Milan Borjan happy to pay his dues

The Globe and Mail

Milan Borjan is shown in this photo released by Soccer Canada. Milan Borjan could have chosen to play soccer for Serbia, the country of his birth. Now, when the six-foot-six goalkeeper stands tall in Canada's net, it's a tribute, he says, to the country that took him in. (HO/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Milan Borjan could have chosen to play soccer for Serbia, the country of his birth.

But while he couldn't have known it at the time, Borjan's soccer allegiance was beginning to take shape a decade ago when he and his family fled Serbia for a better life in Canada following the war in Yugoslavia.

Now, when the six-foot-six goalkeeper stands tall in Canada's net, it's a tribute, he says, to the country that took him in.

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"It means a lot playing for Canada because Canada helped my family when we had a bad time back home in Serbia, they helped us to come over here, make a better life for me and my family," Borjan said. "This is the way I can return it to them and say 'thank-you,' because I don't have any other way to return it than by playing for Canada and saying this is my home right now."

The 23-year-old Borjan - who's made three appearances for Canada - and Lars Hirschfeld are Canada's 'keepers for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which the Canadians kick off Tuesday night against the United States in Detroit.

The more-experienced Hirschfeld, with 33 caps, is the obvious choice to start, although Borjan was impressive in Canada's 2-2 tie with Ecuador in a friendly last week in Toronto.

"He's got very good physical skills obviously - he's tall, good reach, good hands," said Canada's goalkeeping coach Paul Dolan. "But the thing I'm most impressed with is his mental ability and attitude. He's still young, so he needs to refine some of his physical skills, but mentally he wants to do better, and he wants to play for Canada, and he's got a really good learning attitude. That's one of the most exciting things I see about him."

Borjan was born in Knin, a Serbian separatist territory in Croatia during the war. The Serbs fled the city when it was taken by Croatian forces in 1995, when Borjan was just eight. His family headed for Belgrade, then eventually to Canada, settling in Hamilton.

"I remember everything, the war and everything, but I don't like to talk about the war, I'm trying to clear that out of my head," Borjan said, with a dismissive wave of a hand. "We lived nice, but when the war came, everything went down."

Borjan couldn't speak English when he arrived in Canada, but his family's transition was eased by a group of Serbian friends that had come before them.

"I went from Croatia to Serbia and there was a war and everything, but it's not like I'm hating them or anything, you've got to be good with everybody," Borjan said. "Here in Canada, there's Serbian, Croatian, Italian. . . they're all good. Canada is a peace country, when you come here, you're not here to fight, you're here to work, to try to find a better way to live, and you get new friends and everything."

Borjan's father Bosko is the president of the Brantford Galaxy Soccer Club, while his mom Mirjana works for the City of Hamilton. He has a brother Nicolas, who's seven, and sister Nikolija, 21.

Borjan moved to South America in 2005 to play at the youth level for Boca Juniors and then played professionally for Nacional Montevideo, River Plate and Quilmes. He now plays for FK Rad in Belgrade.

He made his Canadian team debut in February versus Greece, and soccer fans who have had their hearts broken too many times by Canadian players choosing to wear another country's colours have embraced the team's newest 'keeper.

"It's cool in that he had the ability to play for Serbia, which is where he was born and where he plays his soccer now," Dolan said. "But he really wanted to pay a debt of gratitude to Canada where his family was accepted and lives now."

Several players have drawn the ire of Canadian fans recently. Asmir Begovic is a Bosnian goalkeeper who played for Canada's under-20 team before returning to play for Bosnia. And Teal Bunbury chose to play for the U.S. over Canada - the country his father Alex starred for.

Fans are holding out hope that Brampton, Ont.-born David (Junior) Hoilett, a rising star in the English Premier League for Blackburn Rovers, will play for Canada. He's also eligible to play for Jamaica and while he hasn't said no to Canada, he hasn't said yes either.

Borjan joins a Canadian team that has been thin on 'keepers. The current crop includes Haidar Al-Shaibani, Greg Sutton, David Monsalve and Josh Wagenaar.

"(Borjan) has been great, his attitude is fantastic, he likes being around the players and his work ethic is second to none," said Canadian coach Stephen Hart. "I think we're finally in a position with about four, or even five goalkeepers to push each other to say 'I want to be Number 1,' and with good teams, that's a reality."

The 32-year-old Hirschfeld starred at the 2002 Gold Cup, earning "goalkeeper of the tournament" honours after allowing just four goals in five matches.

Canada won the tournament in 2000 and was also crowned CONCACAF champion in 1985 in World Cup qualifying play (when Mexico as host had a bye). The Canadians were ousted in the quarter-finals two years ago with a 1-0 loss to Honduras.

The 76th-ranked Canadians face a 22nd-ranked U.S. team Tuesday at Ford Field that dispatched them from the Gold Cup four years ago in a disputed semifinal loss. Officials ruled a tying goal by Atiba Hutchinson in the dying seconds was offside.

Canada will then play Guadeloupe at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on June 11 and No. 67 Panama at Livestrong Stadium in Kansas City on June 14.

Guadeloupe is unranked because it is not a member of FIFA.

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