Nikola Vlašić grew up in the spotlight of his famous sister Blanka – one of the greatest high-jumpers of all time. Even now that he is a rising football star her name drops into almost every conversation. But Ena Bilobrk visited Nikola in Liverpool getting to know the real person behind the youngest offspring of a successful sporting dynasty.
A quick buzz and the gates swung open soundlessly disclosing half a dozen fancy brick wall villas. The gated community located in an elegant Liverpool district seemed quiet and deserted. Yet, a boy appeared in one of the houses’ windows, waved, disappeared and seconds later the double door opened and Nikola stepped out with a bright smile.
Mentor and father Joško Vlašić lives with his son but is on a trip back to Croatia visiting family. Everton F.C.’s 19-year-old summer signing seemed more of a teenager happy to have a friend over while his parents are away, rather than a millionaire footballer.
The quirky and smiley boy wandered around the house in his grey tracksuit looking for a good interview spot. He finally shuffled to the dining room and only the ‘socks-and-designer-slides-combination’ could potentially give a hint about his profession. It is the latest thing in footballer fashion!
“Since I am here the sun has come out once and that for maybe two hours”, sighs Nikola. Weather is the Brits’ number one topic and it looks like the Croatian has quickly adapted. He leaned back in one of the chairs looking comfortable in his new Liverpool home and rested one leg over the other. It is the first time he has been living away from home but there is no sign of discomfort, maybe only a slight longing for his hometown, Split.
“Split is my favourite place on earth”, he beamed his blue eyes all lighting up. He had received offers from big European clubs before but turned them down. “Every time I got the chance to go play somewhere else I was thinking ‘oh God no I would have to move away’. It was never the fear of being away from family really, more being away from Split”, the teenager admitted.
To be fair, it is a wonderful place. Summer lasts longer than any other season and Nikola disclosed his favourite beach spot. It has a little cafe and family and friends gather there day in and day out. It is also the most crowded place in town but as Hajduk Split captain he was never tortured by annoying fans.
The Everton forward shrugged his shoulders: “You don’t really get people coming up to you to take pictures.” He couldn’t help but laugh: “They would rather comment behind your back ‘oh there is Mr Messi himself’.
The small city had a big impact on his emergence as a professional footballer. “There is this kind of stubbornness you get born with in Split. We have to obstinate everything and everyone”, Nikola explained. You get born with a natural sense of competitiveness, particularly when it comes to beating arch-rival Dinamo Zagreb.
“I once went on a local tournament with my childhood club NK Omladinac. Kids from Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb were also competing. We surprisingly ended up playing in the final against Dinamo Zagreb who had players like Alen Halilović. We, the underdogs, had beaten them 2-1 and for us kids it was as if we had won the champions league title”, he remembered.
Surroundings are important but so is talent. Without it he wouldn’t have become Hajduk Split’s youngest goalscorer in a European competition at the age of 16, neither would he have captained the Croatian side at the age of 18. Nikola is an exceptional young talent and very mature for his age.
“I never eyed the money behind big transfers, I was always looking at how to improve and what could help me improve”, he explained. Last season another big Premier League club had shown interest. But he refused the offer:“Just for fun I told my father ‘yeah sure let’s go to England’ but honestly I couldn’t picture myself there, yet. I was only focusing on Hajduk. Now I feel much more mature and when Everton showed interest I didn’t hesitate at all. It was no ‘maybe’, it was an honest ‘yes’.”
Nikola is no stranger to Goodison Park having faced Everton with Hajduk during the Europa League qualifiers. He shook his head and ran his fingers through his dark blonde hair as if he still couldn’t believe that he had made it to the Premier League. “I have never played in a stadium where the fans are so close to the pitch. It was unbelievable. I was thinking how cool it would be to play like this every week and here I am”, he grinned.
There is something so light-hearted and innocent about Nikola – or ‘Niksi’ how his friends call him. Now leaning on the massive dining table he started chatting about understanding Scouse: “Taking the cab has been the most challenging thing. It is a tough battle because the driver doesn’t get what I am trying to say and I on the other hand have no idea what he is on about. We simply end up explaining thing with gestures.”
At the club the locals try to speak very slowly to him. It is much easier with the internationals. “They talk like me”, Nikola jokes. The young player has settled at Everton and is happy about the chances Ronald Koeman gives him. Knowing he will have to prove himself to start in a League game the Croatian international maturely adds: “I am in the Premier League, probably the best league in the world, and I am here to see if I can play on that level and where my deficits are.”
He doesn’t have a player he looks up to, but he would like to “have something from all the best players”. He stared at the ceiling carefully thinking about whom he would include in his all time XI. Slowly naming the players a pattern appeared:
(Dani Alves) (Carles Puyol) (Sergio Ramos)
(Marcelo Vieira) (Andrés Iniesta) (Xavi) (Luka Modrić)
(Neymar) (Lionel Messi) (Ronaldinho)
“Since I was little I have always been fascinated by Spanish football”, he admitted. Often being compared to Luka Modrić, Nikola sees himself “playing for La Liga in far future, as well”.
Now he is in England, living in a brick wall villa and playing at some of the best grounds in the world. “Now I am solely focusing on Everton. I love how the fans here comment and cheer on every move you make on the pitch. For now, I could not picture myself anywhere else”, said the satisfied and bubbly boy in designer sliders and socks.
Featured Image © COPYRIGHT BRUNO KARADZA