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South China’s Nikola Komazec: “Living through war and conflict made me stronger”

The true mark of successful person is often not the image they portray to the watching world; it is often the struggles and obstacles they have overcome with persistence to reach their desired destination. When faced with challenges, a person can either be cynical or world-weary or friendly and full of positivity.

Luckily, Nikola Komazec, is one of the latter. The Serbian striker is now a leading light for the Hong Kong club giants, South China and his ‘warrior’ spirit to push himself to his limits has reaped rewards with an impressive flurry of goals which in turn has kept South China amongst the contenders for the Hong Kong league title.

Energetic and positive at all time – Photo by Chris KL Lau

Nikola Komazec is both an extrovert and incredibly positive in terms of his outlook on the journeyman football career he has taken but also on life itself. Behind his friendly nature is an incredibly passionate, assured, honest and genuine person with a steely determination to succeed and thrive as a professional footballer. His travels have taken him from his homeland Serbia around the world and he has graced the pitches in professional leagues from Romania to Slovenia to Thailand and South Korea. It was in Slovenia where he played for the champions, Maribor, and had the chance to play in the UEFA Champions league.

Komazec is perceptive enough to realise he is living out his youthful dreams and pivotal moments in his childhood, along with his father’s influence, forged his entire perception in life and gave him the will power to succeed as a footballer; as a young boy he witnessed and endured both the Balkans conflict and the NATO bombings of his native Serbia.

Football ceased being just a game but a way, for young Nikola and his friends, to be shielded away from the harsher realities of modern warfare. When he played football, he could enter another world of simple fun, friendship and camaraderie. The bombs fell but life would go on and Komazec was happy to share memories from his youth.

Komazec during his time in Slovenia at Maribor – Photo from Chris KL Lau

“What was interesting for me growing up was that when the NATO bombs came, we still played football. Everyone was scared but me and my team mates, we stayed in the football pitches and played football. Around 25 to 30 guys still played as bombs were being dropped around 20 to 30 km away in the distance. What was amazing, we were scared but when we played football then we could forget everything and we stayed there whole days just playing football. I remember, it was two to three teams and we played against each other and we carry these experiences with us in all that we do”

Komazec shares that he thinks that the reason Serbia has such a high concentration of current top-level athletes is due to an entire generation sharing the same experiences of growing up during a time of persistent conflict. The hunger and desire to have a better life and the realisation that life itself is finite had been has been forged with the fire of conflict and etched into the hearts and minds of athletes such as Komazec

Komzec says there is no better example than Novak Djokovic whom has risen to the top of the tennis world through continually pushing himself to be the best; behind Novak’s jokes and humorous nature is no doubt the same psyche that Komazec has mentioned.

Komazec scores against Johor JDT of Malaysia in the AFC Cup – By JRP Borthwick

His positive attitude is almost infectious and Komazec says this mentality to do his best at all times, work hard and give more than expected comes from this experiences from his youth where he and his family endured the struggles of modern armed conflict.

“Yes, Serbia has many great athletes, for example, Novak Djokovic in tennis. Serbia has basketball players, football players; in collective team sports like basketball, handball, football and volleyball, we are very strong. In basketball, we are in the top three to five teams after the United States. I think we have a different mentality to other countries. If you know history then you know what we had two wars and when I was very young, Serbia was at war and from this experience came my strong mentality. I do not like to lose when I play in a game or even in training. This is my nature as when I was in Serbia there was the conflict and after this type of experience, people stay stronger.”

Komazec says this mentality to ‘fight’ for a better life, overcome all obstacles and to make the best use of resources can be found in the psyche of many of his countrymen and women who are reaching the top of their chosen sports.

“Serbia is a really nice and beautiful country and our experiences and mentality have helped Serbian athletes to be the best and I think one the reasons was because we had many wars and this is natural. Not just Serbia but all ex Yugoslavian and Balkan nations such as Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia. These nations all have very good football players and tennis players. Everything comes from experiencing a difficult life before and thank god everything has been ok and stable. I miss my country every day; I cannot say 100 percent why (Serbia is good at sports) but this is one of the factors. Yugoslavia has had any wars so it is part of our mentality. We have a tough and strong mentality and we prove this around the world.“

Komazec cites his father as being one of the main influences and positive role-models in his life who helped guide him as a youngster and in the early parts of his career.

