Maribor are arguably the most obscure club in this season’s Champions League, but the side are rich in history and bursting with talent. One such quality individual has been young 18-year-old Luka Zahovic. Miran Zore writes about his present, future and his father’s illustrious past.
“I’m very pleased with his performance. I know that you will be asking a lot of questions regarding him in the future. He is Zlatko Zahović’s, Slovenias greatest player of all times, son. He will have to live with that fact. I believe he has a lot of potential,” Darko Milanič, former Maribor and newly appointed and already sacked Leeds United head coach, said in May 2013, when 17 year old Luka Zahović made his debut in Maribor’s senior team. Those 13 minutes versus Aluminij were Luka Zahović’s first experience with senior football. A former Benfica trainee who was shipped out on loan last season, played for Veržej in the second division, but still managed to collect 410 minutes of Slovenian first division football with his parent club.
This season has been a contrast. Young Luka Zahović, still only 18 years old, has stepped into the spotlight and has turned heads in the European continent. Maribor knocked Scottish champions Celtic out of the Europe’s premier competition and sensationally qualified for the Champions League, which gave some younger players an opportunity to play in domestic competitions back home in the Republic. Luka showed a lot of passion for the game and Maribor’s coach, Ante Šimundža, rewarded him with plenty of playing time. Zahović took his moment, scoring eight goals in twelve first division matches making him the league’s top scorer presently.
With some excellent league performances under his belt, Zahović patiently waited for an opportunity on the big scene. It finally arrived on Wednesday, 17 September, when Maribor hosted Sporting Lisbon at Ljudski vrt in the Champions League. Slovenian champions were and still are underdogs in Group G (with Chelsea, Schalke and Sporting), but they gave their illustrious opponents a very solid resistance. Despite a good performance Maribor fell behind when Manchester United’s loanee, Nani, scored in the 80th minute. Maribor was on the verge of a defeat, when coach Ante Šimundža immediately pushed young Zahović in to the game with less that 10 minutes remaining. Deep into stoppage time, when the home crowd had already conceded defeat, it happened. Luka Zahović was in the right place at the right time to head the ball in to the net earning his side an invaluable 1-1 draw.
After the game, Zahović looked extremely confident and gave the impression that he is not afraid of the cameras, microphones and journalists. He was answering the questions in three different languages (Slovenian, Portugese and English) and the next day Slovenian and Portugal media hailed the young rising star. “It was a dream debut and a good team performance. It is hard to describe my feelings right now. I will need some time to sum up my impressions. I’m very happy for this goal, especially because it earned us a point,” Zahović, now also among Tuttosport’s 40 ‘Golden Boy’ nominees, said.
It is no coincidence that the Portuguese press jumped on the wagon. Though every single goal scored in the Champions League is special, more so when it is done by an 18-year-old, but in this instance it had more to do with the name on the back of that young scorer that rolled back the years and got Portuguese journalist gleaming with nostalgia. The surname Zahović is still quite famous in Portugal (and in Europe too), fondly remembered by enthusiasts of the Portuguese game. Luka’s father Zlatko made an impressive career in Primeira Liga playing for Vitoria Guimaraes, Porto and Benfica. He was an excellent attacking midfielder and one of the best, if not the best Slovenian footballer of all time (he is still Slovenias record goal-scorer with 35 goals). He finished his illustrious career (also having played for Partizan, Olympiakos and Valencia) in 2005, when he returned, his family with him, to Maribor. Since 2007 he is NK Maribor’s director of football and as such his son’s boss.
“When I saw him score, I held my emotions inside me. We talked about it thoroughly at the family dinner the next day. Was it a ceremonial dinner? You could say so, for me every dinner with my son is a special ceremony, especially if he gives me five minutes of his time. At the age of 19 that is difficult,” Zahović senior said.
It is not quite clear if it was Zahović senior’s or junior’s idea, but the hype that is now surrounding Luka escalated days before that Sporting game. Portugese newspaper Record published an interview with Guimaraes born Luka Zahović, who is holding Slovenian and Portuguese citizenship. Until now, Luka played for Slovenian youth teams (he was a part of Euro U17 Slovenian team in 2012), but that could, as he pointed out in that interview, change in the future.
“If I received a proposal to play for the two national sides I would have to think hard about it, but I’d probably choose Portugal,” Zahović said and added that he continues to feel a strong bond with the Iberian country. “I live in a family that is more Portuguese than Slovenian. The fact my parents are Slovenian doesn’t mean anything. I lived in Lisbon for years and I’m still in contact with friends from my time there. I usually spend my holidays in Lisbon and when I’m there I try to meet up with them.”
Slovenia’s national team coach Srečko Katanec, who had his differences with Luka’s father Zlatko in the past, knows the importance of holding on to the impressive youngster. Slovenia can’t really afford losing talented players with the national team not quite in it’s best eras, having failed to qualify for a World Cup or the European Championship since Korea/Japan 2002. “He was born in Portugal. He has many friends there. He will have to make his own decision. I know he would like to play for Slovenia. My advice to him is – Slovenia. I can only give him advice, I can’t make decisions in his name. Luka doesn’t want to play in the Slovenian U21 squad… Srečko has everything in his hands,” Zlatko said after the Sporting match.
His advice to Luka is and will remain only an advice. Luka, despite his young age, definitelly is his father’s son. He looks, just like his father did in his playing days, extremely confident when speaking about his future. He is already making his own decisions. “My relationship with my father is not changing. Some people don’t want to believe this, but it is true. We don’t talk much at home, we don’t see each other that much. We talk about football only when we watch it on TV,” said Maribor’s striker, who is, for now at least, withstanding the pressure, which comes with his surname. Will he reach or even exceed his father’s glory? Talent and potential are certainly there, but to build a successful football career, decision-making is as important as the game itself. Slovenia or Portugal? This hard decision could very well determine his promising career.
Written by Miran Zore
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