When Olyroos coach Josep Gombau named his European-based Australian development squad a fortnight ago, you would have been forgiven for not knowing much about some of the players selected for the 22-man training camp in Spain.
One such player is 20-year-old Groningen midfielder Ajdin Hrustic, who last night made his senior breakthrough with the Dutch Eredivisie side.
The technically gifted Hrustic was part of the contingent of youngsters in Iberia and is determined to make an impression as the Olyroos played out friendly matches against the Austrian – against whom he played 85 minutes – and Finish U21 sides.
“It feels good to be called up to represent your country. I settled in well with the rest of the players and enjoyed my time in Spain,” Hrustic said.
The former South Melbourne junior admits he was surprised by the call-up but relished the opportunity afforded to him as he did his best to make an impression in Murcia.
“I was contacted by the team manager who got through to me via another under-19 player at Groningen. It was definitely a surprise as it’s my first time representing the country I was born in at such a level.”
While the nine-day training camp was Hrustic’s first official call-up by an Australian national youth side, he was also involved in a one-off under-13 Australian boys side coached by Ante Juric, taking part in a tournament in Malaysia in 2009. Former Dutch-based youngster Daniel de Silva was another notable name in that squad.
Twelve months later, Hrustic and his family departed Melbourne for England, with the teenager joining the youth ranks of two-time European champions Nottingham Forest before leaving the Midlands a year later.
His next stop was Vienna, spending two years in the youth academy of 24-time Austrian champions Austria Vienna at a time when Socceroos midfielder James Holland also called the Franz Horr Stadium home.
In 2013, Hrustic moved across the border and joined German powerhouse FC Schalke, where he rubbed shoulders with some of the country’s most prodigious talents.
One of them was Max Meyer, a fully capped German international who last year captained his country to the final of the Rio Olympics, equalising for the Germans in the final before ultimately losing on penalties to a Neymar-inspired Brazil.
The other well-known teammate from his time in Gelsenkirchen was Manchester City winger Leroy Sane, now a close friend of Hrustic’s.
“Leroy is doing really well. He scored in both games in the Champions League against Monaco and we speak every day and try to meet up whenever we can whether in England or Germany,” he said.
“I actually visited him in Manchester last year and it is so good to see him showing his potential in the toughest league in the world.”
While Meyer and Sane both progressed into the senior team, Hrustic found first-team opportunities limited and left the Rhine in 2014, ultimately signing a professional senior contract with Groningen in June 2015.
He joined The Pride of the North at a time when the club was still celebrating its first Dutch Cup triumph and is progressing well at Noordlease Stadium.
“I joined Groningen partly because of their reputation in the Netherlands for producing world-class footballers.
“Arjen Robben and Luis Suarez both played here and more recently we’ve had Virgil van Dijk and Dusan Tadic who both now play at Southampton and for their national teams, so you can see that they do provide you with a great pathway onto success.”
After biding his time in the club’s reserves last year, Hrustic has taken his game to a new level this year and featured 25 times for the club’s under-21 side, netting four goals and grabbing three assists in the process.
His good form led to a senior call-up during the winter break, and Hrustic took his chance well by scoring the winner in the club’s 3-2 friendly victory over Almere City. Since then he has primarily been an unused substitute in Groningen’s Eredivisie fixtures, including the recent visit of Dutch giants Ajax.
“I feel like I’m progressing well. I was with the senior side for the training camp in January and assisted and scored in the game against Almere,” Hrustic said.
He made his first team debut for Ernest Faber’s side last night by coming on as a 70th minute substitute in the goalless draw against 2009 Eredivisie champions AZ Alkmaar.
“It’s obviously an honour to play for your club. And I think that I personally did a good job. Happy to see that the fans on social media also think the same.”
While delighted to have made his senior breakthrough, the emerging midfielder is hoping the 20-minute cameo is a taste of things to come as he looks to continue his progression in the Netherlands.
“The aim now is to keep working hard and pushing for more first-team minutes. I take it step by step but I’m happy with my first 20 minutes of professional football,” he added.
One of his teammates in the Groningen locker room is Socceroos defender Jason Davidson, who also hails from Melbourne. Hrustic admits the pair from down under have bonded during their time in the north of the country.
“Jason and I are really close and spend time together both on and off the pitch,” he said.
While following Davidson’s path and representing the Socceroos is a goal for Hrustic, he admits there have been flirtations with another national side.
Born to a Bosnian father and a Romanian mother, the 20-year-old is eligible to represent both Balkan countries and acknowledged there has been interest from the former.
“While I was at Schalke, the Bosnian federation expressed interest in me. However since then there has not been a great deal of attention from either Bosnia or Romania.”
Since making his first steps on the football field at local club Heatherton United, Hrustic has been on a whirlwind journey in the hope of fulfilling his dream. The move to England in 2010 prompted his mother, father and two younger siblings to also leave their family home in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs behind.
The emerging talent recognised the difficulties this has posed for them. His father Enes regularly returns to Melbourne for work purposes.
“Chasing a dream will never be easy. You either bite your teeth and succeed or you give up while trying. I obviously haven’t given up and I’m happy with what I’ve achieved but I still want a lot more,” Hrustic said.
A maiden Olyroos cap against Austria saw the emerging midfielder play 85 minutes in the 1-1 draw against Austria and with a top-flight Eredivisie debut now under his belt too, Hrustic is looking to continue his pursuit of excellence.
While it may be a little pre-mature to talk about a Socceroos call-up, there is no reason as to why the talented 20 year-old cannot force his way into Ange Postecoglou’s squad in the next year or so as the national team look to book a place at next year’s World Cup in Russia.
Be sure to practice the name as you could be seeing it in the headlines for years to come. Ajdin Hrustic – it sounds exciting and he is an exciting player himself. A different kind of player who is a bundle of dynamite and energy raring to go and looking to make his mark in the competitive world of European football.