January is the month football celebrates its great achievers. At an awards ceremony in Zurich last week, Lionel Messi won his third consecutive FIFA Ballon d’Or, Pep Guardiola was named Coach of the Year and Neymar’s individual effort against Flamengo was voted Goal of 2011.
Around the same time, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics [IFFHS], an institution that aims to establish a scientific rather than subjective chronological documentation of world football, announced its own awards in relation to the last calendar year.
For what it’s worth, Xavi was honored as the world’s best playmaker, Iker Casillas the best goalkeeper, Guardiola the best club coach, Óscar Tabárez the best national team coach and Viktor Kassai the best referee.
The IFFHS doesn’t seek the limelight or mainstream popularity. As such it recognises some of the unsung heroes of the game.
Take for instance Aleksandar Đurić. Hands up how many have heard of him before? If not, never fear. This isn’t an Alan Shearer-Hatem Ben Arfa moment.
Đurić plays in the relative obscurity of Singapore’s S-League for Tampine Rovers. Respectfully, they’re not one of the biggest clubs in the world. But in Đurić they boast a truly remarkable footballer who deserves to be a household name.
With 336 goals in 459 games, he is the most prolific goalscorer still active in professional football today. He is miles ahead of the competition too. His closest rivals are Maksim Gruznov of JK Trans Narva in Estonia who is on 298 goals in 451 games. Then there’s the great Rivaldo, who, as of last week was in talks with Kabuscorp in Angola after he was released by Sao Paulo. He is on 272 goals in 559 games.
Other big names trailing in Đurić’s wake are Raúl, Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Andriy Shevchenko and Francesco Totti. No one, it seems, is likely to catch him.
Born in Bosnia in 1970, Đurić’s career is unlike any of the above mentioned players with whom he enjoys esteemed company. He grew up playing football in the streets of Doboj, and while that was his first love, it wasn’t the only sport in which he appeared to excel.
“I first tried kayaking when I was 12,” he told Men’s Health. “I trained very hard and, by 15, I was the junior champion in then-Yugoslavia. By the time I was 17, I was ranked 8th in the world. I was hungry for success because, back then, it was the only way I could leave the country and see the world – and make some money.”
Kayaking offered a way out, and as war broke out, Đurić fled Bosnia, making the difficult decision to leave his family behind. He lived in southern Hungary. “All I had was a letter from the [Bosnian] Olympic Committee stating that I was participating at the Barcelona Olympics [in 1992],” he explained to FIFA.com. “I didn’t have a valid passport because of the Bosnian war.”
So what did Đurić do? He hitch-hiked the entire way to Spain. When he arrived, the organizers didn’t believe his story. They laughed in his face. But after a series of phone calls, Đurić was cleared to compete in the C-1 500m event. He was eliminated in the repechage.
After the “amazing experience” of the Olympics, Đurić returned to Hungary and became a professional footballer. He signed for Szeged in the second division. Life, however, was far from easy. He missed home and his family.
“When my mother died in 1993 during the war, I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to her,” he recalled. “I also lost contact with my father and brother for more than 10 years. It got very difficult at times, but I told myself that if I wanted to succeed, I had to persevere at all costs.”
And persevere Đurić did. He swapped Hungary’s Southern Great Plain for South Melbourne in Australia where he met his wife, then moved to Singapore in 1999. Đurić was nearly 30. Up until that point he had almost always played on the left-hand side either as a full-back or a winger. But on seeing the 6ft 4in Đurić train, his coach at Tanjong Pagar stuck him up front.
“It was new for me but I thought I might as well give it a go,” he shrugged. “I’ve been a striker ever since.” Đurić found the net in all but one of his 16 games. Then, like a ship in the night, he was gone, back on the boat to Australia. But Đurić had left an indelible mark on Southeast Asian football. Geyland United lured him back to Singapore in 2001. They wouldn’t regret it. Đurić fired them to their first S-League title in five years and he went on to score 148 goals in 126 games for the club before the most successful team in the league’s short history came calling in 2005.
Đurić accepted an offer from Singapore Armed Forces. With the club lacking firepower up front, believe it or not, he was to become their lethal weapon and even improved upon his strike-rate at Geyland. Little wonder then, considering Đurić made the net bulge a staggering 157 times in 129 appearances for the ‘Rhinos,’ they won the S-League in each of his four seasons at the club.
Naturalised after three attempts to obtain citizenship in the city-state, Đurić made his debut for Singapore in 2007 and marked it by scoring a brace. He currently still represents his adopted country internationally. Last September Đurić’s first half goal looked like it might be enough to secure a famous win away to Jose Antonio Camacho’s China in Kunming. But goals from Zheng Zhi and Yu Hai overturned the deficit, and Singapore lie bottom of Group A in Asia’s qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup.
Even if Singapore do the impossible and book their place at the tournament in Brazil, Đurić is unlikely to be there. At 41, he’s in the twilight of his career at Tampines Rovers. While he cites the example of Teddy Sheringham as proof that age isn’t important, there will come a point when he’ll have to hang up his boots.
Until then, Đurić remains the world’s most prolific striker playing the game today, a Singapore Slinger that gives defenders a bigger headache than the cocktail created at the famous Raffles Hotel.