Last November, Darko Buser was announced as part of the coaching staff for the Ottawa Fury Academy. Born in Yugoslavia, he played football in Belgrade but had to relocate to the UK when the civil war broke out. Eventually he found himself at Chelsea where he spent 12 years working with the academy. He has collected many experiences and stories over these years and was kind enough to sit down and share some of them with me. -Kendra Lee
You were born in Belgrade in Yugoslavia. Tell me about the city and how it was growing up for you.
Belgrade at that time was the capital of Yugoslavia many many years ago and it’s a fantastic place! Yugoslavia is well known as a sporting nation and I grew up playing all sports. In primary school it was basketball, handball, water polo, football, volleyball, we had absolutely everything available for us. So it was fun growing up. I grew up in a rough area, but we were always outside playing and that’s something that kids in this new generation, they don’t have it with all the technology they have now which we didn’t have. So it was fantastic growing up in my neighborhood and then I got into football very early at the age of 7. And I played for the school team and then I was scouted by a local club. So when I was 9, I already joined the local club and I stayed with them until I was 16. I was with Red Star from 9-10 but I then moved to Radnicki Belgrade. And I played with them until I was under 16. Then I moved to Vozdovac from under 16 to under 18 and I signed my first contract with them. And then I went to the military for a year. But then the civil war started. So everything stopped for me.
How did that affect things for you?
It was a tough time for us when the country was splitting up. You know, your game was at the back. You were thinking about going forward and trying to get away from everything. So my decision to come to England was…it wasn’t easy but that was the only way to get out of it. So I left in 92 and it was very difficult because of the work permit and stuff, I couldn’t find a club. But the UK was like Disney Land for me! I was very young and I was like, “My god, this is great!” I loved it! London is probably one of the best cities in the world. You have absolutely everything. There are bad days and good days, you know, it’s not an easy place, but if you work hard, you can make it. It’s very expensive. But what’s good about London and the UK is it’s so multicultural. So I was very fortunate to find a local club in my area and turn my experience as a player into the coaching. And then I went through the coaching licenses. That was a difficult time because I would study in the morning and then work at night. And when the opportunity came for the local club, I took it and I started working with under privileged kids first for a year. And then when I got a job as a PE teacher in a private school, this is when I started meeting different people. And when Chelsea Football Club was looking for their local coaching staff at the development centers, I applied and I got a job. And after two years, I moved into the Academy because I already had my UEFA B license at the time. I was under the supervision of Michael Beale, who was at the time head of the development centers at Chelsea football club. It was a big influence for me. He is now the reserve team coach at Liverpool. Fantastic knowledge and a great personality and I’ve learned a lot from him.
How did you transition from being a player to being a coach?
You know what, I stopped playing quite early, when I was 24 because of my injury, I ruptured my quad, and at the time the treatments were not like today. So I kind of kept going, kept going and it just went wrong. So when I went for a few trials I just couldn’t show what I could do because my leg was giving up, so that was the end of it. The transition was…I loved it from day one! I mean, I think you have it or you don’t have it. Not every player can be a coach, there are some amazing players out there who probably won’t be able to coach, but I loved it. I always was kind of a leader on the pitch and I wanted to take responsibility. I started at a very young age and I kind of built it up from there. And it’s a passion and an enthusiasm. Unless you have it, I think you won’t be able to be a coach because it takes a lot of your time, there is not much socializing around. You have these kind of micro-cycles when you train the whole week, then play the game, assess the game, go on again, so it’s constant. And it’s not for everyone. You really need to be in love with it to be a coach. So I found it a very easy transition and I really loved it and to this day I haven’t lost that passion. Maybe one day, I’ll be sitting in a chair and be a director or something like that, but I prefer to be on the field. It feels good. It gives me adrenaline.
How did working for Chelsea develop you as a coach?
So I travelled a lot, I did a lot of internships; Brazil, Spain, Italy. That’s something that I recommend to every coach. You need to go and experience different cultures and mentalities. That’s the way you can learn. And down the line I met some wonderful people and Chelsea gave me a lot of good possibilities and I really had a fantastic 12 years with them. But then you know things change. You know the Dalai Lama would say that “Two days in a year that you can’t control. One is yesterday and one is tomorrow.” So I had to focus on my present and I had to close the page and I moved on. And I ended up in Canada, which I never thought that would be the case. But my experiences in the past are only experiences so far. This is a completely new experience for me and I can really learn a lot from this work experience as much as I can bring to the club as well. So the past 5 months we have worked extremely hard but I believe we are building something very good for the future regardless if I’m gonna be here in 10 years or somebody else, but at least we’re building a foundation that whoever comes next, the Ottawa Fury Academy and the First team will be in good hands. And I’m grateful to the owners and obviously Marc for giving me the opportunity. To work alongside them is great because they are fantastic professionals and they have amazing knowledge. We always learn, every day.
You were involved with the Serbian National Team as a coach as well.
Yes, we created a so called international camps where we would scout players who were born outside of Serbia but their parents were from Serbia. So that was a project that we had done for the past 3 years. And I was involved with the selections from under 16 to under 19 back home as well. The last two years I was doing the scouting as well for my previous club and that took me to different places. And opposition scouting is something that I’ve done in the past 2 years. As a coach it’s good because you make the whole circle. You played, you assist, you coach, you scout, and you opposition scout. So that kind of brings everything together.
