The tallest player in the Bundesliga at 6'5", VfB Stuttgart striker Sasa Kalajdzic has been head and shoulders above many in this, his debut season in Germany's top-flight.
In an exclusive bundesliga.com interview, the Austrian reflects on a debut campaign to remember, while looking ahead to what would be a perfect conclusion of a fairy tale year…
bundesliga.com: VfB Stuttgart could end this week as high as seventh, which might be enough for UEFA Europa Conference League football. Is this a week of truth for you?
Sasa Kalajdzic: “So, I don’t think I would put it quite like that. A week of truth is probably a bit too extreme. We have worked for our points and I think that is very good. I think there are points to be taken from every opponent, even if they're not easy opponents. We could also lose to any opponents. That's why we need to give it our all in every game and it won’t be easy. We know that, but we're going to tackle it in a relaxed manner.”
bundesliga.com: Returning from the second division proved to be rather arduous for a renowned club like VfB, yet in the Bundesliga, the team's playing with a striking ease. Why is that?
Kalajdzic: “I think the first year wasn’t that easy because it was a newly-built team. We had a new coach, new players. Everything was changed, really. That takes time and the expectations play a role, as well: expectations that you have in the second division after being relegated; expectations, externally and internally, that Stuttgart have to win every game. Then, we managed somehow. It wasn’t as convincing as this season but we managed. That was the most important thing. A lot of people questioned our Bundesliga worthiness but we knew that we were going to have a very difficult year
ahead of us, and I can confirm it has been. Now, we have a certain back-bone, something that wasn’t the case last year. The players that you rely on – how should I put this - this back-bone of players that always play, along with everyone else that compete for the remaining free spots, those who want to play. We have an incredibly big squad. The quality is high. The potential's even higher and we need to take advantage of that potential. This year, from the beginning, was a journey asking ourselves 'Where are we going? Where are we now?'. I think we proved impressively that we have the quality to compete in the Bundesliga, to be a nuisance to the big guys and eventually to be able to clinch ‘dirty’ wins as well as impressive wins. I think we have shown that already. Now, it's all about the consistency. That's what we are trying to improve on, game by game.”
Watch: All of Kalajdzic's Bundesliga goals this season
bundesliga.com: "At 6'5", people would expect you to be your team's target man, yet that was not always the case..."
Kalajdzic: “During my development and before Stuttgart, I played in different positions, especially in central midfield – defensively as well as offensively. I played a lot of football growing up, kicking the ball around a lot. I enjoyed that more than the physical aspect of it including headers. The height came about at some point as well. Then, it was all about getting the kicking to sync with the height in terms of coordination. That was the hardest part. I feel like something in between a No9 and a No10 because I feel like I can do that as well, for example in terms of that final pass. I am good with thos chances that no-one expects. That makes me a bit unpredictable. That shows that I am not only a classic No9.”
bundesliga.com: "How did you get into football?"
Kalajdzic: “The way I got into football was through having a lot of energy in my early school days. My father loved football. He liked other sports as well, but there was a football club five minutes from us. We went over and asked whether I could join the training sessions, whether there was some space for me, whether it would be a problem. They said yes, of course. I started after that and I enjoyed it from the first minute. My parents wanted me to be going in the right directions and to use my time like that doing sport and to do what made me happy. Which it did! They never expected it to come this far. It was mainly just about focusing my energy into something meaningful instead of wasting it at home, getting into trouble. That's why it was the best decision they could have made.”
bundesliga.com "How did your career take off?"
Kalajdzic: “During my development, I had good coaches. In terms of technical training, I was at a school in cooperation with Austria Wien. For several years, I was undergoing extra training alongside my club training with coaches that are still at Austria. That definitely helped me as well, this ‘professional youth training’. That's why I learned a bit more in terms of technique. That's why I'm able to do some things that people don’t expect of me. As a striker, as a No10 - I played all these positions during my development. From being a defender all the way to being a striker. In midfield, I played everywhere. When did it start, exactly? Probably at Admira with the amateurs but, beforehand, I had already played everywhere.”
bundesliga.com: "There was also a moment when you actually wanted to quit football. Tell us about that..."
Kalajdzic: “I was playing in the fourth division. There are the first two professional league. Then comes the regional league and then the national league from the various states. I played for Donaufeld for two years. Those were my first two years in grown-up football with mature players. I was the youngest. I barely got a chance to play in the first team because, in my position, there were really good, mature players who played. I was the young one who basically trained along. In the first year, I played for the U18s and trained with those above and the following year, I wasn’t eligible to play for the youth teams anymore. In the fourth division, there is a so-called ‘reserve league’ and you usually play before or after the first team. Some play for fun, as a hobby. There are a lot of young players. You can only be scouted for the first team if you're lucky enough for someone to be watching. After a while, playing in the reserve team on a Sunday – Donaufeld has this tradition of playing at 10:15 on a Sunday and the reserves play right before at 8:30, so I needed to be on the field at 7:15 on Sunday morning to play for the reserves with a team that was struggling to get 12 players together. You kept on losing. You would win once but then go back to losing because the others had much better teams than us. For me, I was only there to prove that I was able to be on the bench for the first team because there were only four or three substitutes. At some point, you lose interest. Every Sunday I would show up. At some point, my father brought me to the game. He reminds me of this often because he says – not that I shouldn’t give up but simply to remind me of what I have achieved and how thankful I should be. I told him I didn’t want to play. I asked him why I should put myself through this. He said to me 'Sasa, you will get your chance. Keep going. It will become something but only if you really want it.' It gave me courage and hope. I got through because of my performances and because some of the places became available. I played the last seven or eight matches for the first team and scored seven or eight goals, playing in the No6 or No10 position. That is the way it went. I often considered stopping because it really wasn’t making me happy."
bundesliga.com: "What does it mean to be able to play in the European Championship with Austria in the summer?
Kalajdzic: “It makes me very happy and very proud because it's not a given, being able to take part in a European Championship, especially for a country such as Austria. We really had to fight to be in the final tournament. I was able to play myself into contention the last time. Something I am very happy about but I cannot say I'm certain to play at the Euros. It doesn’t have to be. It could be that I don’t play at all. I'm taking it as it comes. I am, nevertheless, very proud and very happy. It's a dream! The only pity is that it won’t be the party it usually is.”
bundesliga.com: "Quite a few Austrians play in the Bundesliga. How has Austrian football developed overall?"
Kalajdzic: “Austrian football's continued to develop. The league's become more competitive. Even though Salzburg are dominating it, the rest have upped their game. You see that in the other teams. You see that in European encounters - Wolfsberg beat Gladbach 4-0 last year, away! Rapid Wien, who almost got through a difficult group with Arsenal and Molde, who knocked Hoffenheim out of the Europa League. Then you have LASK Linz who are playing at a high level as well, earning 11 points or so and not going through. These are things – that is how Austrian football has developed. The players that are coming through are really performing in their respective leagues. At some point, we'll have a team that's really, really good.”
bundesliga.com: "How much are you enjoying this dream debut season in the Bundesliga?
Kalajdzic: “I think it would have been even nicer if the pandemic wouldn’t be around. I think it could have been celebrated a bit more with the fans. That would have been great but I'm trying to enjoy it as much as I'm still coming to terms with it. On the other hand, I don’t want to soak it up too much because I want to continue having this feeling and to continue playing. I have people to cherish this moment with, close family and loved ones. People I celebrate every win and every goal with. That is what makes me the happiest, having those people around me who I have to thank for being here and who I can celebrate with. That is the most beautiful thing but I try to stay composed!”