SHIKI, Saitama Pref. — As the European transfer window slams shut for another summer, Omiya Ardija’s Croatian defender Mato Neretljak can afford himself a wry smile.
In the past three months, Real Madrid has shattered the world record fee twice in the space of a week, legions of star names have signed up for Manchester City’s petro dollars, and a host of deals have been struck to pour even more cash into players’ bank accounts all over the continent.
And with every transfer comes a familiar refrain: “It’s not about the money.”
Neretljak, however, sees things differently.
“Of course for me it is a job,” the 30-year-old said at Ardija’s training ground earlier this week. “OK, I love this job, and that is a big plus. But what do you think about (Chelsea’s Didier) Drogba? Of course he loves Chelsea, but first he plays for money.”
Neretljak has established himself as one of the best defenders in the J. League since joining from South Korea’s Samsung Suwon Bluewings at the start of the year, using his 191-cm frame and years of experience to command Omiya’s back line and score five goals so far this season.
Had his career taken a different turn, however, he could have been rubbing shoulders with Drogba in Europe’s elite leagues.
Neretljak’s form with Hajduk Split at the start of the decade earned him a callup to the Croatian national team, and his inclusion in his country’s squad for the 2004 European Championship attracted interest from bigger clubs.
“My first choice was Germany,” he said. “But the problem was my club. Hamburg wanted me but they wouldn’t pay the money. Samsung were willing to pay, so I went to Korea.”
And so Neretljak turned his back on Europe to head for the relative obscurity of the K-League. The move shocked many in his home country, but the player had no doubts where his priorities lay.
“Of course I went for the money,” he said. “I was captain of Hajduk Split, and they are the best club in Croatia so many people were surprised by me going to Asia.
“But this was a big chance for me. You can’t always wait. In Croatia, I played every year in the Champions League or UEFA Cup, but you can’t make any more money. I need more for my family. After 35 years this is finished.”
After winning the championship once with Suwon and making the K-League team of the season three years in a row, Neretljak has found a new home in Omiya. The move, he says, has not disappointed.
“The football is good here, and every year it grows up,” he said. “Many good foreign players and coaches come here. In Korea it is like Germany in style, and in Japan it is more like Spain. Here everybody wants to play. In Korea it is more power, more long balls, more running. It’s a big difference.
“The level is a little higher here, and the atmosphere is better. I like stadiums like Omiya’s. OK it is better if the stadium is a little bigger, but the fans are close like in England. It’s nice.”
The transition, however, has not always run so smoothly.
“When I first went to a bank here I had to wait two hours to pay one bill,” he said. “I am from Croatia and I lived in Korea for four years, and there is a big difference. There you can call and someone comes and you’re finished.
“Here people don’t have stress. Everybody lives good and easy. Now I understand, but the first three or four months was a difficult time for me.”
Cultural differences mean Neretljak has had to make sacrifices to continue living in Asia, but he is quite happy with the tradeoff. Even if it means the end of a once-promising international career.
“The Croatia coach (Slaven Bilic) is my friend, and I speak to him,” he said. “He tells me that if I go back to Europe I will play for the national team, but I won’t go back to Europe.
“I can go to Russia and earn more money than here, but I don’t want to go to Russia. If I go there, I don’t know what will be waiting for me. I need a good life, and I have that here.”
Neretljak’s cold-eyed honesty is admirable in an age where players’ wages shame them into badge-kissing, fist-clenching declarations of loyalty, but it also leaves him open to accusations of lacking passion.
Omiya’s fans will demand a special effort for Saturday’s visit of league-leading Kashima Antlers, but Neretljak is content to go about his business as usual.
“For me every game is the same,” he said. “Kashima is the top club here, but if I play against JEF I fight, if I play against Yokohama I fight. I want to win every game. I don’t think about money when I am playing. I play because I love it and I want to win.”
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