“I still remember the day – it was the first time I’d seen my Dad cry – when he told me I couldn’t play football until I was 18.”
After leaving Australia in 2017 to pursue a career in football, 17-year-old Brandon Slunjski has had a bumpy time in Croatia, but the last month has made it all worth it.
When the domestic pathways to professional football closed in Australia, Brandon’s father, Ivan took Brandon and his other two sons, Kristian (19) and Noah (13) to Croatia so that the three of them could continue working towards their dreams of becoming professional footballers.
Brandon and Noah both had trials at Hajduk Split, one of the top clubs in Croatia. Noah, the youngest of the three boys, is still there to this day, impressing in the academy. However, Brandon received a blow that would put his football career on pause for more than 18 months.
“I was there for six months, but my paperwork didn’t get approved,” Brandon tells Kick360.
“I’ve been living in Croatia for more than three years now, but the first year and a half was really hard because I couldn’t get the paperwork approved because I was under 18 years old, so I had to wait a year and a half to two years before I could start playing.
“My Dad thought maybe I should go into a local league in Split, and last year was my first full season at NK Adriatic, a local club down the road.”
Despite the step down, after a breakout campaign in the local league Brandon was invited to trial with the under-19 squad of 1. HNL club, HNK Šibenik.
“I went there a month ago now, and had to do a two week trial with the team, during which we had to play against the first team of Šibenik, in which I impressed.
“That was like, ‘Thank God’, because my Dad was saying if I didn’t do well in that game then I’d have to go back and play in the local leagues.
“We played again a few days later against a third division men’s team, and I impressed again, and after the two weeks they asked if I wanted to stay, and I said yes.
“Last week, my paperwork was finally approved so I could play my first competitive game, against NK Osijek.”
A moment three years in the making, Brandon signed a contract and was finally able to achieve his dream of playing professional football.
“Nobody really sees what goes on behind the scenes, I’d never before seen my Dad cry, ever.”
“The grind of everyday, training in the backyard when no-one’s watching, going to the gym for private sessions, and doing this hard work.
“Thank God now it’s paid off!”
He’s competing in the Prva HNL – Juniori, the national division of youth football in Croatia, at the same club that Deni Juric excelled with last year, seeing him earn a move to Dinamo Zagreb.
In fact, he’s good friends with Juric, who took him under his wing in the few weeks they were both at the club whilst Juric was loaned back to Šibenik.
“I saw him every day, we would go for coffee after training. He’s been recalled after they [Dinamo] sold their striker to a club in Austria. He’ll be now playing Champions League football if they get through qualifying.”
The Slunjski brothers have linked up with a number of Aussies based in Europe, including the Popovic brothers and Noah Botic, the latter of whom recently returned to Australia with Western United, and Brandon has backed him to succeed in the A-League.
“He played up at Hoffenheim in Germany, and he always came down to our house for the summer!
“From a young age, the guy’s always had it. He was injured a lot in Germany, so he couldn’t show himself off as much, but the two years he’s had in Germany I think will really pay off.
“His tempo, his touch on the ball, where he puts his body, his mind is always at 100 miles an hour, which I think will work for him playing men’s football in Australia.
“He’s fast, he’s strong and he’s got a good shot on him too. I wish that he stayed in Europe but he found it quite hard as well. Living by yourself is hard, there’s more responsibilities and he’s come from Australia and been pushed into this German environment by himself, and it’s taken a toll on him. I think that’s why he’s returned back to Australia.”
Brandon is fortunate to have his entire family around him in Europe, and as well as helping him cope with moving abroad, he feels having a footballing family has helped develop the ability of all three of the brothers.
“We all play different positions, I’m a midfielder, Noah’s a forward or winger, and Kristian’s a right-sided defender.”
“Every time we go to the back we learn something. For example, if Kristian wants to learn headers, we all learn headers. If Noah wants to work on attacking, we all work on attacking. If I want to work on my passing, we all work on our passing.
“I think that’s a big thing because we all learn off each other, even little things in our free time in the back garden.
“Especially for my younger brother, when we do one versus ones, we always push him off the ball so that he can learn his skills and how to role a defender, and also for me as well, working with my older brother taught me how to turn and pass.
“We feel more privileged that we all play football and we all work hard towards the same thing, getting a professional deal.”
That’s always been the goal of the Slunjski family. Ultimately that’s why they moved to Croatia, for a better chance at a successful career due to the limited pathways to professional football in Australia. So far, they look to have made the right decision.
“Now that they’ve got rid of the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport], Football NSW Institute, Project 22, they got rid of all of these pathways and instead all they’ve done is added two more A-League clubs.
“If you stay in Australia you play through all the youth ranks up to under-16s, then jump up to under-18s, then under-20s and then first grade.
“16s to 18s is a bit of a jump, and lots of kids drop out. When you’re 18, you finish school and you try get a job, because in Australia there’s no money in playing football at that age. It’s very rare to find players at that age on contracts, apart from at A-League clubs.
“Whereas here they hand out pro-contracts everywhere, so long as you’re in the top 50% for your age group, rather than the top 5% if you’re in Australia.”
“There’s no pathway up to first grade, and there’s no money in it, whereas in Croatia they’re handing out pro-contracts in first division and second division to kids that are 18 or 19 or even under 17s.”
The surge in Brandon’s development that has come as a result of his move is why that given he is eligible to represent both Australia and Croatia (through family heritage), if he was offered the chance to represent both national teams, he would choose his current country of residence.
“In the last three years since I’ve been in Croatia, I feel like I have learned more than I have than I ever did in Australia.”
“My grandparents fought in the war for Croatia, but nothing would make my Dad more proud than to play for Australia, and that’s my dream too. I’ve always said I’ve wanted to be like a Brett Holman, playing for Australia.”
“To play for Croatia you have to be the best of the best, but for Australia you would get more of an opportunity to play just through playing in Europe.
“At the moment I would say Croatia, but I’m still a little half and half on it.”