Red Star's Degenek revelling in whirlwind year as Champions League football awaits again
It has been a whirlwind 12 months for Milos Degenek, who played an influential role as his boyhood club Red Star Belgrade snapped a 26-year European drought last season.
Not since 1992 had Red Star qualified for Europe's premier club competition. But Degenek's looping header helped the Serbian champions to a dramatic play-off win over RB Salzburg in 2018.
In the international wilderness since soon after winning the European Cup in 1991, it awoke a sleeping giant. A memorable win over eventual champions Liverpool and an impressive draw with Napoli in a difficult group including Paris Saint-Germain whetted their appetite for Champions League football.
But after the highest of highs and bringing Red Star back to the pinnacle of European football, Degenek opted for a new challenge in January – Saudi Arabian powerhouse Al-Hilal. The 25-year-old defender played alongside Sebastian Giovinco, Bafetimbi Gomis and Andre Carrillo. While it was a positive experience with one of Asia's biggest clubs in the Far East, the lure of Red Star and another Champions League campaign proved too strong.
"Playing Champions League then going to Saudi Arabia and coming back to the Champions League again, you couldn't imagine that," Degenek, who returned to Red Star on loan in July before signing a four-year contract, told Omnisport. "You dream about it and you sacrifice a lot for it to happen.
"Last year it was me that helped Red Star a lot in the qualifiers against Salzburg but it wasn't just me. It's a team effort. It's never just down to one player."
The Socceroos defender – who fled the war-torn Balkan region with his family in the 1990s, relocating to Australia – added: "I had the six months playing Champions League and then it was time for me to go to Saudi Arabia to Al Hilal, where I had a good stint. I played in the Asian Champions League and played with some unbelievable players. I had a lot of fun there, it was a good experience.
"But eventually things turned around and I ended up coming back to Red Star. I wanted European football again. I'm 25 and I believe I still have a lot to offer in Europe and I can show that to the world, that's why I'm very excited to be back. It's my home, it's the club I love."
Degenek is preparing for another Champions League campaign, this time involving Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, last season's runners-up Tottenham and Greek giants Olympiacos in Group B.
Like last season, Degenek played a big role in the play-offs. He scored a priceless goal as Red Star drew 2-2 at Young Boys before prevailing over the Swiss side on away goals last month.
"Obviously, we broke that drought last year. To do it two years in a row is something phenomenal. None of us could have dreamt that," he said. "Things like that don't come that often or easy. There was a lot of sacrifices made, a lot of difficult games and trips against big clubs. It's a testament to the club, players, fans, staff and coaching that we stuck together and achieved this unbelievable thing.
"Playing with the some of the greatest clubs in European competition with the greatest history. Obviously last season with Liverpool. Napoli and PSG don't have the greatest European tradition and history, but Liverpool does. This year again with Bayern Munich, it's something spectacular.
"Bayern are massive, Spurs are massive, Olympiacos are massive. I look forward to it. It's something I'll cherish like I did last season. Hopefully we can go one step further this season [and finish third]. With God's help and a good plan, we can achieve things. Experiences of last year can possibly help us achieve an even better run in the group stages."
"Zvezda has a rich history," Degenek added. "It's a big club, they used to be even bigger but we're getting there. We're helping the club and fans to dream again and still love the game. It's very important that we're improving every season."
Degenek and Red Star will be relying on their fanatical and daunting support in Belgrade, where Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool lost 2-0 in November at Rajko Mitic Stadium – also known as the Marakana.
"It's unbelievable, [our fans] are like a 12th man on the pitch," the Australia international said of the support. "For us playing at home it's unbelievable. I don’t know if a lot of people in this world understand what it means. If you've never been out on the pitch, you never will but I guess Liverpool understood and PSG and Napoli did."
As for Stephen Warnock and the former Liverpool defender's incorrect claims that Red Star were "part-time" with "plumbers", for which he apologised after the team's Champions League qualification, Degenek is using it for motivation.
"It shows how much people don't care about us and that people think we're an unimportant team in Europe," the former 1860 Munich defender said. "That's why I'm excited and happy that we're bringing Zvezda back to the world stage. It motivates you. It's embarrassing an ex-footballer doesn't know about the 1991 European champions."