Long-read: Milan Borjan relishing his role as a leader for Canada as he continues to give back to the country that helped both him and his family

On this warm Thursday evening at Canada’s Men’s National Team training camp, spirits are high. As training concluded for the day, they engaged in a fun post-training shooting competition, where the majority of the players participated in the popular game of two-touch, with goals being met with cheers and misses being met with intense ribbing from teammates. 

As goalkeepers Max Crepeau and Marco Carducci stood in goal and faced the shots of their teammates, Canada’s longtime number 1 goalkeeper, Milan Borjan, roamed the pitch, speaking with staff and teammates, before settling in to watch, cheering on his goalkeeping brethren whenever they managed to get their hands to the ball.

When Borjan came over to speak with BTSVancity, he was still smiling, revelling in the opportunity to once again represent his country, giving off the air of a man that truly enjoys the trek he does over from Serbia to do so. You speak with him and you see someone who relishes the opportunity to play football, as he enjoys taking the time to talk about the game. 

So ahead of the start of this Nations League and World Cup qualifying campaign, he feels good to be back with this Canadian squad. 

“Feels really good,” Borjan said with a smile when speaking to BTSVancity after training. “A lot of tactical stuff we’ve been doing, preparing for these two games, things are going good, guys are very excited to get onto the pitch on Saturday and start these qualifiers and start this league with the 1st win.”

From Serbia to Canada and eventually the National Team:

Borjan with Atiba Hutchinson ahead of his national team debut in 2011 (Canada Soccer)

Borjan was born in the now-Serbian city of Knin back in 1987 when it was still part of Yugoslavia. He was 13 when he and his family moved to Canada, first installing themselves in Winnipeg, before making Hamilton their permanent home a year later. He spent over half of a decade in Hamilton, growing up playing soccer, badminton and volleyball, but he eventually decided to concentrate on going pro in the world’s game, dedicating himself to a future between the sticks, having played primarily as a goalie since the age of 8. 

He speaks of his experience in Canada fondly, as he is deeply grateful for the opportunity that the country gave him and his family. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, he is proud to make the trip over to wherever he needs to be to represent the shirt, no matter how big the distance. For this camp in Toronto, it took nearly half a day of flying, but Borjan is happy to come represent the maple leaf, and as an added bonus, see some family he hasn’t seen in a while. 

“It feels amazing actually,” Borjan said happily. “My family’s here so it feels really nice to come and see them, I haven’t seen them for a long time, so yeah I’m really happy to be back here, and it’s always nice to come home”

A dual-citizen of Canada and Serbia, Borjan came into the National Team fold a lot later than a talent of his level typically would. He did not suit up for any of the many youth national teams that Canada has, instead making his national team debut at any level in 2011 at 23 years of age for the first team in a friendly. “2011, in February against Greece.” to be exact, as he made sure to remind me. 

When he committed to Canada, he was in the midst of an impressive 2010-2011 campaign for Serbian side FK Rad, as he would become one of the top goalkeepers in Serbia that year as he helped Rad finish 4th and earn a berth in the Europa League qualification phase. When he made his commitment to Canada towards the tail-end of that campaign, it came as a sigh of relief for Canadian fans, but for Borjan, it was a chance to give back to a country that gave him so much. 

“I had a choice, to play for Serbia or for Canada,” Borjan said of the choice. “And I chose Canada. Why? Because Canada helped my family, and this is the way that I want to return to Canada,”

“So thank you Canada!” he finished with a laugh.

I chose Canada. Why? Because Canada helped my family, and this is the way that I want to return to Canada

Canadian Men’s National team starting goalkeeper, Milan Borjan

European Travels:

Borjan in action for Red Star Belgrade

And from his debut with the national team and onwards, he has only continued to progress, both in terms of his clubs he played at, as well as his personal performance in his journey to establish himself as one of the best in Europe.

After his season with Rad, it was off to Turkey, where he plied his trade for Sivas-based side Sivasspor for a couple of seasons. His time there started out slow, as he finished the 2011-2012 campaign on loan to Romanian side FC Vaslui, but he soon became the main guy in Sivas, playing over 30 matches in both the league and cup in 2012-2013. He helped them make a deep run to the semi-finals of the cup, only losing to Trabzonspor over a two-legged series, but they were underwhelming in the league, finishing 12th, despite being a year removed from a 5th place finish. 

