*With four different tournaments kicking off this summer (the Women’s World Cup, the Copa América, the Gold Cup, and the African Cup of Nations), Between the Sticks will preview one goalkeeper to watch from each tournament. The other previews can be accessed by clicking on the embedded hyperlinks.*
Milan Borjan was not supposed to become a professional goalkeeper.
“He’s a refugee,” said Milos, host of the Serbian Football Show on Football Nation Radio. “He’s experienced a tough road and a long road.”
Borjan was born to ethnic Serbs in Knin. Then part of SFR Yugoslavia, Knin has been described as a “Serbian separatist territory in Croatia”, and during the Croatian War of Independence, Serbs were forced to flee the city following a takeover by Croatian forces. Borjan was just 8-years-old when his family found refuge in Belgrade in 1995. Five years later, the Borjans moved to Canada, specifically to Hamilton, Ontario.
“His family left Serbia with nothing, and they came to Canada with nothing,” Milos said.
Football had been a part of Borjan’s daily life up until that point. In Knin, he played for HNK Dinara’s youth academy, and in Belgrade, he represented the youth team of FK Radnički Beograd. But while there were some youth teams available for Borjan in Hamilton, his opportunities at going professional were limited.
“It was not easy to make a great soccer career out of Canada,” Milos said. “Soccer is not in the spotlight here, and there was no Canadian first division soccer league when he was growing up. So he had to go abroad [to South America] at a young age to make it.”
Although Borjan chose to represent the Canadian national team, he’s still adored back in Serbia. He currently plays for the country’s most successful football team, Red Star Belgrade. Furthermore, Serbians connect deeply to his story as a refugee.”
“Serbians see a commonality in him,” Milos said. “A lot of Serbian people don’t live in Serbia anymore due to the wars, so they are refugees themselves. He has the same story as them, so they have a connection to him.”
The fact that he’s backstopped Red Star against some of Europe’s top clubs is also a source of inspiration for a people group that has been through so much.
“If he can make it to the Champions League, they can make it in whatever aspect of life they’re trying to make it in,” Milos said. “After all, he made it from nothing, so why can’t you?”
Milan Borjan is well-traveled from a footballing perspective. He’s trialed/played for youth and professional clubs across various different countries, including places like Argentina, Uruguay, Serbia, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
Those various moves might suggest that Borjan is a goalkeeper incapable of cementing himself as a long-term option. After all, he’s struggled to string together three consecutive uninterrupted seasons at any specific club, and prior to his move to Red Star Belgrade, he had experienced just one season in which he made 30+ appearances (2012-2013 with Sivasspor).
At the same time, these global adventures have allowed Borjan to experience several different football cultures, and they’ve each played a role in the development of his own unique brand of goalkeeping.
“Goalkeeping styles and training differ in Canada compared to South America or Eastern Europe,” Milos said. “So I’m sure every stop has taught him new things, and all of those different skills have molded him into the player that he is today.”
These skills are a good mix of hard goalkeeping qualities like reflexes and quick reactions, as well as more tactical and personality-related traits like commanding his box and leadership.
“He has good reflexes, he’s a great shot-stopper, and he’s really good at controlling his area,” Milos said.
These traits, coupled with his lanky frame, have led to some comparisons to Petr Čech, the recently retired Czech goalkeeper.
“He’s not the same polished, ‘make zero mistakes’ type of player as Čech,” Milos said. “But I would say Borjan is kind of similar to him just based on his size, reflexes, and maybe goalkeeper I.Q.”
On the point of mistakes, they’re an occasional occurrence in Borjan’s game. Sometimes surprisingly, Borjan will err on what looks to be a simple play, resulting in a goal where there shouldn’t have been one.
“He sometimes has a mental lapse or two,” Milos said. “Every now and then, he makes an error that’s really head-scratching. Even for Red Star, he’s had a couple of mistakes that just come out of nowhere.”
This could be down to the quality of teams that he’s represented. On the club level, Borjan’s clubs have rarely been the crème de la crème of their leagues, so their quality bleeds into the Canadian’s play. On the national team level, Canada have experienced some very dark results in the 2010s, king of which was their 8-1 loss to Honduras in 2012. Borjan did not appear in that game, but he was involved in similar matches where Canada lacked creativity and drive.
