For as long as he can recall, Jovan Kirovski has had the kind of
passion for soccer that is often associated with
first-generation Americans. And even though the road to soccer
stardom is full of detours for a player from a country without a
bona fide professional league, the 19-year-old Kirovski remains
driven to excel.
Three years ago he left the comforts of his home in Escondido,
Calif., and, with a student visa, took on the taxing role of
being an apprentice professional player in England. This season
Kirovski expected to battle for a spot in Manchester United's
star-filled lineup, but getting around English labor
restrictions proved tougher than scoring with a leftfooted
Kirovski, the second son of Macedonian immigrants, plays forward
on the U.S. national team. In England, however, he is but a
speck in a sea of highly talented players. Both Kirovski and the
Man United management expected him to gain a work permit after
he earned a rare endorsement from the Professional Footballers
Association (the English players' union) in August, but no such
luck. Despite Kirovski's impressive credentials--he is the
youngest player ever to have competed for the U.S. in 10
international matches, and Manchester's newspapers have dubbed
him the "next Mark Hughes," after the team's former high
scorer--his application for a work permit was denied.
So the kid who has the potential to challenge Claudio Reyna's
position as the unofficial golden boy of the U.S. team is, for
now, limited to playing with United's reserve squad. While he
could make a six-figure salary in Germany's first division,
Kirovski prefers to take his chances with the Department of
Employment of England, hoping it will reconsider his application
and allow him to play for pay for Man United, one of the world's
most glamorous teams.
Shortly after leading San Pasqual High to the San Diego County
title as a sophomore in 1991, Jovan left the youth soccer scene
of team vans and postgame pizza parties for one of the most
viciously competitive environments in professional sports.
English football hopefuls leave school to become apprentices at
16, despite heavy odds against gaining a pro contract two years
later. Survivors enter a world without farm teams: Man United's
40 pros battle daily to be among the 14 who dress for games, and
a hefty chunk of their income is based on game appearances and
team performance. "Every practice is like a 90-minute game,"
In England, foreign players like Kirovski are anything but
welcome. Despite the recent success of the U.S. national team,
the few U.S. exports still endure the minority syndrome of last
hired, first fired, and they are the players least likely to
survive a team's change of coaches. "They're seen as wannabes
with no right to be there," observes Bob Gansler, coach of the
1990 U.S. World Cup team.
But Kirovski is nothing if not determined. He nearly left home
at 14. While most of the world was riveted to the 1990 World Cup
in Italy, the Kirovski clan visited Yugoslavia so that Jovan
could be evaluated by the management of the team Hajduk Split.
The coaches liked what they saw and tried to sign him, but his
mother, Ubavka, was reluctant to let him go to a country that
was on the brink of civil war. "I wanted his dream to come
true," she says, "but I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd
let him go."
Kirovski's break would not come until 1992, when he toured
England with the U.S. western region's Olympic developmental
squad. Among those he impressed was Steve Kelly, who was the
youth coach of Man United's latest boy wonder, Ryan Giggs. Kelly
arranged for Kirovski to be a guest player for Glasgow Rangers
of Scotland in Northern Ireland's Milk Cup, a soccer debutants'
ball heavily attended by team scouts.
In seven games of the Milk Cup, Kirovski scored seven goals,
including a match-winner in the semifinals. The suitors quickly
queued up, with the Rangers and United at the front of the line.
So Kirovski swapped California sunshine for the gray winter days
and four o'clock sunsets of Manchester, moving into Kelly's
modest house across the street from a cemetery. Leaving home,
Kirovski admits, "was the toughest decision I ever had to make."
He was swayed by the advice of his mentor Steve Zungul, a former
Major Indoor Soccer League star from Croatia, who said the
earlier Kirovski got to Europe, the better his chances there
would be. "The first few months were difficult," Kirovski says.
"It takes awhile to be accepted because you're here to take
someone's job away. But I always thought I could play."
