With war on the horizon,
"We lived there because we had nowhere else to stay at that moment," said Subotic. "So with the soccer field right in front of the door, it all started. I was always playing with my dad, and I always watched when he played with the team. Whenever I wanted to kick around, I could find someone to play with me."
"Pickup games were standard there," said Neven. "We played before school, during school, in breaks, and after school. There was a religion class at school, and when it took place a few other students and I had to go to another empty classroom, because we were of another religion [than] the one being taught. And there we would play soccer with a tennis ball until the class had finished and we could return to our normal class."
Neven enjoyed his life in Germany and was disappointed when his parents announced that they would have to leave -- their German residence authorization expired when he was 11 years old. The family opted to move to the U.S. in 1999.
Neven would return to Germany seven years later to pursue a pro soccer career. After two years with Mainz 05, including the 2007-08 season in which
The 6-foot-4, 194-pound Subotic's fantastic start at Dortmund -- he scored three goals in his first four games -- prompted the German national team to court his services, but eventually it decided that under FIFA rules he wouldn't be eligible. The U.S., for which he has played on the Under-17 squad, hopes he will stay in its program. He is also eligible to represent his native Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. Subotic has until his 21st birthday (Dec. 10, 2009) to make a decision on which nation's jersey to wear.
Although Subotic has spent most of his years in Germany, his American soccer experience helped him get to where he is today.
The Subotics settled in Salt Lake City, where a cousin of Zeljko's lived. Neven had taken English classes in his German school, was especially eager to understand TV shows, and within three months became fluent.
He was disappointed that the kids in school didn't play much soccer, but his father bought him a ball and he kicked around on a nearby tennis court. Eventually, he played for the Sparta Gold and Impact Black youth clubs.
After a year and a half, the family moved to Bradenton, Fla., so that his sister,
That's where he was spotted by
"I saw a tall, lanky, thin kid with a bag of balls," said Fulk. "I was there [to see] a friend's son, and I saw this kid who had probably 12 balls, and he was just ripping balls into the goal, over and over. But the thing that impressed and always stuck with me, was that when he finished shooting, he started running. He would shoot the balls, then would run two laps around the soccer field at a very good pace.
"Then he'd go get the balls and shoot 12 balls with his left foot. Then he'd run two more, then he'd go and do volleys. Then he'd run more. And he could strike a ball!"
Fulk said he first saw him on a Tuesday, then on a Wednesday. And the next week he'd see him on a Thursday -- making it safe to conclude that this was one dedicated young player.
Fulk introduced himself to Subotic, who told his story and said that he was about to get his U.S. citizenship. Fulk informed
"Boom, we brought him in," said Fulk. "He lived across the street [from] the Academy so he remained at home, which meant he was a bonus player. His dad actually worked in the school. He cleaned the school. He had three or four jobs. He was a very hard-working man and a good person. The rest is history. It's amazing."
For the second time in his life, the Subotic family had found a home that furthered their son's soccer ambitions.
"At that time I had not [been on] a club team for about a year or two," said Subotic. "I was overwhelmed after they accepted me. I remember Coach Ellinger telling me that I made it. So then back at the changing rooms I made it official and just screamed it out in front of everyone."
Subotic played 89 minutes in four games at the '05 U-17 World Cup, where the Americans reached the quarterfinals. He was headed to the University of South Florida. But while with the U-17s in the Netherlands, where they played against Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven, he was approached by player agent
Subotic answered in the affirmative and said his preference would be with a club in Germany near his childhood friends. Kelly also represented American
During the '06-07 season, Subotic played for Mainz's youth and fourth-division teams. But in the last game of the season, with Mainz already doomed to second-division relegation, he started and played the full 90 minutes in a 5-2 loss to Bayern Munich, becoming, at age 18, the youngest American to play in the Bundesliga. (Subotic was two years younger than
The following season Subotic played 33 games and scored four goals for Mainz in the Second Division. When Mainz coach
"The thing that really helped me play good soccer was that it felt so good to be here, home," said Subotic.
Subotic's bio on Borussia Dortmund's official Web site describes him as a "modern central defender" with confidence on the ball and exceptional positioning aptitude that enables him to excel with "hardly any fouling." In his 33 games in Mainz, he received just two yellow cards and was called for a foul only once every 76 minutes.
"I win my battles and do my job pretty well in the defense, and even (score some goals up top," Subotic said. "The thing I need to do now is just play consistently good, and gain experience. My attitude has always been the key factor for everything I do. Even when I had some bad days, I gave 100 percent and the coaches took notice of that, plus my quality, and then let me play."
Subotic also has become a media favorite thanks to the spectacular start at Dortmund, his friendly interviews and a relationship with German U-20 pole vault world champion
Borussia Dortmund, which celebrates its centenary next year, last won the Bundesliga title in '02, its third to go with three pre-Bundesliga German titles and the '97 Champions League title.
Dortmund's 13th-place finish in '07 was its worst since '88. But it has started strong this season thanks largely to the 19-year-old Subotic. In his debut for the club, Subotic headed home the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over Bayer Leverkusen. In his third game, he provided the goal in a 1-0 win over Energie Cottbus. And in his fourth game, against archrival Schalke 04, he scored Dortmund's first goal as it overcame a 3-0 deficit to tie 3-3.
Dortmund lies in the Ruhr Valley, considered the heart and soul of the German game despite all the titles swept up by Bayern Munich. Borussia Dortmund's attendance average leads the league.
"I love the crowds at our home games," Subotic said. "We always get the stadium filled with 80,000 people and that can be a lot of fun with the fans. But the main reason why I play here is because I'm happy here. I have everything I need, a very good club with which I can grow, and great people to enjoy that with."
However, now that playing for Germany is off the table, Subotic is pondering his national-team choice. The U.S. has already seen two young talented players defect to foreign national teams -- New Jerseyan
For his part, Subotic says he is focusing on his club play and will "make an entirely professional decision" regarding which nation to represent. He had previously stated his disappointment at being criticized by U.S. U-20 national team Coach
Of course, Fulk, who first spotted the boy practicing at the park, hopes that the U.S. will once again benefit from his talents. In the meanwhile, he's happy -- but not that surprised -- at Subotic's success, because his talent and work ethic always had a professional edge to it.
"I was flicking through the channels when I came across the Borussia Dortmund-Bayern Munich game," Fulk said. "My wife was in the kitchen and I said, '