Besart Berisha - Football - PlayersVoice
Besart Berisha - Football - PlayersVoice

Football

My 1200km refugee trek

- Contributor

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My 1200km refugee trek

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In the morning, before I go to Melbourne Victory training, I listen to my Frank Sinatra album while I have a coffee.

 

I like many of his songs but one of them especially means a great deal to me. My Way. Because when I listen to it, it reminds of how I have lived my life and the journey I have taken.

 

I remember my family leaving Kosovo for a better life, with nothing in our pockets. I remember arriving in Berlin and having to rebuild a life from nothing. I remember the first time I got money from playing football, and how it helped support my family. I remember so many ups and downs along the way.

 

I’ve achieved a lot as a footballer, especially in Australia, but every time I go to training I have that same desperation to win and to be the best.

 

I can never have enough. I’m always hungry. That’s how I’ve lived my life. My Way.

 

 

THE LONG WALK FROM PRISTINA TO BERLIN

I don’t remember much of my life in Pristina but I know it was tough for my family. There was no work and not much money. My Mother and Father, Hamide and Selim, saw the opportunity for a better life in Germany and decided we had to leave. I can’t imagine how they must have felt at that time. It was such a huge decision.

 

We packed what we could and left. The trip was not easy. We drove part of the way, then some of it was on buses but a lot was on foot. This is something I haven’t shared publicly before – as a five-year-old, I walked at least 1,200 kilometres to reach Berlin. I think that could be why I’m able to run so far today.

 

It was the only option. We didn’t have the money to do it a different way. Obviously my Mother couldn’t carry me and my older Brother, Besim, who was seven. It was a long march. They were some tough moments. We were just trying to survive and find a better life.

 

There was a stage, I remember, being so tired but we just had to keep going. I was just a little boy. I couldn’t understand why we had to walk so much. But I knew that was what my parents wanted to do.

 

It’s one of the experiences that makes me who I am. I don’t know if I would have the hunger that I do now if I hadn’t had to walk across Europe with my family.

 

My parents don’t talk about that time very much. But we still remember it.

 

 

 

LIFE AS A REFUGEE IN BERLIN

Pristina was a little town in comparison to Berlin and we arrived in this huge city with nothing.

 

It was not long after the wall came down and we moved to the eastern side of the city in a one-bedroom flat. There were so many refugees. It was really tough for a lot of people because there were not many rooms available for families to live.

 

The people in Germany were amazing. They welcomed the refugees and helped them financially, helped them get on their feet.

 

My Mother and Father did not speak German initially and we had to climb our way up from the bottom. Like every refugee, they were not allowed to work at first.

 

When opportunities came up my Father worked so hard to provide for us, doing whatever jobs the Germans could give him. I saw that as a young child and learned from it. As a footballer, I wanted to achieve something and help the family.

 

My Brother and I were able to go straight to school, to get an education and integrate into a new country. Today, I’m thankful for that. As a child, I felt safe and happy and welcome.

 

This is something I haven’t shared publicly before – as a five-year-old, I walked at least 1,200 kilometres to reach Berlin. I think that could be why I’m able to run so far today.

 

Even when I was at school, the Grundschule of Lichtenberg, my mind was full of football. All my spare time went into training and working to be better than everyone else. Now, I make sure my children put their education first.

 

I used to hide my ball in the bushes near the training field because if my Father saw me with the ball he would think I had been skipping school.

 

My Brother and I got involved with football clubs and after just three years we were able to speak German fluently.

 

By 14 I was scoring a lot of goals and had some clubs interested in me. I started to earn a little money from playing – maybe $50 or so. It might have been a small amount but it meant a lot for me and my family.

 

I had to take responsibility from an early age and when that is the situation you have to develop a winning mentality. I also learnt how to take responsibility and deal with pressure, which can be a big challenge for many young players.

 

When you are helping your family as a child, you grow up fast and become a leader.

 

It makes me proud. I used to run along the streets of Berlin, day and night, training. Now when I’m in Berlin, I drive those same roads in a nice car and I laugh, thinking back on that time.

 

 

GET A CONTRACT OR RETURN TO KOSOVO

When I was 17 or 18 I was confronted by a really tough challenge.

 

The war was over in Kosovo so the situation for refugees had changed. To stay in Germany, you needed a full-time work contract. They wanted to send us back so all hopes were on me getting a professional contract. It was all or nothing.

 

I was playing in the under 19s Bundesliga for Tennis Borussia Berlin and the clock was ticking. Every month that went by they could have sent us back. I was dealing with that pressure, but I had to keep working hard so I was ready for any opportunity.

 

I was so determined to do well. I scored 21 goals that season, more than Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski.

 

I knew that if I could become a professional footballer I could help my family and many of the people around me to have a better life. I was doing everything I could to make that happen.

 

I remember the day I got the news that I was going to be signed by Hamburg. When I think about it now I get a little emotional. It was a school day but I was expecting a call from the club. When my phone rang, the teacher knew what it meant and he allowed me to take it outside.

 

When I came back to the classroom I had tears in my eyes. The teacher gave me a hug and said, ‘Now I don’t want to see you in my class anymore. I want to see you play good football.’

 

To stay in Germany, you needed a full-time work contract. They wanted to send us back so all hopes were on me getting a professional contract. It was all or nothing.

 

I couldn’t focus for the rest of the day. I couldn’t wait to tell my family.

 

I smiled all the way home.

 

We had the biggest party. My Mum and Dad called our family, friends and neighbours. They had all been praying for me, so it was great for everyone to get together to celebrate. It was an amazing time.

 

I was so relieved because it is tough to get those opportunities in Germany. There are thousands and thousands of football players, all competing for the same contract.

