By Dawn Yip and Les Tan

Aleksandar Duric

Aleks saying hello to Ronaldinho at the Singapore vs Brazil game earlier this year. (Photo © Les Tan/Red Sports)

Aleksandar Duric is a Serbian who became a Singapore citizen in 2007 and within weeks he was wearing the red of Singapore at the National Stadium. Duric got his papers the hard way – he applied like everyone else and was rejected twice before he got approval. He was not on the Football Association of Singapore Foreign Talent Scheme, as most folks would assume. Today, at age 38, he is still a first-choice striker for Singapore, an amazing situation for someone his age. He remains one of the fittest players in the S-League where he plays for the Singapore Armed Forces, a testament to what a professional he is. But there is more to Aleks than just football. In his 38 years, he has experienced poverty, the loss of his mother to war and years of separation from his family because of the Balkans conflict. He sat with us for hours one day to chat. Here is his story.

Part 1 (of 5)

A childhood steeped in sports

Aleksandar Duric, or Aleks as he is known to friends, was born in 1970 in Doboj, Yugoslavia (now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina). The younger of two boys, Aleks grew up in humble circumstances where sports featured strongly from an early age. "We always played football in the street," recalls Aleks. About 15 neighbourhood kids would play – shirts against shirtless – with an old ball and two rocks representing the goal. "Sometimes we played with no shoes so that they don't fall apart so soon."

"Football is for poor people. Many people don't understand this."

Aleks also played football at a big field in his school compound. "Sometimes I would play for two to three hours and forget to go home. The teachers would call and tell the parents, and my dad would come and I would get a big smack."

The routine continued even at the height of winter. "Sometimes it would be minus 25 degrees. We would put on our jackets and just play and drink cold water." When Aleks fell sick, it was not a doctor they turned to but his father's home-made therapy. "My dad would take old newspaper, heat it on the fire, spread pig's oil over it, then stick it on my chest and back, then layer over with T-shirts. Do this a few times and the temperature would go down, and I would feel better."

Aleks' love of sport went beyond football, and he excelled at both handball and kayaking. "My neighbours kayaked and told me about it. They said, “Aleks, we get free adidas shoes and clothes.” So I went with them. I was not such a good swimmer. The first test is to jump in the river and swim across and back. You should be a good swimmer because if you jump in, you will be 10m down. Somehow I did it. The river was so dirty. 100km up was a huge iron factory and they used to throw all the dirty water back in the river. The water was red and oily. I remember I used to smell of diesel. The river was totally polluted. Some days you could see dead fish."

So in addition to soccer practice, Aleks began training with a kayaking club, under the tutelage of "an old communist coach who was very disciplined." Sessions involved a 2.5 km run, followed by kayaking 5 to 6km, then a workout at the gym. 13-year-old Aleks found it tough yet enjoyable. "You feel different. You feel like your body is growing up," said Aleks. He also credits his involvement in two disciplines for his outstanding sports performance. "I could do things other kids couldn't do." By the time he was 17, Aleks was already national kayaking age-group champion, 8th in world junior rankings, and playing for his hometown football team.

Aleksandar Duric

Aleks (left), when he was 9 years old with his dad and older brother Milan at a restaurant where his dad always visited. (Photo © Aleksandar Duric)

Related story:
"If your brother is killed, at least I have you." – an inteview with Aleksandar Duric (Part 2)