Defender Nikola Vukanac turned 28 today – and when he was brought up in Belgrade he probably did not think he would be celebrating his birthday in Malta.
Raised an FK Crvena zvezda fan, the former Yugoslavian youth international began his career at FK Zemun – "I spent 12 years there and learned everything about professional football and life outside football" – before playing in Slovakia and then moving to Malta in 2009. He has helped Birkirkara to two Premier League titles and is a popular figure at the club, but one wish still remains.
"My dream has always been to wear the shirt of Red Star Belgrade – Crvena zvezda," Vukanac told UEFA.com. "That is my home, it is part of me. I hope that one day I will get a chance to realise this big dream of mine. I will never stop dreaming because Crvena zvezda are in my blood."
Vukanac arrived in Malta in June 2009 – yet despite impressing Birkirkara boss Paul Zammit during his one-month trial, the reigning champions had to pass on him as they already had the maximum number of foreign players on their books. "I did not know anything about this beautiful little country," Vukanac said.
"A friend of mine told me nice things about it and I decided to come over and try my luck. I think it was God's will as many things went in my favour. I signed a contract with Vittoriosa Stars but you will never guess what happened – the club got relegated."
However, with Birkirkara's stalwart central defender Ronnie Hartvig retiring, centre-back Vukanac was promptly snapped up for 2009/10. "Without a club and pondering what to do with my career, all of a sudden I was winning the Premier League with Birkirkara," he said." I will never forget the emotions when we won the title."
His form continued to flourish. After eliminating Andorran champions FC Santa Coloma 7-3 on aggregate in the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League first qualifying round, Birkirkara faced a club Vukanac knew well, Slovakia's title holders MŠK Žilina. Vukanac – whose Slovak sojourn had taken him to MŠK Rimavská Sobota and MFK Vranov – scored 47 seconds into the first leg, which proved enough for a maiden Maltese victory in that round of competition, though Birkirkara lost the return 3-0.
Fitness fanatic Vukanac helped Birkirkara to another championship last term, and they currently sit six points clear of Valletta FC after 11 straight wins. "We will definitely be giving more than 100% to stay at the top and remain there come next May. I am sure that we can make it. Winning another title would be special.
"Birkirkara have helped me a lot and offered me a chance which I can never forget," he added. "I still really appreciate it. From 2009 I have worked under the guidance of Paul Zammit – a fantastic coach – and with team-mates and players who, for me, are the best on the island.
"I am delighted to be part of this great club. I must also mention our supporters – our 12th man, always! The hard-working committee and all the people involved in the running of this club are amazing – they are always there whenever we need them."
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