I remember watching Viduka as an Aston Villa fan almost 20 years ago, a formidable opponent whose journey to the Premier League from his native Melbourne was anything but straightforward, and it was great to catch up with the former Australian hitman in Zagreb recently, as Viduka explained his latest connection to sport through his joining the rapidly expanding SPORTYN team.
He was kind enough to give me some time to talk about his own journey, as well as why he is so passionate about the new SPORTYN project which already boasts Croatian World Cup Finalist Ivan Rakitic as its Brand Ambassador. Rakitic is just one of several top stars working with SPORTYN to give back to sport by helping encourage and develop young talent for the future.
Australian by birth, Croatian by heritage, we met in the Croatian capital, where Viduka runs both a successful property business, as well as a cafe in the upper town of historic Zagreb.
Let me ask you firstly about THAT match. You are a proud Australian captaining your country in the 2006 World Cup against the country your parents are from – Croatia. Tell us about that experience.
It was a hugely emotional occasion for me. Croatians are very emotional regarding their homeland. My parents emigrated to Australia form Croatia in the 1960s when it was socialist Yugoslavia, which they did not support. Growing up as a kid, Croatia was not an independent country, but we all dreamed of seeing Croatia play in the World Cup one day.
And then it happened – against Australia, with me as captain. I knew a lot of the guys personally, and their coach, Cico Kranjcar, was my first coach in Europe when I moved to Zagreb in 1995.
We may have been mates off the pitch, but once the game kicked off, we were fully focused on the football. To be honest, the Croatians were a little arrogant in the media before the match, saying we were kangaroos with no idea how to play. This gave us more motivation. It ended 2-2, with Australia going through to the next round.
Your journey to the Premier League was not direct, and you have rather an unusual story of your first transfer to Europe.
Yes indeed. I was already known a little in Australia, having won the Young Player of the Year award two years in a row, when my parents got a phone call. The President of newly independent Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, invited us for dinner at a Croatian restaurant in Melbourne. He was on a mission to get Croatian sporting stars back to Croatia and to build part of the country’s image around sport. And so it was that I found myself in Zagreb in 1995, having signed for Croatia Zagreb (soon to become Dinamo Zagreb) with the war still ongoing.
I stayed in Zagreb until I moved to Celtic in 1998, and then to the Premier League with Leeds in 2000.
You are now living happily in Croatia, with a great cafe and successful building company, but sport remains close to your heart. Tell us about your new interest, SPORTYN.
I have to say I love it. The best way to describe it would be from the App Store:
SPORTYN is an online hotspot for all athletes, their videos and unique SPORTYN IDs. Think of LinkedIn for sports. It is an AI-powered video-sharing mobile and web application for athletes of all sports designed to change the future of player promotion, development funding and sports recruitment.
It is incredible. Here is a piece of technology that has better engagement than Facebook, is getting kids out of their bedrooms, and engaging in sport, and it is bringing democracy to sporting talent all over the world. Kids can pit their skills against their peers, put their abilities in the shop window for agents, while agents can find an incredible array of talent all over the world from the comfort of their own home.
A few months ago, I was thinking that there was nothing really like this. Then my good friend Joe Basic showed me SPORTYN, and I was hooked. (You can learn a lot more about SPORTYN on this Medium article)
When I was a kid growing up in Melbourne, Australia was not really known for football. For someone in the suburbs of Melbourne to go to national prominence to Croatia to Scotland to the Premier League took years. Now a scout can see and sign-up talent very quickly, allowing the athlete to shine in his career that much earlier.
I know the Croatian boxing coach, who is a big fan of the app, after I showed him. Now he can check out all the young boxers in the country. There are over 90 sports featured on SPORTYN, and the vertical integration of social media makes it much better than other forms of social media, as it is 100% niche, with all users 100% focused on their particular passion.
I also love to encourage young kids whose techniques and skills impress. I often give them a ‘like’, knowing how encouraged I would have felt if that had happened to me as a young wannabe footballer in Melbourne.
Everything these days is so instant, and so different to my childhood in Australia. Everything used to get reported 24 hours later, there was no live football. I remember waiting each week at the newsagents for the latest edition of Shoot and Match.
How things have changed! Everything is now instant, and a ‘like’ from an ex-pro can be a huge motivation. What I really like about this project is how technology is getting kids more active, not less. I have three boys who are always on their computers, especially during lockdown. This gives them a big motivation to get outside and be active.
Tell us a little about how you would practice as a kid.
As a kid, I used to spend hours kicking a ball against the wall. I drew a target out of chalk – my dad was a builder and I got lime from the cement and made the lines myself to a pitch. It was pretty lonely at times and needed to motivate myself to keep going.
Anything that gets kids off computers and outside is great for their health. But SPORTYN is healthy tech, this is really a positive, and it enourages kids to work hard at their game, be it basketball, football, or boxing. The health benefits are amazing. It is also somewhat ironic that an app can have this positive health effect for free, when the Australian health system spends millions on programs to get kids to get out and play. With little success.
You are not the only famous footballer to get involved with SPORTYN. Tell us a little about giving back.
Ivan Rakitic is the brand ambassador, and many other well-known athletes from different sports are recognising the benefits SPORTYN offers and the desire to support and get involved. In most cases, these successful athletes recognise how fotunate they are to have succeeded and want to give back and improve the chances of future talented athletes. SPORTYN allows athletes to present themselves to a worldwide audience and eliminates that chance for success by putting all on a global level playing field.
Simple things such as that ‘like’, “rating” or “comment” from a pro can be great for motivation, but I also really like the concept of the SPORTYN challenge, whereby a star will do a trick, then encourage the kids to do the same and post their videos. The algorithm will do the rest, with the best kids winning exclusive prizes, all under the watchful eye and engagement of the star performing the challenge.
In order to broaden its message and reach more young athletes, SPORTYN will be supporting one of the biggest football tournaments in Central Europe the Dalmatinko Cup in June. Over 100 clubs from all over Europe will take part in the tournament in Split, Kastela, Solin and Trogir. There will be a SPORTYN Challenge Corner, where kids can register for challenges and be able to compete amongst peers to be the best and win exclusive prizes including autographed football gear from Ivan Rakitić and others. This will be streamed live, and it is a prototype to be replicated in similar events all over the world.
What do you like most about SPORTYN?
Apart from the whole concept of the democracy of talent and the health benefits associated by encouraging youth athletes to go out and be active, I also love the layout. It is user-friendly featuring high-quality video in a big format that is easy to view and search for the content that interests you most. I find that SPORTYN offers me so much more content I enjoy and feel that it is relevant to me, which I don’t get with YouTube or other similar applications I have tried. I am a visual guy, not interested in wasting my time with irrelevant content and for this reason, SPORTYN has been able to get and keep my attention. Simply love it!
I also really like the rating system and the interaction it provides. This feature is like no other social media and for this reason alone I find myself using it and for the first time have created my own SPORTYN profile, never before was I compelled to do so and in many ways, now I feel like I am re-connecting with fans and reliving my early fame.
I am really excited to be part of the SPORTYN team and to give something back to sport, as well as encouraging kids to pursue their dreams with the healthiest technology I have come across.
To learn more about SPORTYN, visit the official website.
For more from the world of Croatian sport, visit the dedicated TCN section.