Let’s talk about supporter culture in Serbia. You’ve mentioned Red Star Belgrade before and I’d love to hear about the supporters. Have you been to the Eternal Derbies with Partizan?
Yes, many times. Both of my brothers, I have two older brothers, they are like ultras supporters. They are older now, but they are still there in the north stand. Now, when I was growing up in Yugoslavia, I have to be honest, I supported Hajduk Split, and they have a group Torcida, they were founded in 1950, they were the first supporters group in Yugoslavia, and I just kind of supported them because of the atmosphere. But Red Star Belgrade in the early 90s obviously became a big club and obviously they won the European Cup as well. The most successful club in Yugoslavia, most supported club in Serbia right now, so the atmosphere is absolutely amazing! Their supporters are really, really well organized and it’s a completely different culture from here. They follow handball, basketball etc. Recently there was a big derby between Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade, but it’s becoming very dangerous now to go to the games because a lot of violence and a lot of fights. And sometimes people lose lives. So that’s a different extreme. But the passion is absolutely similar, like in Spain, Italy, Turkey, you know the Mediterranean temperament. And the stadium was like 100, 000 people…its 50, 000 now. Because of the civil war obviously the league is very small now and each region has their own league. So I don’t know if in the future they’re gonna change that. But politics I think won over the sport in the last 20 years back home so that’s a shame. As you said the supporters are absolutely…when you walk into the stadium, it’s just a different level! You know back home, people will come two hours before the game, already there, ready, singing, chanting, in the stadium already, no problem. It’s very different. I wouldn’t be able to explain it to you. They are really really 24/7 for their club and they travel everywhere with the club. And a big big part of Red Star Belgrade is, some members of the club are on the board of directors, they make decisions as well. They are that strong, you know. They have a big influence on the club. It’s a different level.
So what influenced you to come to Ottawa?
You know at first I thought, “No way!” Because I finished with Chelsea in September and I wanted to take a few months off. And then Marc [Dos Santos] called me out of the blue and goes, “What’s up? What are you doing?” and I’m like, “Listen I just parted with the club let me…” and he goes “Oh, fantastic! I’m gonna ask Phillip to call you!” and I was like, “Marc, what? No.” “But we need somebody” and this was how it started. And I had two to three Skype conference calls with Phillip [Dos Santos]. He kind of sold it to me. I didn’t know what to expect. But you know, Phillip’s plan and leadership and knowledge, and enthusiasm, that was 50% and 50% was probably Marc. I’m very very close with Marc; we worked together. I worked for Marc for two competitions in Brazil as an opposition scout so I have a great understanding of how he works. And Phillip is exactly the same. Different personalities, you know, but a big part was the two of them. And when I came, obviously we had absolutely nothing in terms of facilities and it was really rock and roll battle every single day, but because of them and because of positivity and energy, that was a big part of me coming here. It wasn’t easy in the beginning, you know, weather, culture, adapting to it. I think this was the coldest winter you had in a very long time and here I am coming in November and I’m like “Oh my god! How am I gonna survive here?” And they’ve been very supportive, everybody at the club, and that was a big big part for me. I believe in the project and I believe in the work we do here and I came because of that.
You are now doing video and performance analysis for the first team. How has that been going?
I’m just a piece of the puzzle in terms of preparation. Basically I watch a game and we have a special program and I kind of cut it up, so every single player, everything is there, every single technical and practical thing about the player. I then communicate with Nash and Marc they use it for the preparation for the next micro-cycle for the next game. Football is moving forward and technology plays a big part. And also what we do during the games, me and Philip Dos Santos, we sit upstairs and we watch from the upstairs. We are connected with a radio to the bench. So Philip is kind of in charge of this. We kind of track things because sometimes when you are conducting the game from down there, you can’t see everything so we kind of communicate all the time during the game and that sometimes helps a lot. So in terms of scouting, yes we watch a lot of videos, we cut the videos up, we try to find what we can exploit, what are the weaknesses and we try to look at what is the best aid for them and then we kind of try to match it up and use weaknesses in our advantage. So it’s a long process, it’s a constant process and we work around the clock.
A big thing for the Fury is being involved in the community. How are you involved in that initiative?
We have a new project, which is called “First Touch” and “Next Touch” which I’m in charge of. I work closely with Audra [Sherman], she’s our girls’ coach, and I’m happy to say we increased from 35 to 125 kids. We believe in the quality. We believe that if we change the program and if we reach out to the community and show them who we really are, our commitment to community, our engagement with the kids, because that’s our bread and butter. It’s the first contact with the club. We want them to remember the Fury. And in the long term, we want these kids to come back to us, to be our under 9s, under 10s, under 11s, under 12s. So that’s something that we want to build through our camps and through our community work. It’s very important to us. This is how you build the club from the ground up. But as you can see, everything is linked; community, academy, first team. We all work together and obviously the first team results are very important to kind of build everything up. But I’m sure this season is going to be different from last year.