Nemanja Matic recently gave an insightful interview in which he discussed growing up in Serbia, his commitment to local football in his homeland and how it feels to have a street named after him!
Here's the interview, which was first published in the October issue of Inside United, the club's official monthly magazine...
Firstly, what was it like growing up in Serbia – can you describe your home town?
Yeah, I grew up in a small village with only one-and-a-half thousand people. It was good, good for me and I enjoyed that time with my friends. We were playing football most of the time and it was really nice.
Yes, my father was my coach when I was seven or eight years old. It was difficult for me because he always wanted me to do better and better. If I scored two or three goals sometimes in a game, he said it was still not good enough! So there were hard times for me! [Laughs]
And then you spent some time with both Red Star and Partizan Belgrade as a youngster...
I played in Red Star for four years and then Partizan for one-and-a-half years. I spent some nice times there. Partizan and Red Star are two of the best clubs in Serbia and I learned a lot there. I really enjoyed the experience spent at both of them.
We visited Partizan last year as part of the Under-19s’ trip to Belgrade and they were very welcoming but keen to stress they were big rivals with Red Star…
Yes, they are big rivals. The stadiums are very close to each other, maybe one kilometre in distance between the grounds. So they are big rivals who always fight for the title. This year, Partizan played Beskitkas to get into the Europa League and Red Star faced Red Bull Salzburg for the Champions League. They both have good teams and are big clubs.
Yes, in the ex-Yugoslavia, we also had a good league with big clubs. Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split, Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade, Zeleznicar from Sarajevo. There were many good clubs and the league was very hard but it was a long time ago. I can’t remember a lot from that time.
Is it correct that you now co-own your local club in Serbia, Vrelo Sport?
Yeah, I try to help my club, from my town where I grew up. I like to help young players. I try to make them better and ensure they have better conditions on the pitch than I had when I started to play. I enjoy doing that. I think they can improve more [with better pitches] because if, one day, they play at a high level, they have to know what to expect. So it’s very important for them.
Do you watch them very often or is it difficult to get back with your commitments at United?
I don’t watch a lot but some of them, the ones that are on the internet. If it’s on there, I’ll watch it. When I am with the national team, sometimes we have one or two days off before the international game so I can go there and see them. I watched a couple of games last season.
When I am on the pitch, I really enjoy it. When I’m in the stand, you are a supporter. Sometimes it’s good for me. It’s difficult to watch Manchester United, when I’m in the stands or on the bench, because I can’t help. But to watch other clubs from the stands, it’s good and I enjoy it.
It’s been reported supporters usually nibble on pumpkin seeds as refreshments during the games – could you ever see that catching on in England?
I do the same in the summer! Yeah, there were some guys taking pictures and they saw me in February. It was the Fifth Division team from my village and I saw the guys filming but it was no problem. [IU: At least it’s healthy food…] [Laughs]. Yes of course.
And did the team [Vrelo] win the championship?
Three times in a row! Promotion! We made the club three years ago so, every year, we’ve been first. We’ve had 80 games and only lost one game, with a couple of draws. All the other games were wins so now my club is in the Fourth Division, like League Two in England.
Do you have any family or friends involved with the team?
Some of them play, my friend is the coach and my cousin is the sports director. They enjoy this. It isn’t professional, it’s just for fun.
Do you ever offer advice or do you prefer to leave them to the running of the team?
No. I know them and some of them understand football really well. When I go there, I just enjoy it and spend time after the game speaking about it. [Did you join in the title celebrations?] Of course. I enjoyed it. I’m always there when they celebrate! [Laughs]
The newly built Jedinstrvo stadium near your home town, which you also helped with, is named after Dragan Djazic, can you tell us more about him?
He’s the best Yugoslavian player ever. He’s our neighbour as he grew up in the same place I grew up. We’re really proud to have someone from our village play for Red Star Belgrade and he was the best left-winger, at that time, in the world. I wasn’t born when he played but I saw some videos and my father and all the people told me he was, at that time, one of the best players in the world. Probably with a few Manchester United players, Eusebio and Pele. It was great that people say this. So, yes, we gave the stadium name to Dragan Djazic because he deserved it.
There is now a ‘Nemanja Matic Street’ nearby – have you been there and how humble does that make you feel?
Yes, I’ve been and it’s nice. It’s strange to see my name. The people in the town wanted to have a street in my name and I asked them: ‘Are you sure?’ because I had to sign that I agreed to give my name to the street. So, first of all, I checked again if they were sure they wanted to do that and they said ‘yes’. I’m proud of it.
Is it important to you to retain this connection to your roots?
Of course. I always have that connection every day. I’m in touch with my old friends and family and it’s going to be like this until the end of my life. I like them and they like me. We are always in touch. They follow my games and, one day, I will go back to live there.
Are there any broader aims with the club, such as developing young talent, throughout Serbia and not just close to you?
Yeah, I think Serbia always has great talents. The only thing we have missing are the conditions. We don’t have that many stadiums and they are very, very old and not modern. But I think, now, the Serbian FA have started to invest in the stadiums and they are going to be, of course, better for the players, better for the supporters and help towards the games. They need to invest a lot if they want the football to improve a fair bit.
Clearly playing at the World Cup was a huge deal for the country – you really showed your passion and pride out in Russia in the way you performed?
Of course, it was a great experience for me and very important. We did our best in the first game to help us qualify from the group stage. We did our best, we won that, but then lost the second and third game. The second game [against Switzerland], especially, we should have done better. We had a chance to qualify for the next round but we didn’t have enough experience to do it. I think, in the future, it’s very important for us to qualify for the Euros and, with the experience we have from the World Cup, I think we can do more. It was an amazing experience and there was great organisation from the Russian Federation. Yes, I was very happy. I enjoyed it and hope Serbia can also be there at the next World Cup.
The full interview with Nemanja appeared in the October issue of Inside United, the official magazine, which features regular exclusive insights from the players. November's issue is on sale now - featuring Marcus Rashford on the cover.