IVAN Vujica remembers it like yesterday.
Impressionable, almost awestruck, Vujica proudly shook the hand of the Lokomotiva No.8 after a win at the Stadion u Kranjčevićevoj ulic in Zagreb.
Vujica, who had moved from Sydney to his parents’ homeland to foster a burgeoning football career, was a ball boy for Lokomotiva.
First-team players were his idols.The No.8, Mateo Poljak, was top of the list.
Fast forward five years. Not only is Vujica playing alongside Poljak at the Newcastle Jets, he is now family.
Poljak married Vujica’s sister Katarina two years ago, after being introduced to her in 2012 when the midfielder was playing for the Western Sydney Wanderers.
“When I first got to Lokomotiva the younger players were ball boys for the senior team,” Vujica said. “Mateo was on loan from Dinamo Zagreb and was my favourite player. Tomi Juric also played for them. They were my two favourites players. When I was 14, I shook Mateo’s hand after one of his games. He doesn’t remember that.”
A formal introduction came two years later when Poljak was playing for Wanderers and was at Sydney airport waiting the arrival of a friend who happened to be on the same flight at Vujica.
“Ivan and his brother, Anton, were coming from Croatia for Christmas holidays,” Poljak said.
“They saw me waiting for my mate. He came up and introduced himself and said he had been a ball boy at Lokomotiva. I had never met his sister before. We started talking and later she asked him about me. His sister and I started dating, and then we got into a more serious relationship ... . Our friendship grew from that moment.”
Vujica returned to Croatia and progressed from Lokomotiva to the Dinamo Zagreb youth system where he was scouted by then Jets coach Scott Miller. Miller was not aware of the connection between Poljak, who had completed his first season at the Jets, and Vujica.
Vujica didn’t tell Poljak, or his family for that matter, about the interest from the Jets until the deal was almost done
“I kept it on the down low and let my agents look after it,” Vujica said. “As it got closer, I told them and they couldn’t believe it. When I told Scott Miller, by the way Mateo is my brother-in-law, he couldn’t believe it.”
Poljak was similarly surprised.
“I found out when it was almost done,” he said. “I preferred that it happened that way. I told him it was a good club, a young club and he would get a chance.”
Vujica made his A-League debut off the bench in the season opener. The brother-in-laws started together for the first time in the 2-0 loss to Sydney FC in round four and will be key men against Wellington Phoenix at McDonald Jones Stadium on Boxing Day.
“Having Mateo there definitely helps,” Vujica said. “Everyone says the first year of senior football is the hardest. It has made it easier that I know Mateo. Too this day I am always learning from him. He is someone I look up to. He is always on top of things and is a very good professional. I have not seen anyone more focused than him.”
Vujica spent five years, the last two on his own, in Zagreb and Poljak was confident the teenager had the grounding to succeed in the A-League.
“I spent my whole youth career at that club,” he said. “He went there at age 13 and by the time he came back, he knew a lot. I was more than sure he would be good enough to play in the A-League. He is very switched on. He analyses his game and he analyses his opponents. It is a pleasure to give him some advice if I can. We talk a lot. He is there for me as well. If I have some issue or some doubts, and if I am down, he will be there to at least listen to me. Regardless of him being much younger, his advice is very good.”
Vujica lives in the same apartment building, but a different floor, as Poljak and his sister.
“We are far enough away but close enough as well,” Poljak said. “My wife enjoys to cook, especially for him. He is her favourite boy. She is always looking out for him. They are very close.”
As well as having a younger brother to keep an eye on, Poljak became a dad for the first time with the birth of daughter, Mia, seven weeks ago.
“It is the best thing that happened in my life,” he said. “It’s challenging but the best thing in the world. Every single day I come home she brings a smile to my face. If anything is not the best, I just forget about it. She always puts a smile on my face.”