When the next season concluded, Borjan found himself playing much less than he had the previous campaign, despite Sivasspor bouncing back to a 5th place league finish, so he decided to move on, making the move to Bulgarian side PKF Ludogorets. It was there where he would start to catch the attention of a lot more eyeballs, as he got to play in both the Champions League and Europa League, where his team got to face off against the likes of Arsenal, Real Madrid and Liverpool over a couple of seasons, and he got some much-needed experience from those games. 

So when he fell out of favour in Bulgaria, finishing the 2017 year on loan to Polish side Korona Kielce, it wasn’t long until a new team came calling. Red Star Belgrade, fresh off losing regular goalkeeper Filip Manojlović to Spanish side Getafe, needed a new goalkeeper to guide them through the 2017-2018 campaign. They called Borjan and he was more than happy to return to Serbia, and it has since been a match made in heaven, as Borjan has helped them win the league in back-to-back campaigns, as well as help them return to the Champions League for the first time in over 20 years, reaching the group stages in last year’s competition.   

And thanks to strong performances from Borjan in this summer’s qualification campaign, they find themselves back once again, as Borjan continues to relish the opportunity that Red Star have offered him. 

“Things are going amazing actually,” Borjan said excitedly of his time at Red Star. “2 years in a row that we are playing Champions League, we’ve got a very good group this year again, Bayern, Tottenham and Olympiacos, so it’s going to be really exciting, things are going really good, guys are very excited, the league is going good, so right now things are perfect.”

Those European Nights:

Last year’s Champions League run got a lot of attention in Canada, as Borjan stood strong as Red Star faced some of the world’s best in the “2018-2019 Group of Death”. Inserted in a group with French champions PSG, Serie A (Italy) runner-ups Napoli and 2018 Champions League finalists Liverpool, Red Star wasn’t expected to even win, let alone dream of advancing from their group. 

But Borjan would have a breakthrough campaign, picking up 2 clean sheets, including one as part of a huge 2-0 home victory over eventual champions Liverpool, grabbing the attention of eyeballs worldwide, despite a last-place group finish from Red Star.

Highlights from Red Star’s victory over Liverpool (UEFA)

“That was the first year after 20 something years since Red Star (last) came into the Champions League,” Borjan said of the experience. “And it was really hard, but we got what, 4 points what was the toughest group in the Champions League, we beat Liverpool, tied Napoli, yeah we lost a couple of games with big score differences, but this is just one experience.”

“You go from that, you prepare for this year where we’re better for that experience, and I think this year we’ll do a lot better”

This season doesn’t look any easier, with last year’s Champions League runner-up Tottenham, German champions Bayern and Greek powerhouse Olympiacos to get through in this year’s group, as they find themselves in yet another powerful quartet. If Red Star is going to have any chance at finishing 3rd and playing in the Europa League knockout stage, let alone win a game or 2, Borjan is going to stand front and centre as a key piece for his side. 

It’s for that reason that current national team coach, John Herdman, places enormous trust on the tall but slender shoulders of Borjan. Despite strong pushes from other Canadian goalkeepers to try and claim the number 1 mantle, there has yet to be anything that convinces Herdman that his 6’4’’ starter deserves to be jostled from his starting position, but he knows the fact that there is competition only makes Borjan better.

“It puts the pressure on Milan, but if you know Milan, it’s where he thrives,” Herdman said when asked of the goalkeeping situation. “It’s what he wants, he doesn’t want to be coming in here and it’s easy for him, so I think that pressure is exactly what Milan needs to take his game to the next level.”

“But when you’ve got a guy who’s going to play against Tottenham, Bayern, you know he’s got big games coming up, when he’s performing in them games, you know what his ceiling is. I just don’t know what Max’s ceiling, Marco’s is, but I know that Milan can shut out (Mo) Salah, (Roberto) Firmino, that’s his ceiling.”

So despite increased calls for keepers like Max Crepeau, who is having a great season at the Vancouver Whitecaps despite their various woes, and Marco Carducci, who shines on CPL leaders Cavalry FC, Herdman knows what Borjan can deliver. 

