For Socceroos rising star Ajdin Hrustic, the Qatar World Cup is the next step on a longer journey – ABC News

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For Socceroos rising star Ajdin Hrustic, the Qatar World Cup is the next step on a longer journey
Even before he places it in the grass, Ajdin Hrustic knows exactly where he wants the ball to go.
He rotates it slightly, so it sits on top of the green blades just right.
Then the routine begins: three measured steps backwards, sharpened to an almost-90 degree angle; a few deep breaths to steady his racing heart; his left foot pointed like an arrow at the curved underside of the bright plastic.
As he looks up, the lights and the noise around him start to fade. His target is small, but he likes it that way. He looks back down at the ball and empties his mind, taking one final breath before striding forward.
His body twists as he brings his left foot around, striking through the ball with the in-step of his foot.
He watches it spin through the air and braces himself for impact.
The ball cracks into the side of the garden shed.
The old window he was aiming for rattles in its frame, but the glass doesn't break.
Hrustic is annoyed. He picks up the ball and tries it again, over and over, until the sun dips below his house in south-east Melbourne.
His mum will come outside eventually and confiscate his ball, conscious of disturbing the neighbours. But Hrustic, never satisfied, would just tie together a couple pairs of socks and continue practising around the house.
This is the origin story of one of the Socceroos' rising stars: the place he learned to do what he does, where he began to be who he has become.
"All I saw was football," Hrustic told ABC.
"I was this little boy who played tennis, who played cricket, who loved running. I think I did every sport possible. But at a certain age, I realised that football was the thing for me.
"My mum would say, 'you need to study, you need to go to school!' and I'd be like, 'yeah, I'm going to school every day' but all I'd do is bring a ball.
"This was my childhood, basically. There was a ball and me."
He was just five years old when his father, a Bosnian migrant, took him to his first training session at Heatherton United in Dandenong. He had to tell the club that Ajdin was older than what he was so he could be registered.
Some of his earliest football memories were of waking up at four or five in the morning with his dad to watch Bosnia play.
His parents arrived in Australia in 1995, before Ajdin and his two younger siblings were born, and football was one of the few ways to stay connected to his homeland.
As he got older, he'd sneak out of his room in the dark to watch the Champions League on his own, pinching a snack from the kitchen cupboard before tip-toeing back to bed with his parents none the wiser.
He didn't have a particular club he followed: he enjoyed Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona — whoever played the kind of football he wanted to play.
But someone who always stood out to him was David Beckham.
That's where his obsession with free kicks started.
Hrustic would wear the number seven and study Beckham's game like a scientist: how he placed the ball, how he angled himself, how he choreographed his run-up.
He even styled his hair the same: one ponytail, two ponytails, a headband (though he didn't go the full shave).
He's put his own twist on all that now, combining the techniques of Beckham with his other footballing inspiration, Harry Kewell, whose shirt number (10) he now wears for Australia.
But it was when he was 12 and moved to Victorian club South Melbourne that Hrustic's career really began to accelerate.
He trained three times a week across different programs, including an elite academy coached by Ange Postecoglou, with whom he still exchanges text messages.
The club travelled to a few tournaments, including a trip to England where he teed up a trial with Stoke City. They wanted to sign him then and there, but weren't able to get international clearance, so he came home.
Hrustic, once again, was not satisfied.
That tour sparked something in him, and within two years he was back in the UK; his family uprooting their lives to move across the world for his dream.
His mum was nervous about it: she'd wanted him to finish high school first. But Ajdin, who was 15 at the time, knew where his life was taking him. He was fixed on his window, as small as it may have seemed then.
"It was a massive risk, because you never know where you're going to end up," he said.
"Moving to England as a 15-year-old is something big, and every year that I got older, I got more mature, I realised what my parents did for me.
"I wake up every day and I think, 'I'll never forget what they've done for me and what they've sacrificed for me to be where I am.' They basically gave up their lives for me and my football."
Stints with Nottingham Forest, Austria Wien, and Schalke at youth level eventually led to his first senior contract with FC Groningen in the Netherlands in 2015.
Not only was that his first step into senior football, but it was his first step into life by himself.
"That was where it became a big deal," he said, "because that's where I was completely alone.
"Before then, I'd had my family with me and everything was fine. Even though they were close — they were in Germany — I was still totally alone. You need to pull your sleeves up and just get on with it.
"There weren't easy moments in my career. The easy moments, where everything shines, is all good, but when it's difficult is when you really mature.
"I was still a kid going through the crazy years of puberty and wanting to go out and wanting to be with friends. But my life was basically my family and my football.
"So when one of those was gone, that was hard. But when you think about the past and what your family has done for you, you say to yourself: 'you know what? I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna keep going and I'm not gonna give up.'"
