Alen Stevanovic was certainly the most unfamiliar name announced by Sinisa Mihajlovic in Serbia's squad to face Belgium and Macedonia in the upcoming 2014 World Cup qualifiers. The peculiar thing is he is even more unfamiliar to the Serbian public than abroad, having spent the past three years plying his trade between Italy and Canada after initially being born in Switzerland.
Answering journalists at a press conference held in the Serbian team's ultra-modern headquarters in Stara Pazova, half an hour away from Belgrade, Stevanovic admitted the path to what he called his childhood dream had been «a little bumpy». This may come as an understatement for a player who was still without any national allegiance just two years ago.
Born in Switzerland to a Serbian mother on January 7 (the day Serbian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas), 1991, without having ever met his biological father who left , Stevanovic was just three months of age when he was sent to his maternal grandparents in the small town of Becmen, 3500 inhabitants, only notorious for hosting Belgrade's main airport nearby. He grew up raised by his grandmother and uncle, his mother staying in Switzerland to eke out a living for that extended family living in wartime and subjected to a UN embargo.
Hindsight may retrospectively point at Red Star Belgrade's Champions League victory, just two weeks after Alen was sent back to what was then Yugoslavia, as a defining moment of the toddler's life. Besotted with football, Alen is soon scouted by Second League outfit Radnicki Novi Beograd, who sign him to their football academy in 2000.
He makes the move to First League outfit Radnicki Obrenovac in 2008 aged seventeen, completing a mere 15 appearances before Italian giants Inter Milan six months later, having initially come to Serbia to assess his team-mate, playmaker Filip Djuricic.
He lands in Milan two days after his 18th birthday, on January 9, 2009 and signs for the Italian champions the following week. Quickly establishing himself in the team's Primavera where he wears the number 10, Stevanovic is picked by José Mourinho as part of the team that travels to Abu Dhabi on a winter training camp in the midst of its Champions League winning campaign. He gets his first minutes in an Inter shirt starting against local side against Al Hilal, making an impression that leads the Portuguese coach to name him regularly in the team's extended squad in Serie A games.
His ascent is slowed down when a rushing ambulance nearly crashes into him in the streets of Milan, leaving him sidelined for six months with a broken arm.
The big moment comes exactly one year after he landed in Milan, on January 9, 2010. Inter are trailing 2-3 at home to relegation-bound Siena deep into the second half, threatening to end José Mourinho's nine-year unbeaten run at home and leave Inter trailing behind AS Roma in the title race.
Two minutes after Massimo Maccarone shocks the San Siro and puts Siena one up, the Portuguese coach turns to Alen Stevanovic, of all players on the bench, and asks him to come up. He enters the pitch seconds later, suddenly and unexplainedly thrown into the limelight.
A couple of wayward touches of the ball get the Giuseppe Meazza crowd exhaling its disconcert at that bold move from Mourinho. Fifteen minutes later, at the end of an action initiated by Stevanovic, Wesley Sneijder converts a chance that levels the scoreline before Walter Samuel scores an injury-time winner that will, in hindsight, prove decisive for Inter as they end the season atop the rankings with a mere two points more than second-ranked AS Roma.
Though Stevanovic does not appear again with Inter that season, officials from the Swiss football federation send scouts to assess the possibility of him representing Switzerland at the highest level. He turns them down saying he would prefer playing for Serbia. Weeks later however, the Serbia U19 coach Aleksandar Stanojevic calls him up for a friendly where Stevanovic fails to show up, feeling the U19 level is beneath him.
The uncertainty surrounding his personal situation seems to bear upon his output on the pitch as his performances for Torino in Serie B, where he was loaned to gain some valuable game time, turn sour.
He is offloaded to Toronto FC in Canada where he sinks into oblivion after a mere two months at the club. Judged as being too pretentious by his team-mates, he is left on the bench by successive coaches dismissing his technical abilities. Soon recalled to Torino in what already looks like a last-ditch attempt to turn the tables around, Stevanovic is at an all-time low.
Just when you thought the youngster would come to join the ranks of the numerous promising talents left on the pavement after a short spell at Inter, Stevanovic decides the time has come to spell it out, strings a series of outstanding performances and ends the season voted in the ideal Young XI of the season with some outstanding goals to his name.
One of the key contributors to Torino's ascent to Serie A, he has established himself as a skilful winger with technical abilities as well as hard work, something he was once criticised for. The Inter board are closely monitoring his performances and it is no surprise Mihajlovic, Mancini's former assistant in that club, is the first person willing to take advantage of it.
Follow Igor on Twitter @Mladenovic_.
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