“My father was a sports fanatic and a boxer. He was a boxer for 15 years and in Serbia, he was one of the best. He was really strong. I got my mentality from my father which is to, everyday, do more training and to be a fanatic for training and to always give my maximum and he was like this. Boxing is not like football but I do have this mentality from my father.”

His father’s mentorship was not just in the sporting arena as Komazec cites that he also taught him how to be a good human being, to treat everyone the same with empathy and of course, to work harder than any limits set.

“My father taught me any things about life and I would just like to thank my father as he taught me to be a good person and to be professional. If I watch sports then I had some idols when I was young like Predrag Mijatović of Real madrid and the current Torino manager, Siniša Mihajlović; he coached Milan and he was a very good player and had a strong mentality.”

Komazec has now been in Hong Kong for just over half a year and has been the transfer of the season so far. Nikola had a fantastic run whereby he pretty much scored in every game over a seven to eight game run. Nikola is a true team player and attributes his success to his team mates and their great play. Life kept changing for Komazec and never did he expect to be in Hong Kong when he started his career.

“I never thought when I was young, when I started football, every young player has some dreams to play in the top clubs in Europe. 99 percent / 100 percent of players who play football when they are young, have dreams to play in the Spanish or German league. I had the same dreams to play at the top-level and my favourite team was Barcelona and Juventus too”

“I am very happy now in Asia and in football you never what will happen tomorrow because football is interesting and of course, it was not my dream to come to Asia when I was a young boy but now I am here and I am happy and I thank god for everything. I have a good life and I am happy and before I was at really big clubs and now I play for a big club and it is my pleasure to be at South China. My dreams were different but this is normal and some players go to the top and some players play in Asia and some play in Eastern Europe but I am happy really.”

“I am happy as I have played with some really big clubs and you have the feeling of being a big player and you do not need to play at the top leagues in Europe. Before I played in Hong Kong, I was in Korea and Thailand and I had a really good feeling from the fans.“

Having been in the Asia-Pacific for quite a while now and from his travels and experiences, he can gauge the level of football and as the Chinese Super League is booming in terms of publicity and finances, Komazec felt that it was hard to compare the Hong Kong Premier League and the Chinese Super League and he shared his thoughts if he felt that the Hong Kong league was missing out on the boom happening just further north.

Komazec is a fan favourite even with non South China Fans in Hong Kong – Photo by Chris KL Lau

“We cannot really compare the Chinese Super league to the Hong Kong Premier league and I am sure the Chinese Super league will be one of the top leagues in the world in the next 10 to 15 years. This is the plan from the Chinese President. We cannot really compare the Hong Kong league and the Chinese leagues as China has bigger stadiums and more people; people in Hong Kong of course love football but it is not the first priority but this is my feeling.”

Komazec touched upon that the dynamism of life in Hong Kong which meant that there were many distractions which meant that ‘live’ football games in Hong Kong had to compete against a huge variety of different forms of entertainment and distractions.

“There could be some other sports such as basketball as well to compete against it; I do feel football is the most popular sport here in Hong Kong but the passion does not seem to compare to the Chinese Super League where you can get up to 50,000 people per game in the large stadiums. Chinese owners invest a lot more money and it is simple; if you invest money then you will come top.”

Komazec also discussed previous South China players who were signed to much fan-fare and publicity.

“In Hong Kong, previously, you had players like Nicky Butt and Kezman, one of the biggest names in recent Hong Kong football but now the Chinese Super League is now something different and a better level.”

“First, we know which countries have the best football leagues in Asia; the Chinese Super League, Korean K League and the J league and these three are the top and you cannot compare the other Asian leagues with these leagues. If I want to compare the Hong Kong league then the Thai league is close with Thai football being a little better but this is normal as the Thailand is a little bigger and you cannot compare Thailand and Hong Kong as Thailand is a large country and football is huge in Thailand and on the weekend people just go and watch their local clubs. Every stadium is full and if you watch football in Thailand then it is the same style as Indonesia and Malaysia.”

“A lot of players have good technique but in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean leagues then all the player are strong in terms of tactics and skill and mentality; it is hard to compare quality and Hong Kong’s quality of football is similar to Malaysia and Singapore.”

One of his current team-mates is the Australian Ryan Griffins who has had playing experience in China and who is still a legend in Beijing. Griffins has shared his experiences with Komazec and the feedback was very positive.

