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China, Sheffield, Serbia? Give Zivkovic Emmen: ‘Just want to play football’

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NOS Football

It looks like a rest home around De Oude Meerdijk. There is no dog outside the stadium, so you can clearly hear the screams of the players and the shrill whistle of trainer Dick Lukkien from the parking lot.

On the main field, Lukkien is honing the form of FC Emmen, which will make its comeback in the Eredivisie on Saturday visiting PSV. The most striking player who buffs across the viscous artificial grass that Tuesday morning has bleached hair and looks fit: Richairo Zivkovic.

His closet is full of shirts from clubs from all over the world and by the age of 25 he has already seen more football fields than the most experienced veteran. The striker is back on the Dutch fields after five years.

Ballet high

After the morning training, Zivkovic keeps a ball high with Ole Romeny and Lorenzo Ebicilio – who is on probation. “Come right on! I’ll finish this one!” No rush, the atmosphere is relaxed on and around the main field.

A plank gets a lick of paint from one of the many club volunteers. The cushions for the chairs on the terrace of honor are still in the plastic. And the fresh Peruvian mercenary Pacheco takes a picture shortly before lunch in the right outfit.

At the gate is a member of the supporters’ association watching the training. The season can’t start soon enough for her. Open the snack counters under the stands quickly. “Had too many empty weekends.” Just a little bit more, the preparation is almost over.

Pro Shots

2018: Richairo Zivkovic employed by Ostend

At the beginning of that preparation, Zivkovic was still involved with his previous club Red Star Belgrade. He only joined Lukkien’s men a week and a half ago. His house in Groningen and the car are now in order, but it took some getting used to in Emmen.

And then there was that presentation at the Assen circuit. Zivkovic in a leather orange suit racing a motorcycle, hanging in the corner – or so it seemed. He didn’t drive himself. “They mounted it nicely, eh. I can’t ride a motorbike, no.”

Busy weeks for the striker, but he has experience with change. Emmen is already his tenth club. After an early switch in 2014 from Groningen to Ajax (at the age of seventeen) and rental periods in the Netherlands, adventures followed in Belgium, China, England, again China and Serbia.

Security in China

Playing soccer in China, some think you’re crazy. That is allowed by Zivkovic. His Belgian club KV Oostende struggled with red numbers in the accounts in 2019, concrete offers in Europe were not forthcoming and Zivkovic opted for certainty at the Chinese Changchung Yatai.

“Eighty percent of that choice was financial,” he says honestly. “Suppose they offer the same money in the Netherlands. Then I won’t go to China, it’s that simple. I support all the choices I have made, all well-considered.” And there were quite a few.

In 2020, his childhood dream suddenly came true: to play in the Premier League. At Sheffield United. “It was strange that I was loaned from China to England. But if you look at my statistics, I had a very good season. In the end it doesn’t really matter where you score your goals.”

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2020: Richairo Zivkovic joins Sheffield United

The six games in the Premier League were memorable. “But in the end I missed some feeling at the club, I had hoped for more minutes.” When Giovanni van Bronckhorst suddenly hung on the line and said he could use Zivkovic’s goals in the relegation emergency with Guangzhou, the striker flew back to Asia.

Home

In the following year at Red Star – “a good moment to start sporting, they played Europa League” – he noticed at one point: it is time to go home. With his family and friends nearby, he now wants to “just be back home and play football again”.

For Zivkovic, home is Groningen, the city where he grew up. Back in a familiar environment. “I think that’s good for me.”

The fact that good friend Keziah Veendorp already played for Emmen is “a big plus”. They know each other from childhood at FC Groningen and even from before. But: “He has just moved to Emmen. I thought it would be nice to carpool, but no, it will only be driving.”

Loneliness

That’s a minor pain, compared to the loneliness he sometimes experienced in China. Because how do you speak to your family, your friends and your girlfriend from the other side of the world? “I slept later and got up later to keep in touch as much as possible.”

Pro Shots

2014: Richairo Zivkovic employed by Ajax

“I also experienced beautiful things, you know, in China. It’s not that I thought it was terrible, but it became difficult when corona came.” Visit became an illusion. “The last eight months I was really alone. That was the most difficult period.”

At ease

In Emmen, where he has a contract for one year and knows trainer Lukkien from the past, Zivkovic now feels at ease. “Training is very different again in the Netherlands. Here it is more positional play, passing steps, parties. Abroad it is often tactical throughout the week. I like the training here at Emmen.”

What can we expect this season from the player who was once portrayed as one of the Netherlands’ greatest talents?

“Everywhere I went, I brought a certain pattern of expectations with me. I was always busy with that and that is not always good. Then you put pressure on you, which is sometimes not even necessary. Maybe that’s why I just relax now What other people say, they should know for themselves.”

NOS

Richairo Živković’s player passport

“I don’t know whether I bring a certain expectation with me this season, and whether that is justified or not. But I look at it from day to day. Just play nice football,” he says again. “Be free in my head.”

Then Zivkovic is suddenly facetimed. It’s his buddy Veendorp, from the dining room. Why he isn’t at lunch. “I had an interview!”

Keziah is reassured, his friend Richairo is nearby and is not going anywhere for the time being.

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