“The guy can perform,” Herdman continued. “And he pulls out what, 12 shots, and he becomes in his stats, the number 3 goalkeeper in all European competitions last year, so when you play against players who can shoot in a split second, and you can’t even see the backlift, people like Maxime don’t experience that week-in and week-out, it’s a different level of thinking.”

“But if Milan’s injured, I got 2 great keepers fighting for that spot.” 

“It’s what he wants, he doesn’t want to be coming in here and it’s easy for him, so I think that pressure is exactly what Milan needs to take his game to the next level.”

Canadian Men’s National Team coach, John Herdman

The future of Canada’s goalkeeping:

Borjan giving some pointers to Carducci in training (Canada Soccer)

Borjan remains confident in the face of his incumbents, and it shows the poise of someone who is assured of his standing in both the squad and in the sphere of European football, as nothing seems to faze him. 

He remains complimentary of Canada’s goalkeeping situation, and while he wants to continue until he physically cannot play anymore, he knows that Canada is blessed to have potential replacements at the ready. After a period where it seemed like no young Canadian goalkeepers could get minutes, it’s been a golden period for Canada’s goalkeeping, and Borjan knows how huge it has been to see those improvements, as goalkeeping can often make or break international teams. 

“I think it’s getting better,” Borjan admitted. “You know with Max, and the other guys, (Jayson) Leutwiler is in England, there’s a couple of guys here (in North America), I think it’s getting really good, it’s progressing.”

“I’m really happy I have somebody who is going to step up to be number 1 in the future …when I retire.” he finished with a hearty laugh. 

For National team success, another big part of it comes down to the depth available in the pool, which can fluctuate, but it can also be controlled by various factors. With the CPL’s creation this year, a big gap was filled, one that was massively lacking in this country, giving an avenue for top young players to find minutes at a good level when the MLS route dries up for them. 

It’s one that Carducci took advantage of, after falling out of the system with the Whitecaps, and it is surely one that Crepeau could have benefitted from as well, as it took until a USL loan last year to get his name out there to suitors like the Whitecaps. It doesn’t matter how high the level of play is in a league, guys need to play, and it is one thing Borjan is happy to see many of his national teammates now do, after having seen periods where they would call up irregular starters and unattached free agents despite rust.  

“I mean for every player it’s really important to play from game to game to get a lot of experience,” Borjan said. “We’ve been getting a lot of guys who’ve been playing lately, which is very good as they’re getting a lot of experience, so they’re bringing experience here to the national team which is very important, they have to just continue playing at their clubs and bring the best when they come for the National team.”

“I’m really happy I have somebody who is going to step up to be number 1 in the future …when I retire.”

Milan Borjan

Moving on from the Gold Cup to qualifying in 2022:

Borjan is always happy to give some advice to his teammates (Keveren Guillou)

Canada’s tournament at the Gold Cup this past summer did not end like anyone would have expected to. After an assertive group stage, bar the loss to Mexico, they were facing a Haiti side that looked ripe for the picking, and Canada lived up to the hype early in the match, flying out to a 2-0 lead. 

But then everything fell apart, and in dramatic fashion. Thanks to some costly errors, including a mix-up between Borjan and full-back Marcus Godinho that led to Haiti’s pivotal first goal, Canada would eventually throw away the lead and lose 3-2 in regular time, marking the end of a historic capitulation. 

It was a rough period for the national team, as they knew they truly had a chance to win this tournament. Seeing Haiti go toe-to-toe with eventual champions Mexico, only losing 1-0 deep into extra time in the semi-final surely had to hurt the Canadian players, as they all knew that it easily could have been them doing the same.

Even though he didn’t lose the game, the team did, Borjan felt a lot of responsibility for how things all ended. As a leader of the squad, he felt like he had to be accountable for how it ended, and it led to a powerful moment in the airport on the way back to Serbia.   

“He carried it after the Gold Cup, he sent a text to the players when he was in the airport and it was one of the most powerful texts I’ve seen from any professional football player, he owned up,” Herdman said. “For the guys, if someone like Milan could do that and admit that in the past that he would have pointed fingers and blamed other people, (it shows that) he’s a special guy.”

