Tottenham's Dejan Kulusevski on taking the hard path to the Champions League
Tuesday, March 7, 2023
"It's crazy to say, but sometimes suffering is a nice feeling," explains Tottenham midfielder Dejan Kulusevski as he talks through what it takes to make it to the Champions League.
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FedEx returns with Next in Line, the #UCL series showcasing some of the most exciting, talented youngsters in European Football. Each episode looks at the player's footballing journey to date, the inspirations and ambitions behind their success, as well as the role that data and analytics play in helping take their performance to the next level.
The way Dejan Kulusevski remembers it, the first time he went out into the street in his native Stockholm to play football, his fate was sealed. "One parent saw me playing and he went straight up to my mum and told her that I have to play football and that I'm really talented," he said in an interview for the Next in Line series, presented by FedEx, which showcases the stars of the future.
Now 22, the Swedish men's player of the year is fulfilling that promise, his journey having taken him from the youth teams at local side Brommapojkarna to the UEFA Champions League. However, Kulusevski is anything but blasé about being at the very highest level of European football, having spent much of his childhood looking forward to just watching heroes like Eden Hazard on TV.
"Tuesdays, Wednesdays, nine o'clock in Sweden: I was there with popcorn, with my family, watching the teams, watching the best players in the world." Kulusevski's most vivid memory of those nights is from March 2011, when Goran Pandev hit a late winner in a 3-2 round of 16 success at Bayern to take holders Inter into the quarter-finals. "He was [North] Macedonian, like [us]. We were proud that he could score such an important goal."
In his teens, Kulusevski was spotted by an agent who then helped him join Atalanta at the age of 16. "I don't know if I was ready, but it was just a chance that I had to take," said Kulusevski. "I went there literally knowing zero Italian. I lived alone without my parents, but I could not give up because my biggest idols in life never gave up. I never saw my father complain, so that was not an option."
Within six months, he was speaking fluent Italian and coming on in leaps and bounds as a player. He made his senior debut for Atalanta in January 2019, then spent the following season on loan at Parma before moving to Juventus, where he made his Champions League debut in a 2-0 group stage win at Dynamo Kyiv in October 2020.
"I was so happy," he said. "I was [thinking], 'Now, finally, this is the big stage and this is where I'm going to score three goals on my debut.' We won the game, but I remember that I was not happy because I wanted to do so much more. But that's a good thing because then you want to train more, and you want to be better [in] the next game."
It was a year later, in a match at Zenit, that Kulusevski scored his first Champions League goal – a rather uncharacteristic header that secured a 1-0 away win. "I'm not very good with my head; we always joke about that," he explained with a smile. "It was just a fantastic goal and I remember that I didn't even celebrate because it was just a relief."
In January 2022, Kulusevski joined Tottenham Hotspur on an 18-month loan. His ability and work-rate have endeared him to home supporters, but English football and Antonio Conte have been extremely demanding. "I never met a man that wants it more than him," he said of the Spurs coach, adding: "The thing that surprised me the most is the physical part, like doing gym almost every day: going out, doing sprints. After that, maybe he tells you it's another training [session] in the afternoon. You think you're completely finished and you left it out there, but then after two hours you are there running for two more hours and doing 10km again. It's fun. It's crazy to say, but sometimes suffering is a nice feeling."
The effort is worth it. Kulusevski is troubling defenders, scoring goals and creating opportunities, but while he says he is "on the right path", he knows he has a way to go. "I want to win and win the big titles: win the World Cup, win the Champions League. [I want to be remembered as] a guy that won a lot but respected everybody and was a good team-mate and always brought energy every day to training and was always thankful for the life that God gave me." At 22, he is starting to build that legacy.