 

I still feel very connected to Hamburg. They still remember me. I received a card from them for my birthday. I remember my connection with the club’s supporters as well, they really supported me a lot. I had a great time there and I’m very thankful for the opportunity I was given.

 

It’s where everything started for me in football.

 

 

 

SLUGGING IT OUT IN EUROPE

It was very tough being a professional football player in Europe. There is no salary cap like in Australia and there are sometimes 40 players in a team, maybe five players in each position.

 

Every player wants to kick you to make sure he plays the next game. Honestly, if you are not mentally and physically prepared for the pressure, you will fail. One mistake and someone is ready to take your place.

 

It’s not for everyone, but whoever makes it will have a lot of success.

 

While I was at Hamburg I got to play in the Champions League. It was an amazing feeling when I played my first match at home to Porto.

 

I remember lining up and hearing the anthem. It was a beautiful moment and very emotional. I was so proud I almost started crying.

 

I came off the bench in that game. I had to face a player called Pepe, who I’ve also played against with the Albanian national team. I remember thinking, ‘This guy is so tough, he is going to finish my career’. Pepe went on to play for Real Madrid for many years.

 

I started and scored in my next Champions League game, at home to CSKA Moscow. It was incredible to hear the fans singing my name. We won 3-2!

 

I remember lining up and hearing the anthem. It was a beautiful moment and very emotional. I was so proud I almost started crying.

 

I was sold to Burnley in 2007 but my career in England got off to an unlucky start.

 

I tore my ACL while on international duty. It was tough coming back from that.

 

I moved to a few different clubs – loans to Rosenborg in Norway and Horsens in Denmark and then a return to Germany with Arminia Bielefeld.

 

I had some bad coaches who didn’t show any belief in me.

 

I’d achieved a lot already in my career. I’d played in the Bundesliga and with the national team, against players like Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s more than I could ever have imagined but I needed a new start.

 

 

ANGE & THE AUSTRALIAN OPPORTUNITY

I was under contract at Bielefeld when Brisbane assistant coach Rado Vidosic saw me. I didn’t know anything about Australia, or about any of the teams in Australia.

 

My son Amar was just six months old.

 

But after I spoke to Ange Postecoglou on the phone I felt certain that I needed this change. I spoke to my wife, Sumea, and my family and told them I wanted to sign a one-year contract. That’s how it all came together.

 

I had never won a trophy. I wanted to go to a team where a coach believed in me and wanted to win trophies.

 

I’m very lucky my first coach was Ange. He helped me get my hunger back and my belief. From day one he knew how to work with me. He helped get me back to my best form – back to how I was playing when I started my career at Hamburg.

 

I thought that I’d soon be going back to Europe with confidence. But after we had that amazing first season when we won the Championship, I fell in love with this league and this country.

 

I enjoyed everything about the experience, so I signed on to stay for another two years.

 

I learnt more, I grew up more, I found myself and re-found my love for football. Coming to Australia is one the best decisions I’ve ever made.

 

I never forget this. Look at me now today.

 

I’m still here. I’m still trying to be the strongest, still enjoying every day in Australia.

 

 

 

THE MOVE TO MELBOURNE

After my time at Brisbane, people were saying I would never have that kind of success at a different club. I wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to prove that I could win trophies with another team.

 

I wanted to work harder, I set goals and tried to help the club who really badly needed trophies.

 

I could not be happier with the move to Victory.

 

I found myself as a footballer in Brisbane.

 

In Melbourne, I found a club that I had been looking for my whole career – ever since leaving Hamburg. I feel connected with the supporters, the people, the coach and I want to be here forever.

 

Playing for Victory is a totally different pressure. It’s a big club that is always trying to win trophies. It’s perfect because that is what I need. I feel I belong in a club like that.

 

I’m not done yet. I want to win more trophies. I want to create more history, especially with Melbourne.

 

I want to win the Champions League and of course I know how important the Grand Final is in Australia, so that makes me hungry as well. Especially after last season.

 

In Melbourne, I found a club that I had been looking for my whole career – ever since leaving Hamburg. I feel connected with the supporters, the people, the coach and I want to be here forever.

 

When I look back on that loss to Sydney FC a lot of people said, ‘You deserved to win, you played much better than Sydney, we all thought you were going to win’.

 

But that’s not the way I see it. We weren’t good enough. We lost.

 

We have to work harder now. We can’t think about the defeat. That’s yesterday. We have to think about tomorrow and prepare ourselves for the next opportunity. You need to keep moving forward.

 

 

RETURN TO KOSOVO

It was very emotional going back to Kosovo, which is now in a great stage in its history. I had played 17 times for Albania, but the Kosovo national team had only played six games since they were officially recognised by FIFA and UEFA in 2016.

 

When I arrived at Pristina International Airport, it was amazing. I really did not expect so many supporters to be there waiting for me. They had flares and were singing my name out loud. They welcomed me with open arms. It’s a very respectful country.

 

I played the first World Cup qualifier against Iceland at the Loro Borici Stadium in Shkoder, but was on the bench for the second game against Turkey.

 

I had returned home out of respect for the people and to help the country but I had to explain that I can’t fly 26 hours to the other side of the world if I’m not going to play.

 

It was a heartbreaking decision to make but it is best for both sides.

 

After everything I’ve achieved in Australia and what Australia has done for me, I don’t want to lose that. It’s a beautiful country.

 

I want to be an Australian citizen and I want to keep enjoying my life here and be a good example for young footballers. It means a lot to my family for us to live here.

 

My family in Germany are a little worried I’ll stay here forever though.

 

I told them they are welcome to come stay any time.

 

Besart Berisha  -  Contributor

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