What makes the Kaizer Chiefs striker such an instant hit in the Premier Soccer League and how did he end up at Naturena?
Kaizer Chiefs striker Samir Nurkovic has always given his all, working as a waiter and cutting wood in forests during winter in years gone by in Serbia, as he works towards building a new house for his parents. So there was no way he was going to give less than 100 percent when coach Ernest Middendorp brought him in on a free transfer from a Second Division club in Slovakia, where he was playing in front of 100 fans. KICK OFF’s Lovemore Moyo investigates.
Serbian striker Samir Nurkovic has proven to be the best signing that Kaizer Chiefs have made since Ernst Middendorp took over as the coach. He arrived as an unknown who had played almost all his football in Slovakia and his signing prompted just about all local fans to search for his name on Google. On face value, what came out the research was not appealing as he had struggled to last longer than a year at any of the eight clubs he had been with since he started playing first team football in July 2011.
However, he has really made the best of time at Chiefs, quickly establishing himself as the main striker.
Nurkovic knows how to hunt when the situation demands and never gets tired of searching for an opening, be it with his head or his feet. For a striker to have played from start to finish in all but just two games for Chiefs this season shows how much energy he has and how much trust he has earned. The 28-year-old has missed just three games – he was injured in two and then suspended in the other.
He has been averaging a goal in every second match that he has played with 12 goals in 24 appearances, and has proven to be a traditional number nine who is useful both in the air and the ground.
If Chiefs can hold on at the top to win the league, they will have Nurkovic to thank, considering the kind of contribution he has made.
“I was surprised that a player of his qualities was playing in the Second Division in Slovakia when we started working together,” says his German-born Croat agent Dajan Simac.
“But then since he wasn’t an 18-year-old anymore, it was hard to find him a serious club with ambition in Europe, so I said to him: ‘You have to leave Europe because Europe is over for you, so let us try something totally new’.”
‘Middendorp brave to take a player from Second Division’
Simac himself is a retired footballer who played in Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Serbia and Croatia, where he has now settled since he hung up his boots.
“We were lucky that Ernst had a huge part in him ending up at Chiefs because he believed that Samir can help him. I think it was also brave of Ernst to take a player from the Second Division in Slovakia and I am pretty sure a lot of people in South Africa thought, ‘how the hell will a striker from the Second Division in Slovakia be of help to Chiefs?’.
“I know Ernst via a friend who has always been in contact with him and who told me that Ernst is looking for a striker. I didn’t know Ernst personally before then because I had only played against teams that he coached and the first contact I got from him was when he said I am interested in your player. I was really surprised,” reveals Simac.
“I told Samir right away that this is a club with a lot of fans that plays in big stadiums and it is either with your quality the fans will support you towards succeeding or you will be scared and after half a year you are back home.
“When a player has never played in front of up to 90 000 fans, they sometimes get scared. Fortunately, Samir is the kind of guy that if you believe in him, he always wants to pay back. He wants to be the best striker in the league and win titles, so that he proves that he is someone in football because in all these years he was underrated and that is why his career has been a strange one.
“Can you imagine that just one year ago he was playing in front of 100 people at times because nobody cares about the Second Division in Slovakia. Even the
“ERNST HAD A HUGE PART IN HIM ENDING UP AT CHIEFS BECAUSE HE BELIEVED THAT SAMIR CAN HELP HIM.”
people of Slovakia don’t care about the Second Division.
“Now he has come to Chiefs and become a star. He appreciates everything that he now has, which is why even when I went with him to the mall while I was in South Africa, he had time to take pictures with all the fans one by one.
“By way of behaviour, he is my best client and I am sure that he can become the best striker in the league, which is what he wants,” he says.
The three-year deal that Nurkovic signed didn’t need much of a negotiation considering that he arrived on a free transfer after having been with KFC Kormano.
“The contract at Chiefs is obviously better than what he was on in Slovakia. He is not amongst the high earners at the club because when he joined, we were not in a situation to be demanding.
“I understood the doubts around him and questions about whether he would help improve the team, but he arrived on a free transfer on a low salary meaning the risk was low. It was brave from Ernst to take him because this was a player moving to a club where the fan pressure and media focus is 100 times higher.
“As a nobody you must show that you are a guy who can make the difference,” points out his representative.
What seems to set Nurkovic on a path to success is his character, which is the reason why he adjusted so quick, Simac adds.
“I couldn’t even imagine that he would do it so fast. I was scared that time would run out and the club would in the end say they don’t have patience anymore with him because this is Kaizer Chiefs and they want to win the league, so they cannot wait for him to adapt, which is normal in this business.
“But then his character … I will never forg get when we got to the airport and I reminded him about the need to take care of his mon ey because he is not on a big contract. I told h im not to spend his money on trash and I was surprised when he said he won’t because h e wants to build his parents a new house.
“He told me that all the money that he will w earn in his first year will be for the house. I work with a lot of players, but I have never had h a player tell me this. I was charmed.
“In the past, when he got injured, he wou uld work in his father’s restaurant as a waiter an d then in the winter he went to the forest to c cut trees. He casually told me that even though h it was hard work it was good training for both body and mind.
“When I was in South Africa, I saw just how much people are comfortable with him and how he is also at ease with them, and I was like, ‘this is unbelievable for someone who has been here for a short time’.
“When he arrived at Chiefs, I asked Ernst to take care of him [physically] because he has no balance when he is working. He works too much and that was why he got injured in the past.