And it’s that leadership that will be so valuable for Canada heading forward. For a team who’s starting 11 in the Haiti game only had 3 players over 30, with many of their top talents finding themselves between the ages of 19 and 26, veteran poise like what Borjan provides on a daily basis will go a long way for their squad. 

Which for Herdman, it only adds to the value that he brings to the side.

“If you get to know him behind the scenes he’s under-appreciated I think in this country,” Herdman said. “What he’s achieved is remarkable, absolutely remarkable, and when you speak to him he’s got so much pride to play for this bloody country, you speak to him and he wants to keep giving back.”

“Like his wife is in his ear for coming here, he’s got all this travel, she’s in his ear going ‘we got a young kid, why are you going to play against Cuba?’ Because it matters to him! ‘Come home early’ his club are asking. ‘No I’m staying, I’m a leader’.”

Don’t expect Borjan to retire anytime soon (Keveren Guilou)

And at 31, the leadership role and his importance to Herdman has surely played its part in keeping him motivated to prolong his national team career. To hear him speak glowingly of Herdman shows the impact the manager has had in his year and a half as a coach. People will question his tactical approach, and it does remain to be seen how he can handle that aspect of this game in those big matches, but no one can doubt the connection that he has with his players. 

Especially to someone like Borjan, who has been in the fold for nearly a decade, having played for a couple of different coaches, he has every reason to be less skeptical of what a new coach can bring. So when Borjan said that Herdman has brought a new vibe he has yet to feel in this country, you believe him. 

“A lot of things (have) changed, I mean a lot,” Borjan said honestly of Herdman. “Especially with John coming in, and his whole staff, things have changed a lot as you can see, we’ve been scoring a lot of goals in games, we’ve been playing very good, he brought in a lot of young guys, he has a winning mentality, which is very important as he gives these guys confidence in him and his whole staff.”

“I mean this guy (Herdman) has rebirthed the country in football, so I’m really happy to work with him, with a guy like that and a coach like that. Even without looking on the coaching side, his personality, his kindness and everything is just unbelievable.”

So when Herdman takes his crew down to games in the US, Mexico, Panama, Honduras and more, expect his players to be bought in and fighting tooth and nail for the shirt, with Borjan leading the way in that regard. 

For a guy who plays club football with some of the best fans in European football, Herdman will know that he’ll have at least one guy completely unfazed, no matter the environment. 

“It helps you a lot,” Borjan said assertively of handling tough stadiums. “Because especially when you go to Mexico, Honduras, Panama and countries like that, to play… I mean Red Star fans they’re just amazing, they’re our 12th player, they’re supporting us every game, I mean they’re some of the best fans in the world, to tell you the truth.”

He’ll continue to play and thrive at Red Star, as they have adopted him as one of their own, even giving him the club player of the year award last season. In an organization that has many different sports, loads of them at high levels, it was one of the biggest honours they could have given him, and it shows the confidence they have in the Canadian international.  

But as he alluded to earlier, he has not much of a chance to settle down long in the country that gave him so much, as his time in Canada came to an end nearly 15 years ago. He will want to keep competing at a top level for as long as he can, but one certainly wonders if the pull for home will start to become strong in the near future. 

With the growth of MLS, and now the creation of the CPL, including a team in his hometown of Hamilton (Forge), it only seems like a matter of time until he returns home. He understandably stays mum on that subject, as he remains bound to Red Star via his contract, but he sure left the door open for that possibility, and as we know in football when there is belief, you never know what can happen.  

“You never know,” Borjan finished with a smile when asked about the lure for home. “You know life is a gamble, to say it like that. You never know what will happen in the future. For now, I have a contract in Red Star for 4 years more, so we’ll see what will happen, but I’m finishing my coaching licence, so you never know, I might become a coach here (Canada).”

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2 thoughts on “Long-read: Milan Borjan relishing his role as a leader for Canada as he continues to give back to the country that helped both him and his family

  1. Fantastic story. Thank you.
    One amazing athlete. A fascinating and humble man!
    Milan is colossal and with his wings both Canada and Red Star Belgrade will continue to soar!
    Sky’s the limit…
    Good luck champ!

    Liked by 1 person

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