“It’s tough because you’re judged on team success, and Canada has had some disasters in qualifying in the past,” Milos said. “So it’s difficult to get a lot of praise when you’re letting in the goals.”
This doesn’t take away from Borjan’s impactfulness, though. As most viewers will tell you, he’s more often dependable than not.
“For 95% percent of the time, he’s a solid goalkeeper that’s reliable,” Milos said.
Borjan’s reliability has played its part in the recent success of Red Star Belgrade. The Canadian international joined Red Star in the summer of 2017. In his first season, he backstopped the club to the 2018 Serbian SuperLiga title; the club’s first since 2016. More importantly, he played a pivotal role in Red Star’s qualification to the 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League.
“He’s a big part of why the club even made it to the Champions League,” Milos said. “He made a couple of big saves against Red Bull Salzburg in the final play-off round. So he’s played a huge role.”
In the Champions League, Red Star were drawn into the so-called “Group of Death” with Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, and the eventual champions Liverpool. Very few people gave Red Star a shot at putting any kind of positive performance together. But while the club was eventually eliminated from the group stage, they did earn a 0-0 draw against Napoli and a famous 2-0 victory over Liverpool. Their place in club folklore was cemented.
“This whole team are club legends for getting the club back into the Champions League and for that Liverpool performance,” Milos said. “These guys will be gods forever just for that one giant feat.”
Borjan in particular was one of Red Star’s best performers. He averaged a WhoScored rating of 7.26; the second highest among goalkeepers who played four or Champions League games. He also saved a group stage-leading 39 shots, including a UCL-high 29 saves from within the penalty area (six-yard box included). Borjan averaged about 6.5 saves per game, making him the busiest starting goalkeeper in the 2018-2019 Champions League group stage.
“He’s had big saves in every game, including against Liverpool,” Milos said. “He’s definitely a club legend [for that].”
Borjan was equally spectacular in the Serbian SuperLiga. He finished the season as a league champion for the second time in a row. This time though, Borjan was included in the league’s Team of the Season, marking the first time Borjan has ever earned that honour.
“He’s definitely been one of the best players and one of the best performers for the club,” Milos said. “And that’s why he got a new contract until 2023.”
After a successful club season, Borjan’s focus now shifts to the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup. With Canada boasting a plethora of young, world-class talents—18-year-old Alphonso Davies, 19-year-old Jonathan David, 21-year-old Derek Cornelius, and others—they’re viewed as a prime trophy favourite outside of Mexico and the United States.
But could the relative youthfulness of their squad hinder their chances? Will the pressure get to the heads of the players, most of whom have less than 20 career national team caps? This is where the presence of someone like the 31-year-old Milan Borjan can benefit the team.
“Canada has a lot of exciting, young players coming through their system,” Milos said. “But they need more experience, and that’s where guys like Borjan can help those younger players. They’ll let them know what to do in those big moments and prevent them from losing their heads.”
Since making his national team debut in 2011, Borjan has earned over 40 caps for the Canucks. He’s been a part of all but one Canadian Gold Cup roster since his debut (he missed the 2015 edition), and he represented Canada in both 2014 and 2018 World Cup qualification. Only two players on Canada’s current roster—Will Johnson and Atiba Hutchinson—have appeared in more matches than the 31-year-old, and that makes him one of the most experienced players on the squad.
“He’s played in big games and he’s been a part of this game for a really long time,” Milos said. “His experience and leadership from the back are invaluable, and he’ll help the whole team function better.”
Canada opened up their 2019 Gold Cup with a 4-0 win over Martinique. Although Jonathan David, Junior Hoilett, and Scott Arfield grabbed the goals, it was Borjan who put in arguably the team’s best performance. His superb stops on quality Martinique chances kept Canada’s lead intact, and his clean sheet was his fourth career clean sheet in the competition; a national team record.
With Mexico awaiting Canada in their next match, Borjan will continue to have his work cut out for him. If he does star again though, expect more plaudits to rain down his way.
“His performances will not go unnoticed,” Milos said.
Special thanks to Milos for his analysis. He is a football fan who is particularly passionate about Serbian football. He runs the Twitter account @SerbianFooty. He also hosts the Serbian Football Show on Football Nation Radio. He is currently based in Canada.