Ryan Griffins playing for South China – By Chris KL Lau

“My team mate, Ryan Griffins, has experience in China and was a champion with Beijing. I have spoken to him about his experiences in China and he said it was amazing. Everything he said about China was positive . It depends on where you live but you if you stay in Beijing or Shanghai then life is amazing.”

Komazec has had a whole array of memorable moments in his football career but the most outstanding one for him which he still remembers like it was yesterday was the chance to play for Maribor of Slovenia against Tottenham Hotspurs in the UEFA Champions league; in-fact, Komazec recalls his experience with wide-eyed joy as to him, it meant that he had made it to the pinnacle of his playing career at that time.

“I played for Maribor who were the champions of Slovenia and are one of the biggest clubs in the Balkans. This club has always played in the Champions league or in the Europa League and I had the pleasure of playing for this club for one year and I lifted two trophies; one super cup and the league. I also got the chance to play against Tottenham twice in the champions league. We played 1-1 in Slovenia against a Spurs team which had Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon, Jermaine Defoe and  Vertonghen. This was like another world, it was top class but not too much of a difference but this little difference is still a lot. In the return game, we played well against them and I had one chance at White Hart Lane to score and we lead 1-0 and then Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson scored in the last-minute.”

Komazec in action against Tottenham Hotspurs in the UEFA Champions League – Photo from Nikola Komazec

Komazec also had the chance to play against the other continental giants of the game and cited Jermaine Defoe as the best player he played against in those few games and as a Spurs fan, he found it a great coincidence that he got to play against the team he supported.

“We played against Lazio and Panathinaikos but the games versus Spurs were some of the biggest moments for me as I like two clubs in England; Newcastle and Spurs and when I saw the draw against Spurs I was so happy as I could play against some of the best players in the world; Jermaine Defoe was amazing.”

“I was marked by Vertonghen and he was really strong and you can still see that he is a top player as he plays every game. The atmosphere at White Hart Lane as amazing. I like English football as the game is fast and there are many goals. I really respect British football.”

Komazec has been fortunate enough to move around both Europe and Asia in pursuit of his dreams and has become adept at transitioning from country to country and from culture to culture; always with a smile on his face and ready to adapt to the local traditions and way of life. Komazec has enjoyed his time in Hong Kong so far and credits his club and team mates for making his transition so smooth for him so far; to him, Hong Kong is the perfect blend of both east and west.

“I have changed many clubs and experienced many cultures. Thailand, Korea and now Hong Kong and I moved around Europe. When I came to Hong Kong, people were really accepting of me. South China did many friendly preparations in China and Thailand and straight away, I scored many goals in friendly games when Ricardo Rambo was coach.”

“My team mates accepted me straight away as I am someone who likes to be open and friendly. The local players respected me and this was important as I respect all guys and I try to be positive and this is very important. It does not matter how good a person is at football, a person has to be a good person and people will respect you more to achieve your goals and help you adapt to a new environment. “

Komazec is a realistic and level-headed person so he is aware of his own strengths and areas to improve on and his dedication and sense of professionalism in terms of preparations and training is second to none.

“This is important and you must play to your own qualities. I can’t dribble so fast but I can cross well and my job is to score and finish. If I change my style then this is not good for me.”

“Football is not easy as it is a lot of pressure and specially when you play for a big club and when you sleep this is normal; I do not have a problem with pressure and sometimes when I have an important game; sometimes you have a lot of adrenaline and you cannot sleep. You must focus on football 24/7 to be successful; you must sleep well and take normal foods. This is important to have a longer career. Players like Javier Zanetti played for a long time as he was so professional. It is natural to get tired, like Novak Djokoivc, who is now number 2 in the world but I am sure he will be number one again soon and this is one example.”

Komazec is unabashed in his desire to improve further and to make use of his talents and skills while he is Hong Kong. Nikola Komazec is his father’s son and the lessons and his enduring memories, both happy and sad,  of his youth in Serbia have made him who he is today and will continue to be with him wherever he goes.

Photos by JRP Borthwick and Christopher KL Lau

Christopher KL Lau was born in England and grew up in both England and Hong Kong, and has a background in media, education and non-profits. He also is a freelance writer / photographer and has written for a number of magazines, websites and newspapers around the world on many subjects ranging from the arts to travel. Chris is passionate about sports and its place in society and is keen to promote both Hong Kong and Chinese football to a wider audience.

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