like a pit — in the ground. The rain had been coming down all day. My dad held Rocky under his jacket. He brought him right up to me. I held him for a few a seconds, and then he took off … straight for the mud pit. I was a bundle of energy so I followed him right in. We rolled around, getting covered in dark brown mud for what felt like ages while my dad got back to work.
The construction site was a bit of a haven for my dad and I. He was born in Bosnia to Croatian parents and eventually emigrated to Australia. For him, I think, building homes, and all types of buildings, was his way of integrating into Australian culture — of contributing. As I got a bit older, my dad would leave work on Saturdays, watch my soccer games and then take me to the work site to lend a hand. I wasn’t much help, to be honest. I’d do a couple of hours of work — and, mate, this was hard work … I don’t know how he did it for 12, 14 hours a day — then I’d go find a quiet place to take a quick nap.
I was a good son, just a bad employee. And my dad was a serious guy. If you know any Balkan dads you probably know what I’m talking about. They all have that look … that I-work-80-hours-a-week-so-the-least-you-could-do-is-do-something-with-your-life look. But I could break him down a bit by talking about football. We’d talk about little things, like what I could do to improve my game or how the local clubs were doing.
We’d spend hours chatting away about soccer, our conversations broken up by him asking me to go get a hammer, or a stud and track, or showing me how to put hinges on a door. But when I was around 10 and our conversations began to change.
My dad would tell me about this vision he had — this idea.
He said, “Tomi, do you ever imagine … do you ever imagine a stadium of 50,000 people chanting your name?”
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t really ever thought of that. But when he said it to me … I got goose bumps right away. I think because he was a serious guy — because everything he said, he meant — it struck me. He didn’t say stuff just to hear the sound of his own voice. He knew I loved soccer and that I was good at it, but he also knew that I wasn’t sure it could take me places in life. That idea my dad had, it was the catalyst, in a way, for my obsession.
In the next year I spent — no joke here, mate — 250 of 365 days at the park in my boots with a ball at my feet. I’d look around at the trees and the buildings that lined the park and pretend they were stands filled with fans. Maybe I’d even chant my own name in my head. I’d come home, race through my homework and then get right out on the field.. I wasn’t big on school at all. It was just the filler between the hours when I could play football.
But school was the place where I lived one of my two lives. Let me explain. My mum was born in Croatia and moved to Australia when she was one. But her and my dad built a strong Croatian and Balkan culture in my home. We had a lot of fun, but we just lived a different lifestyle from most of our neighbors. And Australia is a country that couldn’t be more different, at least culturally, to the Balkan nations. When I left home every day, it was like stepping from one world into another. I had to become a different person at school. For a kid who didn’t really understand why it had to be this way … it was difficult. Other kids would bully me from time to time. They’d pick on me for having a foreign name and whatnot.
Fabian Fiechter/The Players' Tribune
I remember looking at them when they’d say these things and thinking, But, I’m Australian just like you. I was born here.
At home, there was a lot of fending for myself. If I asked my dad for help, he’d send me to my mum. If I asked her, she’d send me to my dad, and so on. I’d play my PlayStation until I’d hear my dad pull into the driveway after work — and then that thing would get put away faster than you can snap your fingers — Dad hated that thing. It was survival mode sometimes. My brother, Deni, is six years younger than me. He and I learned to be independent. We learned to be Australian boys in a Croatian house. I didn’t dislike it, I just wanted to understand it. I wanted to know who I was, and what I was.
When I was 15, I finally got the opportunity. During summer break from school, my family went to Croatia for a two-week vacation during summer break from school. It was my first time in Europe, and just my dad’s second time since he’d left.
I had all these ideas in my head of how my parents had grown up. The Internet was a bit of a barren wasteland back then, so Croatia was whatever my imagination made it out to be. On the plane, my dad told me stories of growing up on his parent’s farm. He’d spend nights in a mill on a riverbank, making flour. He’d fall asleep on hay bales. I couldn’t imagine spending a night away from my bed, let alone on a hay bale. I began to understand him — and why our life at home was the way it was.
In Croatia I met my extended family for the first time. It was an eye-opening experience. There were all these people who acted the same way, thought the same way, talked the same way as my parents. I started to feel a bit more … complete, in a way. Like, there was a part of my background — a huge part — that had always been full of so many unknowns, and here I was discovering them with my family.
My dad never forgot about the vision he had for me, though. I knew the trip to Croatia was about seeing family, but looking back, I also think my dad had a few ulterior motives. I had been playing soccer at a high level for a few years in Australia, and he wanted me and Deni to go on a week’s trial — basically a week’s practice — with Dinamo Zagreb, the biggest club in Croatia. I agreed, but it became obvious, almost right away that I wasn’t quite at that level. Something was just missing from my game, and my fitness wasn’t up to snuff.
I went back to Australia and continued going to school and playing. But I felt like I had so much more to experience in Croatia — so much more to learn.
My dad felt that, too. And a year later, when I was 16, he asked me the question that was the natural follow-up to the one he’d asked me on the construction site six years before: “Do you believe you can be a professional soccer player?”
I didn’t waffle. Straight Balkan answer: “Of course.”
“Then we’re going back to Croatia,” he said.
And we did.
For five years I grew up — all over again, but also sort of for the first time — in Croatia. My family came, too. I felt like a foreigner, but that was O.K. because I understood why. I fell in love with the culture of Croatia. The music, the people … the way of being. The way I had acted in my home with my family in Sydney as a child — I became closer with that version of me. I learned Croatian after a few years, and I integrated into society. I think, in large part, that that was because I let myself be whoever Croatia wanted me to be.