“When I was at his house in South Africa he went to the gym for one and a half hours, two days before the game and he told me that he had to hurry up because I was there otherwise he would have taken three hours.
“When I am talking to him about business he always says ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, like a lot of the
He is not a guy who will cheat you. He is a very easy guy from next door,” explains Simac.
Such is the way that Nurkovic has fallen in love with South Africa that he has even enquired about playing for Bafana Bafana.
“The country is so beautiful that
Samir thinks it won’t be bad for him to stay on in the country even when his career is done. He is so in love with the country that while I was visiting him in November, he even asked me to enquire about if he has any chance to play for Bafana Bafana because if there was, he would do it right now.
“I then had a chat with Bobby [Motaung] who told me that he must live in the country for five years until he can get a South African passport. We didn’t go deep into the matter but that remains a dream of his. That is how much he appreciates the country after only such a short time living there,” he notes.
South Africa has for long been more popular l wi ith Serbian coaches than it has been with players, with just three footballers, Obren Cuc ckovic, Zdravko Djekic and Dejan Bogunovic c, from the south eastern European country h having played in the country.
The players didn’t leave much of an im mpression in domestic football. Cuck kovic is not even a name that many wou ld remember as he played just one gam me for Moroka Swallows during the 2014 4/ 15 season, while Bogunovic had a brief f spell with Maritzburg United in the 2006 6/ 07 season. Djekic was at Witbank Aces.
It is coac ches that have been aplenty from Zoran Pesi c, Kosta Papic, Veselin Jelusic, Milutin Sre edojevic, Vladislav Heric, Vladimir Vermezovi c, Zoran Filipovic, Dusan Kondic, Moma Med dic and Zlatko Krmpotic.
“FOOTBALL HAS TAUGHT US THAT YOU MUST NEVER JUDGE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW, AND THIS GUY IS AN EXAMPLE.”
Heric has been the longest Serbian serving in domestic football having been with 14 clubs locally – mostly in the NFD – in as many years.
“What I like about him is that he was quick to realise all the weaknesses of the defenders that we have here in the PSL and has used it to good effect,” Heric says, who already knew about Nurkovic prior to his arrival in South Africa.
“He has realised how and when to get into the box. His positioning in the box is marvellous whether he is creating a goal or scoring one himself.
“I was told that he was recommended by Partizan Belgrade to go to Slovakia. You must understand that it is difficult for strikers to perform at every club that they go to. If a striker does well at one club it doesn’t mean that he will do well everywhere he goes.
“I knew Nurkovic is a good striker and I was told about him some two to three years ago by a good friend of mine who knows his coach in Slovakia. I didn’t know him in person but just heard about him.
“I think he has started very well for someone who is only in his first season in the
PSL. We don’t know what will happen with him in the future but what I know is that he mentally very strong. I believe that he will find a way of maintaining his form after the coronavirus-enforced break,” says Heric.
Yesteryear Chiefs forward Fees Moloi feels credit should be given to Middendorp and all that have made Nurkovic the success that he has become.
Truth is that the easiest option would have been to dismiss the Serbian based on what was available about him on the internet.
“When you are a coach, you profile your players when you go out and scout them, and then again when you now have them so that you are informed about you are going to play,” says Moloi.
“Nurkovic’s record at Chiefs now shows that he was a right recruitment. His profiling now shows that he can play with his teammates because for him to score, he has to combine with the midfielders, which is a tick.
“Can he play without the ball and create space for his teammates? It is another tick. The evidence is now there that his fellow midfielders understood him quick and he also a adapted to the system used quickly enough, e which is why he has scored goals the t way he has done.
“So, credit to the coach and again credit to t his teammates because it takes time to understand a player and for that player to understand other players. The coach can identify i [a target], which is half the job, but will w he fit in with the rest of his teammates?
“I give him the credit for understanding the t system because I never knew the guy. Football has taught us that you must never judge j what you don’t know, and this guy is an a example,” he adds.
Fellow Serbian coach Moma Medic admits that t he had never heard of the Chiefs striker prior p to his arrival at the club, but has been impressed i by what he has seen.
Medic is a former Orlando Pirates assistant coach c who was most recently with Royal Eagles and Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila.
“Nurkovic grew up there at a time when I was already out of the country but what I have seen is how well he has performed up to now. What he did or was doing before doesn’t matter because what counts is what he is doing now and at this moment he is playing very well and has helped Chiefs get to be where they are.
“I don’t know him personally and only met him once at a hotel and we spoke for a short time. In him I have seen a player who is good in the air and can also play on the ground.
“He looks very educated tactically and is physically very strong, with the plus being that he knows how to score the goals. He is always dangerous in the box and there are few players in the country who can play when defending as well, if the coach asks that of him. What matters most is that he understands football.
“Though I don’t know him from his time in Serbia and had never heard of him, what matters is that since he came to South Africa he has been scoring so everybody who plays against Chiefs now thinks about how they will stop Nurkovic, which means he is doing a good job,” says Medic, adding that Nurkovic is now known back home.
“Some people here in Serbia have now taken notice of his name because he is playing for Kaizer Chiefs. After all this world has become so small that when somebody scores goals anywhere in the world, everyone will know.
“The time of not knowing players is in the past now. There is no way that there can be a good player in South Africa, and nobody knows about him in the rest of the world,” Medic says.
“SOME PEOPLE HERE IN SERBIA HAVE NOW TAKEN NOTICE OF HIS NAME BECAUSE HE IS PLAYING FOR KAIZER CHIEFS.”