He's not alone. "Jovan can be one of the greatest players in
this country," says Zungul, who is retired now and lives in
Escondido. "If I'd call him at five o'clock in the morning, he'd
practice. He's a workaholic, which is something that you don't
see often with American kids." Jovan's mom agrees. "He was
always very serious about his soccer," she says. "The way he is
today is how he was when he was five."
For Kirovski a typical day begins with morning training,
followed by a quick lunch and a bus ride. While other
apprentices hone their ball skills in the afternoon, Kirovski
attends Manchester's Salford College, where he studies business,
which helps him maintain his student visa. He practices on his
own after school, both to sharpen his technique and to dull his
When Kirovski arrived in Manchester there were whispers that he
was a "dancer," a player with marvelous skills but one who
avoids contact. To exploit Kirovski's scoring touch, United
coach Alex Ferguson moved him from the midfield up to the front,
where he is regularly whacked by opponents. That's like placing
a reputedly fragile quarterback on an NFL team's interior line.
As a result English football has toughened Kirovski. "I get
kicked a lot," he admits. "But you don't whine about it. You
just give 'em one right back." Adds United reserve coach Jim
Ryan, "The trick is to produce your skill when the studs are
flying. That doesn't seem to affect Jovan at all."
Kirovski has shown he has the goods to survive in English ball.
In April 1993 he headed in the winning goal against Millwall at
Millwall's infamous Den to earn United a berth in the Football
Association Youth Cup Final. He has also shown flashes of
brilliance with the U.S. team in low-profile exhibition games
and in the consolation game of last summer's Copa America,
against Colombia. Kirovski got a lot of attention when he
flicked the ball over Colombian defender Jorge Bermudez with his
right foot to set up a shot with his left.
U.S. national team defender Alexi Lalas, who plays for Padova in
Italy's first division, says that because of Kirovski's
"incredible skill and vision," the youngster is "very, very
important for the future of our team." Adds U.S. forward Roy
Wegerle, himself a veteran of the English League, "United has a
reputation for bringing kids through. They only want the best
around. That they consider Jovan in that way says that he must
have a good future. All he needs now is experience."
But gaining that experience won't be easy, even if Kirovski gets
his work permit. Because United's attendance is double that of
the typical team in the Premier League (England's top division),
the Manchester organization has the funds to maintain an
unusually talented roster.
In 1993-94 United became the fifth squad in the 107-year history
of league soccer in England to win the league title and the
Football Association Cup in the same season. But by local
standards, the '94-95 season was a disaster. Man United was
knocked out early from the European Champions competition; it
finished a point shy of the first-place Blackburn Rovers in the
Premier League and lost to Everton in a dreadfully dull FA Cup
Final. Hughes, the scorer of so many critical goals, was sold to
Chelsea in June, and United's brilliant but temperamental
Frenchman, Eric Cantona, who was suspended from January through
September for making a Bruce Lee-style assault on a heckler,
wanted out of England. The remainder of Man United's strike
force consisted of expensive acquisition Andy Cole and
20-year-old Paul Scholes. So this fall might have been the best
time for Kirovski to make his move.
One squad with a huge stake in Kirovski is the U.S. Olympic
team, because most of its candidates are now engaged in a
three-month college season in which club ball is prohibited.
History conspires against the U.S. in Olympic soccer, and the
team needs all the help it can get. Even the talented 1992 squad
led by Reyna, Lalas, Brad Friedel, Joe-Max Moore and Cobi Jones
failed to advance beyond the opening round.
For now, though, Kirovski's focus is on continuing to improve in
England. He hopes to fare better with the Department of
Employment when he reapplies for a work permit in December. That
a player of his talent is in such a bind is testimony to wildly
inconsistent standards. "I don't understand the whole permit
process," U.S. national team coach Steve Sampson says. "It's not
as if the boy's talent isn't apparent. When I first saw Jovan in
1993, he had good ball control and a good mind for the game. Now
he's much more dynamic. He sees the little gaps that he can
Says Kelly, "Jovan can make as much of an impact on world soccer
as Giggs. In two years he'll be a big name. I'd bet my life on
Dan Herbst covers his favorite sport for Soccer Jr., Soccer,
Soccer News and Four Four Two.