I was Australian. I was Croatian. I was a citizen of the world.
Soccer didn’t come as naturally to me in Croatia, though. I bounced around between three teams, and although I felt I was improving I couldn’t get a solid run of matches under my belt. I had some managers who didn’t want me on their teams — and they told me as much. I was on teams with strong groups of strikers, so I couldn’t break in … it was difficult.
I loved Croatia, but I knew I had to leave — I knew I was capable of so much more than I had shown in Europe.
So in February of 2012, I signed with Adelaide United. And I made my debut for them on my grandmother’s birthday. The match was in Sydney. I scored two goals. Happy birthday, Grandma.
Even though I’d gone back to Australia from time to time while I was in Croatia, moving back felt much different: I wasn’t living in a Croatian household, I wasn’t a boy and I wasn’t unsure anymore about my Balkan background. Maybe it was because I, and the people I knew, had matured, but I didn’t feel like a foreigner anymore. I’m not sure I felt I completely Australian, or completely anything.
That changed on June 28, 2013.
A month after I had moved from Adelaide to play for a club in my hometown, the Western Sydney Wanderers, I got a call from an unknown number. I picked up.
Steve Christo/Corbis/Getty Images“Hi, Tomi. Gary Moretti of the Australian national team here. Just wanted to let you know that [Australian manager] Holger Osieck has decided to call you up for a tournament in South Korea. It will be mostly A-League pla—”
And I hung up on him. I thought I was getting pranked. Then the phone rang again.
“Tomi, Tomi, don’t hang up!” Gary said. “We want you to play for Australia!”
I was shocked because I had never heard about the national team having any interest in me. Even at the junior levels I had never been asked to play for my country. And now, after playing just a few games in a row in the A-League, I was being asked to be a Socceroo? Crazy. I thought of Timmy Cahill banging in goals. I thought of Grosso’s dive in 2006. (Aussies will get that.). I thought of Mark Viduka, who was also of Croatian descent, wearing the green-and-gold number 9.
I was going to be a part of that. Bloody hell.
I remember getting to my first national team camp in 2013 in Central Coast. I sort of felt like Rocky the puppy when he was being carried by my dad. I was new. I was a mix of two things; part Australian and part something else. And I was damn excited to go roll around in the mud.
The first time I heard the Australian anthem in my kit … mate, it just felt right. I don’t know how to explain it. I felt properly Australian, finally. And there’s something so special about hearing that song in Australia. When we hosted the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, we got to experience that every night — and it was just awesome. My parents couldn’t be there, unfortunately. They were in Croatia with Deni. But I knew they were watching every match. We played Oman in the group stage, and I don’t know what came over me, but I just knew I was going to get a goal that night. And I knew that I wanted to honor my parents. So I wrote MAMA, TATA, BRACO on my undershirt.
Rob Griffith/AP Images
Mother, father, brother, in Croatian.
Even though I was representing Australia, my Croatian heritage is a huge part of who I am. It’s hard to explain, because I think nationality and the feeling of citizenship is inherently complicated when you come from an immigrant family. But I was proud to be Australian because being Australian means accepting everyone, from everywhere.
I am Australian. I am Croatian. I am a citizen of the world.
I scored. I lifted my shirt up and thanked my family for all of their help. I thanked Croatia. And in doing so, I was thanking Australia, too, for letting me be me.
Four games later we were in the final against South Korea. It was in Sydney, not far from that mud pit where Rocky had turned from black-and-white to brown. The match was tied 1–1 and it went to extra time. I had come on for Timmy in the 64th minute and was playing up top, wearing Mark Viduka’s number 9.
In the 105th minute, I picked the ball off a Korean player and took it down to the touchline, right near the edge of the box on the right side. A defender came to close me out. He knocked me down. I got up. He knocked me down again. I got up. I kept the ball the whole time. And then … I don’t know what happened. My body just took over. I got free and tried to play the ball into the middle. It fell to James Troisi, he booted it home and the stadium erupted. Noise unlike anything I’ve ever heard in my life. I raised my arms up and ran like some sort of weirdo. It was unreal.
And then I thought of my dad. Because, there weren’t 50,000 people, but 76,000 — and they were chanting. Not for me, though. For Australia. I realized that that was so much greater than hearing my own name. Because playing for my country is about the crest on the front of my jersey — the name on the back is irrelevant.
It didn’t matter who I was, where I came from or how I spelled my name — I was Australian. And we were Asian Cup champions.
I’ve been in Lucerne, Switzerland, the last two years playing for FC Luzern. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s in the middle of the country, just a few hours away from the borders of Germany, France, Austria and Italy. Every day I hear multiple languages and different variants of the Swiss-German that’s spoken locally. It’s a fascinating place to live. The club is a first-class organization and has players from all around the world.
When I look at my teammates in the locker room, I wonder what they’ve gone through — and where they’ve been — to get here. I wonder what their nationality means to them, what “home” means to them. As our country gets ready for the World Cup, I hope people know that Australia means something different to each one us. For some it means years and years of family heritage, or salvation from war, or someplace to raise your Croatian sons.
And I hope our team can bring each and every one of them some pride and glory.
Sometimes you have to leave home to find it. I think — going into a soccer tournament that is about celebrating the world’s game — that that’s an important thing to remember.