Socceroos defender Milos Degenek has opened up in candid detail on the “lion mentality” forged during his early-life and career struggles, and how he’s trying to instill it in the Aussie squad ahead of Saturday’s (AEDT) crunch World Cup clash.
Degenek came off the bench to make his World Cup debut the 4-1 loss to France and will be pushing for a start if Arnold choses to tinker with his line-up.
Based on the intensity and clarity the 28-year-old displayed when facing the Australian media in Doha on Thursday, Degenek will be ready to go if called upon.
Even if he doesn’t start, the Columbus Crew center back is serving as a key mentor for some of the squad’s younger members with his wisdom and experience.
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“The lion mentality is, you either eat or you get eaten, and that’s the simplest way to put it,” Degenek said.
“I used this term before the Peru game with the boys, I said ‘there’s bread on the table’.
“Either we eat tonight; my kids, my wife and my family eat tonight, or they eat and my kids go home to sleep hungry and my wife as well – and I don’t want that to happen. I use that term, and when the bread’s on the table I want to take it and keep my kids and my wife happy.
“.. I’ve been trying to insert (the mentality) into the younger players, especially the ones that are new here and that are constantly asking for advice every day.
“I don’t need to say things like that to Matty Ryan or Aaron Mooy, or Matty Leckie. They’ve got their own ways. But most of the other guys know what I’m talking about and they understand where I’m coming from.”
Degenek is one of this Socceroos squad’s most experienced players when it comes to the big stages, having played Champions League with Red Star Belgrade before his move to the MLS.
But it was the tough early days of his career that really made him.
“It (the lion mentality) is something I developed throughout my career. I was very young when I moved to Germany, as a 16 year old, and my first experience was being dropped in the middle of Germany, in Stuttgart, and having to take an hour and a half to train in the middle of a freezing winter “, he said.
“It’s minus-8, and it’s just like two pairs of trackies underneath one another and four pairs of jumpers because I didn’t have enough money to buy a winter jacket – until I got given one by my agent.
“That’s where I learned my first struggles of people thinking ‘oh, you go to Europe, you enjoy football, you’re going to be a professional and earn a lot of money’. My first professional contract was $1000 a month. I wasn’t earning big bucks and that’s where I learned the struggles and got that mentality and thought to myself ‘I’m training with another 20 guys but I want to be that one to go on to make it.
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“I can say I’m fortunate enough that I am one of the ones who made it. There’s other ones in that group that did make it as well, one of them is a guy called Kimmy (Germany international Joshua Kimmich) who is not bad. I’ve learned a lot from him even though he’s younger. It’s something that sticks with me.”
Degenek’s journey, which includes his early years in war-torn Croatia, has given him a sharp sense of perspective.
It shows when he’s asked about how the Socceroos would handle the pressure of the situation, needing at least a draw — probably a win — against Tunisia.
“When you say ‘must-win game’ you think it’s pressure. But I told the boys the other day as well, I said that’s not pressure,” he said.
“Pressure is me as an 18 month old baby fleeing a war. Pressure is me as a six-year-old being in the middle of a war.
“That’s pressure. A football game is not a must-win. Because you can win or lose, but I don’t think anyone’s gonna die,” Degenek said.
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“It’s not pressure. This is just the joy of wanting to get better. Wanting to have something to say to your grandkids, to your friends back home when you have coffee and say, you know, we won a game at a World Cup, you got out of the group.
“That’s what the boys understand and that’s how we’re gonna take this.
“And obviously we want to win the game. There’s no doubt about it.
“And I think everything from yesterday’s training is focused on that and winning that game. And I think we have it in our squad.
“If we match them in terms of intensity and the desire to win will be greater and I think we’ll win. “