Samir Nurkovic: The third choice that proved a worthwhile gamble

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Samir Nurkovic was never Kaizer Chiefs’ first choice. Neither was he the second choice.

When Ernst Middendorp was searching for a new striker with Bernard Parker and Co misfiring, the German made it clear he needed a proper gunslinger.

At the time, Middendorp felt both Leonardo Castro and Khama Billiat were isolated, and he needed someone mobile to keep opposition defenders busy and free the former Mamelodi Sundowns duo.

“I felt that Castro and Billiat were a little isolated last season….” the German was quoted as saying back then.

Understandably, the Soweto giants had sadly finished outside the top eight, a distant ninth in the Premiership. They had scored a paltry 33 goals in 30 matches with their front-men struggling to constantly hit the net.

Intuitively, the first port of call was West Africa. The usually big forwards from the westernmost region of the continent were appealing.

Top of that list was a Togolese international by the name Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba. Of course, transfermarkt does not have much on his exploits at Morocco’s RS Berkane.

But it sure has his scoring record at the UAE Pro-League side Al Ain. The man has been in sensational form. Unbelievable striking stats.

In the same season Chiefs would have prized him away from the reigning Caf Confederation Cup winners, RS Berkane, he scored 19 goals in 18 Arabian Gulf League matches, where Thulani Serero plies his trade.

In the current season, he has continued with his blistering form, scoring eight goals in 16 matches. Even Manchester City’s ‘dancing’ winger Riyad Mahrez had to stand and take notice after playing against him in an international assignment.

So did Ivorian Serge Aurier, who turns out for English Premiership side Tottenham. The two EPL stars were left in awe when they played for their respective countries against The Sparrows some two years ago.

His stats back it up too, so does a R25.5 million transfer fee forked out by the Abu Dhabi outfit. Makes all sense why Amakhosi had the man topping their most wanted list. A Moroccan journalist Abbas Souhail further explains to FARPost that the financial lure of gulf money was irresistible for the free-scoring striker.

“The move to the Gulf was obviously more rewarding for him than Chiefs. It came around the same time Chiefs were reported to be interested in him.

“They paid RS Berkane in the region of €1.4 million (R25.5 million),” he says, adding that at some point he was the prime target of Pitso Mosimane’s African champions Al Ahly.

Their second choice was a Senegalese striker who reportedly opted for a move to the more lucrative Turkish Super Lig.

Interestingly, up in Central Europe in a landlocked country called Slovakia, Nurkovic was ever on the move like the historical nomads. It made him unappealing. Not just to big clubs, but an agent who could potentially open the big door the big striker had been hoping for all his life.

“A friend of mine called me and said ‘please take a look’. I had a look at his CV, I normally don’t look at the second division in Slovakia,” says Dajan Šimac, a Germany-born former Croatian defender.

He is quick to admit that Nurkovic’s curriculum vitae was so unattractive because of his nomadic tendencies. The man started his football journey at the now defunct Slovak side MFK Košice about a decade ago. After being promoted to the club’s first team, three successive loan spells followed, each lasting a season.

In each of those seasons, the teenager hardly got game time. Thereafter, he would change lower division teams in Slovakia every season for the next six years, something that left Šimac hesitant to give him a look. Nurkovic’s waiter experience at his father’s restaurant did not make it any better.

“A few days later he asked me if I had a look and I told him I had been busy. The guy sent me (information and videos of) the same player three times in one day and I was wondering if he was on drugs or something,” the former Croatia youth international tells FARPost in a telephonic interview.

How was it possible that a player with this quality was playing in the second division, Šimac asked himself. It didn’t make sense at all.

“I couldn’t find the reason why he was playing in the second division,” he says.

It was May 2019, the Slovakia second division had just ended and Nurkovic had scored 35 goals in 41 matches.

“It was not a good sign that he had played for so many clubs in a short space of time. What was impressive though was when I saw the games (on video) and how many goals he scored,” he said.

Like any other agent dealing with a football star, he knew too well it would be a hit or miss. And so, he had a chat with Samir and told him “I think you didn’t have a good agent or one with a good network.”

Sadly, while the stats for the previous season were really impressive, Šimac, whose club career took him to several European countries including Germany and Hungary, knew there was no way he could play in Europe. His best bet was Asia, South America or Africa.

And then again, he had his concerns about Africa. He had heard it was a jungle. Some tropical rain-forest littered with dangerous wild animals perhaps.

He was sceptical about throwing his new client into the wilderness, just two months after signing him up to his agency. Coincidentally, Middendorp was in search of a gunman. His club’s first two choices were not going to work. Chiefs were certainly not going to compete with UAE and Turkey clubs for their signatures.

“Ernst was looking for a striker, a friend called me and said Ernst is looking for a striker. I told my friend ‘who wants to go to Africa’ but he insisted ‘please give me a name’,” he says.

Little did he know that his new client would jump at the opportunity to move to far-flung South Africa without blinking twice. At the back of his mind though, he knew ‘Super Samir’ was the one man who could make an impact in the jungle. He had the right mentality, the necessary physique, at least he thought.

“It’s not so easy to find a player who wants to go to South Africa,” he reveals. After consulting with his client, they agreed his CV and video clips would be sent to Amakhosi. Exactly two days later, he recalls, Chiefs expressed their interest in the Serb.

An offer was quickly made. It was obviously better than what any team would pay him in the Slovakia second division. In fact, according to salaryexpert.com, a topflight player in the ‘Land of the Slavs’ earns between €16 000 (R292 000) and €32 000 (R584 000) per annum. A second division club would likely shell out significantly lower than that.

The money aspect of the deal was never an issue moreso that he was coming as a free agent. In any case, the Tutin-born star was eager to prove himself before he could make any salary demands. His agent was also in agreement.

So, after agreeing in principle to a three-year contract, they set out to Johannesburg. “I was very surprised and at the same time excited about the country, the club, the fan base and the infrastructure,” admits Šimac.

The jungle was not even a woodland after all, he confesses.

Middendorp, who is now at the helm of Maritzburg United, has previously said they had “to check his style of play and compare it to what we had‚ and what we were looking for.”

The 28-year-old never disappointed as he quickly fit into the Amakhosi team that came close to winning the League title last season. With his 12 league goals in his first season, the Soweto giants missed out on the league title by just two points on the last day.

He earned himself the nickname ‘Kokota Piano’ as he shone the brightest among other new signings that included the likes of Kearyn Baccus and Lazarous Kambole, who were both coming from outside the country.

“I fell in love with the person Samir is. As I was advising him to manage his funds well, he told me he was going to build his family a house because his dad was ill and his mom was not working,” says Šimac, who recently brought his second player – Dusan Stevic – to the country. The 25-year-old defender turns out for Maritzburg United.

Interestingly, Nurkovic, who he singles out as one of his best clients, was quite keen to don the Bafana Bafana jersey. The man, reportedly on demand in Saudi Arabia, had fallen in love with Mzansi.

“I don’t see him go back to Serbia, he really loves South Africa,” he says of the big forward.

But just as he discovered him too late for the European market, it may also be too late to wiggle his way into the South African national team.

In the meantime, Kokota Piano will look to rediscover his scoring touch and set the DStv Premiership alight just like he did in his maiden season.

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By Mthokozisi Dube

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