The love of football helped young Serbian Ljubomir Moravac recover from the loss of part of his left arm in a road accident – which ended his promising career as a goalkeeper – and he has found a new way forward in the game as a referee.
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Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA is focusing on a player from one of its 55 member associations. This person will be an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story will exemplify how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing and enjoying football.
For Ljubomir Moravac, football has been an immense healing force that has helped him deal with the aftermath of tragedy.
The 21-year-old from Serbia was setting out hopefully on a career as a goalkeeper with Slovenian club NK Maribor when he was involved in a road accident in 2016 that cost two team-mates their lives and left him facing the future with part of his left arm amputated.
His spirit could have been shattered – far from it; courage, pride, a positive outlook and, importantly, his enduring love for football have all been crucial elements on Ljubo's road to recovery. Football's welcoming arms have given him particular hope, comfort and solace – and the strength to rebuild and move on. Now he is training to be a referee, having found a new place in the game that he loves.
Ljubo, originally from Nis, began playing with a ball at the age of five. He is part of a football family; his father and uncle were keen players, while elder brother Ranko, a midfielder, was capped at Serbian youth level. "Football was always present in my life," he says.
Inspired by his goalkeeping uncle, Ljubo showed promise between the posts. At 16, he moved with his father, a players' scout, and Ranko to the Slovenian city of Maribor. He eventually joined local club NK Maribor, where Ranko had already signed a professional contract, and started to figure in the youth teams. The two brothers spent a while as team-mates in the club's B team, with Ljubo eager to match Ranko's progress.
By the 2014/15 season, Ljubo was a member of the Maribor squad that played in the UEFA Youth League group stage. He enjoyed travelling to England, Portugal and Germany, where Maribor faced Chelsea, Sporting CP and Schalke, and he nurtured one overriding dream – to make the grade as a professional goalkeeper.
"When I had finished high school, I decided only to focus on football. I dedicated all my time to football, and to try and make a living out of it. This was my greatest wish."
But then, on 2 August 2016, his young life was turned upside down. "I woke up ready for training and had breakfast," he recalls. "I went to training, we were all laughing in the dressing room, everything was positive and normal. Just a usual day ..."
After training, Ljubo and three of his colleagues – striker Zoran Baljak, full-back Damjan Marjanović and defender Žiga Lipušček – set out in a car from the club training centre. Shortly afterwards, the car collided with a set of traffic lights.
Zoran and Damjan died at the scene of the accident, and Žiga suffered minor injuries. Ljubo was thrown out of the car. He was taken unconscious to hospital and spent several days in a coma. His left arm was so badly injured that doctors decided that amputation of part of the arm was necessary.
Ljubo's world had been changed dramatically, but it was now that a naturally positive nature shone through. "I needed to adjust to this new life," he says. "It's not as hard as some people think. You simply need to be strong enough."
Surrounded by his loving family, he refused to feel self-pity. "I thought to myself that I still had my life in front of me, and the possibility to create something out of my life."
Football played a primordial role in Ljubo's journey through recuperation. "It gave me a specific mindset. I was a sportsman who always wanted to prove himself." He likens his fierce will to recover after the accident to a match that he had to win.
He always remembers the care he received from Maribor through the tough moments. "The club is like my second family," he stresses. "They were always at my side, trying to find a way to help me. All my friends were by my side, too, and that was invaluable."
After the initial spell of doubt, Ljubo decided that he wanted to stay in football somehow. "If you live for football, football will then help you at any moment," he explains. Maribor suggested he take up training to be a referee, and a new football pathway opened.
He has been gaining experience over the past few months, in particular by refereeing children's games. The new challenge is energising him. "After the accident," he admits, "I didn't see how I could continue with football. I thought it was the end of my football career. But then I found a way to return.
"This is a new time for me. I am not a player any more, now I am a referee, and my intention is to keep walking this path."
The inbuilt determination to succeed will definitely stand Ljubo in great stead. "I wish to experience more and achieve as much as possible in my life," he says. "I think I'm capable of succeeding. I survived [the accident], and this is the privilege that drives you to think positively."
Ljubo completely endorses the values embedded in UEFA's #EqualGame campaign. "I believe anybody can be part of football," he insists. "It doesn't matter who you are. I lost my arm and I am still part of football. I do think that football is open to everyone."