Serbian youngster Belic targets 'great honour'
Since the Premier League was formed in 1992, just 29 Serbian footballers have plied their trade in England’s top flight, but only one of those hundreds of appearances came in the Claret and Blue of West Ham United.
Goalkeeper Sasa Ilic made the sole showing for a Serbian for the Hammers in 2000, featuring between the sticks in a forgettable day for Irons fans – a 4-0 defeat at home to Everton.
Still though, the wait for a first Serbian outfield player to wear the famous shirt goes on. In 17-year-old Kristijan Belic, though, that wait could soon come to an end.
“I didn’t know a Serbian player had never played outfield for West Ham before,” Belic admitted. “I come from a small city in Serbia, so to be the first would be a great honour for both myself and my family.
“This is a great club with a big history, and it’s always great to play for West Ham, whatever the level.”
I’m still only 17 but I think this is a good challenge for me, at this level. Playing at U23s level is always good
At the moment, four Serbians play in the Premier League, of which two play in the same position as Belic. In Nemanja Matic – a two-time winner of both the Premier League and Serbian Footballer of the Year – and Lukas Milivojevic, the captain of both Crystal Palace and the Serbian national team, Belic has two international compatriots to aspire to when it comes to defensive midfield.
While Matic and Milivojevic are both regulars in the top flight of English football, Belic’s journey is still in its infancy. The 17-year-old joined West Ham three years ago, and the youngster moved to London with just his older brother – Luka – in tow, and no experience of ever speaking English.
A year later, Luka would join Scottish side Motherwell on a six-month loan, before signing permanently for NK Celje, a Slovenian side.
If not for the welcoming nature of everyone involved at West Ham, Belic believes he would have struggled with the drastic change.
“Coming from home at 14 across to London was difficult,” Belic continued. “I only had my brother with me and then he left after just a year. I couldn’t speak a word of English when I came over either, so I had it all to do.
“The lads here really accepted me though, and the club has done so much for me both on and off the pitch. I’m really pleased with how the team, the staff, and the players have worked with me. I can’t thank them all enough.”
Belic played 81 minutes against Liverpool in Premier League 2 action in February in what was the teenager’s first U23s showing of the season.
The 17-year-old did not look out of place featuring alongside and against players five or more years his senior, earning praise from coach Liam Manning.
Now Belic is targeting even more appearances at U23 level between now and the end of the season.
“I’m still only 17 but I think this is a good challenge for me, at this level. Playing at U23s level is always good. A few of us younger players have come into the U23s and the Liverpool match was our first test of being together.
“I think I put myself about a bit against Liverpool. I’ve come from injury and then come back from some international football, and now I want to get more games under my belt. I think that’s the best way I’m going to hit the top levels of my performance.”