It was with Groningen that Hrustic took his football to new heights.
He tallied almost 70 appearances for the club over four seasons, including five goals, and impressed enough to land on the radar of German giants Eintracht Frankfurt. He signed for them in 2020 and took the number seven jersey.
Two years later, in May, Hrustic became the first Australian to win the Europa League title after defeating Scottish side Rangers.
He was the second penalty taker in the final shoot-out, drawing on his memories of that shed window as he tucked the ball calmly into the bottom left corner.
"You don't realise what you want until you hold the trophy in your hands," he said, reflecting back one of the proudest moments of his career.
"And we did win. I did shoot a penalty, and it did go in. I saw a massive wall of blue supporters behind the goal go crazy. I turned around and saw a massive group of white supporters, too.
"But when I held the trophy, that was the first moment where I actually cried.
"You just think: you've been through so much. You've done so much. You've been to so many countries, and at some point, surely, it's all going to pay off.
"That was the moment where it paid off."
But, as has become a theme throughout Hrustic's life, he lifted his gaze towards the horizon, always wanting the next thing.
"I want even more now," he said.
"Now we've got the World Cup around the corner, which is the next goal of mine. We qualified, we achieved that. Slowly, it's all starting to take shape."
Despite his steady rise up the ranks overseas, Hrustic hadn't been on Australia's radar when it came to youth national teams.
His parents' heritage meant he was eligible to represent both Bosnia and Romania, and was even contacted by the former in 2017.
But Hrustic never doubted the green-and-gold was where his destiny lay.
"Australia gave me everything," he said. "I was born in Australia, I went to school in Australia, my first footballing years were in Australia.
"They gave my mum and dad a life. They flew from Bosnia to Australia in 1995; they accepted them, they gave them a house, they had work.
"The life I've got now is saying thanks to my parents, but also thanks to Australia for giving us the freedom and the joy to live.
"You've experienced so much with this one country, I just thought, 'I can't let them down now and choose somewhere else just because my dad's from there.'
At the end of the day, it's about my career, so it wasn't difficult for me to choose. It was actually quite easy because I knew what I wanted, and I'll just follow my path.
"People ask me because of my name: they hear my name with the Balkan, but then they see 'Australian national team player'.
When I go back to Australia, they call me Bosnian-Australian, but when I go back to Europe, I'm Australian. So I'm in a bit of both, but at the end of the day, you know what you are and you know what you feel and what you represent.
"Everyone sees it differently, but I take it personally because I went through a lot with my family. It's not just football, it's also emotional for me. That's a big reason why I chose to play for Australia."
In a full-circle moment, he debuted for the Socceroos under Postecoglou — the first coach who, he says, really believed in him — at the MCG in a friendly against Brazil in 2017, just four months after appearing for the U-23 side.
Since then, Hrustic has slowly eased his way into Australia's starting XI.
He has already been part of history: scoring the winner against the UAE in the first World Cup qualifying play-off game back in June, and burying a penalty in the decider against Peru.
One of the most memorable moments of that game for Hrustic was what happened after the final whistle had blown.
He singled out head coach Graham Arnold among the celebrations and strode up to him, making a brief comment in amongst the chaos and the noise.
Arnold immediately wrapped his arms around the 26-year-old and burst into tears.
"He's a special person to me," Hrustic said.
"He said from day one, in the first camp in Turkey, that he wanted to create a family. He's such a positive person, and it's not easy to be so positive with all the pressure we had on us.
"Before the final two games, I said to him: 'we're going to make it to the World Cup'. I promised him, so I had to stick to my promise.
"And after the Peru game, I came up to him and said, 'Arnie, I promised you that we'd do it.' And I saw the joy and all the relief and all the hard work come out of him. I think even he cried.
"He sees himself as the dad of this group, of this family. So it's not just work for us."
While he has no plans to return to Australia any time soon, having recently signed a four-year contract with Italian club Hellas Verona, he maintains his connection to the country of his birth in other, smaller ways, like hoarding packets of Tim Tams every time he visits.
And while Qatar is currently square in his sights, Hrustic knows that his ambitions will continue to spread out ahead of him like a great sea once the tournament is over; his eyes always fixed on the next window.
"I always look forward," he said.
"Once you achieve something, you should always strive for more. Because if you strive for more, you will always reach something in your life.
"It's never enough, even though it's harsh and hard. But I grew up like this and it was always my motivation: to always achieve more.
"I'm young, I'm a player who takes a risk in a game. I can take the penalty or I can miss it. It's never easy, but I try not to think about it too much.
"When I play football, when I'm on that pitch, I don't really think about the negatives or the positives. I just play."
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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