Football-mad priest will be leading Serbian roar in city
AFTER playing football in front of 25,000 hysterical fans in Belgrade every week for five years, the Very Rev Radmilo Stokic was given an ultimatum by his bishop: Football or the Church.
Three days of deliberation later, he chose the cloth, a decision Mr Stokic – now head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Derby – has no regrets about.
"For me, it was my family, then my faith, then football," he said. "From childhood, football was huge for me. I would walk to school kicking a football, I would sleep with a football next to the bed and when I had the chance to play professionally, it was wonderful."
Picked up by OFK Belgrade, he played as an attacking full-back or sweeper, scoring the occasional goal but more often stopping tricky wingers in the former Yugoslav league, from 1973 to 1979.
He went on to work as a priest in Serbia, the US and Denmark before arriving in Derby in 2008.
Now 54, Mr Stokic, of Empress Road, Derby, preaches to the estimated 200 Serbian families in the city as well as in Leicester, Nottingham and Stoke-on-Trent.
He said: "My family is very much a football family.
"I played for OFK, who were the third team in Belgrade behind Red Star and Partizan.
"My son Stefan played for Red Star, then Malmo in Sweden and then in the USA but he is now back in Serbia following a bad injury and is taking his coaching badges.
"Football is huge in Serbia and the whole country will be watching the world cup.
"Here in Derby, we are hoping to get a big screen installed in the church hall where Serbian families can watch the games together."
Mr Stokic said he loved watching English football because, as in Serbian football, players showed 100% commitment, the same way that he and his son played.
He said: "For me, I believe Serbia can get at least to the second stage of the World Cup, where they might possibly meet England.
"We have good players, like Ivanovic at Chelsea and Vidic at Manchester United, but to me the key thing is our coach, Antic, who gets the team playing together.
"I'm actually not that concerned about playing Germany, as we know how to play against them, but Ghana are the ones to watch in our group. They even have a Serbian coach who knows how we might play.
"The key to getting through is that first game against them. If we can beat them, I think we can get through to the next stage."
Meanwhile, to Laura Schulz and the rest of Germany, getting past the group stage of the World Cup is an absolute must. Derby's current Osnabruck envoy says the Germans' expectation levels are always high, especially when it comes to the big tournaments.
Germany have lost their talismanic captain, Michael Ballack, injured while playing for Chelsea in the FA Cup final, but Laura believes they can still go all the way and lift the trophy in South Africa.
The 23-year-old said: "It would be quite embarrassing if we did not make it through the group stage of the competition but I don't think that will happen. Losing Michael Ballack is a blow but he is getting older now and, in many ways, his best years are behind him, so he can be replaced.
"We have good younger players, such as Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who are fit and hungry and are the kind of players that will fight to the end.
"I think we can win it, yes."
Laura has been in Derby since September last year and plans to watch the Germany games in the pub with friends.
She said that, since hosting the competition in 2006, German fans had started to watch their team's matches together in large gatherings.
"When we hosted the finals in 2006, a lot of cities put up large screens in places such as parks and hundreds or even thousands would gather together to watch the match and cheer on Germany.
"There would be food and beer and the atmosphere was great, everyone cheering together. I hope that I can find some more German fans in Derby to watch the games with so that I'm not the only one in the pub cheering us on with everyone staring at me."
England controversially beat West Germany at Wembley in 1966 to win their only World Cup. And despite wins such as our 5-1 triumph on German soil in a European Championship qualifier in 2001, the old enemy has tended to have the upper hand.
Laura, whose domestic team is Schalke 04, said the Germans always liked to get one over on England, Holland and now Italy, who put them out of the World Cup four years ago.
She said: "It would be good to get some revenge on the Italians. It is going to be really exciting."
Australian Mark Nosworthy is convinced his team would turn England over.
Despite being a footballing minnow in comparison to Fabio Capello's team, the Socceroos boast a host of Premiership and former Premiership stars – and Mark says the togetherness in their squad will be the key to their success.
The father-of-two, of Chaddesden, plans to watch his team's matches with three-year-old son Malakai.
Mark, 28, of Sanderson Road, said: "I am convinced we are going to finish second in our group behind Germany, which should bring us up against England in the second round, where I think we'll turn you over.
"When it comes to sports, most Aussie blokes talk up their teams chances and I'm no different to that. The day I think we'll beat England in the second round is already written down in my diary. And if and when we do, it will be the happiest day of my life."
Asked if that included his wedding to British wife Claire, Mark thought long and hard.
"It'll certainly be up there with it," he said.
Mark has lived in Derby for more than seven years after coming here from Sydney. As well as Malakai, he and Claire have a daughter, Isabelle, aged nine months.
Now a self-employed business consultant, he said soccer, as most Australians know the beautiful game, still ranked behind rugby, cricket and Australian rules football in terms of popularity back home. But with the country bidding against England to host the finals in 2018, interest is growing fast.
"We have a good squad this year, which includes Tim Cahill of Everton, skipper Lucas Neill, from West Ham, and the former Premiership player Harry Kewell.
"The newspapers back home are speculating that "King" Harry, as we call Kewell, has a groin problem but he'll still be out there leading the line for us. I think we will draw with Germany in our first match, then beat Ghana, then draw with Serbia to go through and meet England."
Mark said wife Claire, who works as a social worker, had no interest in football and probably wouldn't even watch the matches if England got to the final. But Malakai is looking forward to sitting with his dad for the games.
Mark said: "In 2006, I watched some of the games at the Walkabout bar, in the Market Place, and the Aussies seemed to come out of the woodwork to cheer their team on. This year, it might be a few beers with friends and a barbecue instead.
"Malakai will be cheering the Aussies in his replica shirt but I think he thinks all football is Derby County."
When Brazil knocked out Ghana in the second round of the 2006 World Cup, Ray Amponsa-Achiano felt his team were robbed.
With a samba-style of football and a scattering of English-based players the Ghanaian team even dub themselves "the African Brazil". And with a vocal following back home in Africa, Ray feels his side will be roared on to success, maybe making the quarter-finals this time round.
Ray, who teaches maths at Noel-Baker School, said: "People will be glued to their TV sets back home in Ghana. It is our national sport and we are brought up to play it from a young age. The following is loud and passionate, we love the game and we are really excited about the World Cup. If Ghana win their games, I am sure I will hear the noise here in Derby from thousands of miles away."
Ray, 37, lives in Allenton and is chairman of the Derby African Society. He said the only team he feared in Group D was Germany, as Ghana's head-to-head record against them was poor.
"We have never beaten Germany and when we played them last, they beat us 5-1, so they are the ones to be fearful of. Of the rest of the teams in the group, I think Australia have a good goalkeeper in Mark Schwarzer but we can beat them and Serbia did well to qualify, but again I am confident we can get past them.
"We have a lot of Premiership players in our team, such as Kevin Prince Boateng, who plays for Portsmouth and is eligible to play for us, as his father is from Ghana. We also have Fulham's John Pantsil, Sully Muntari, who plays for Portsmouth, and John Mensah, who plays for Sunderland."
Asked what he thought of England's chances in South Africa, Ray said the big players, such as Steve Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, all had to do well at the same time to lift the World Cup.
He said: "After Ghana, I would like to say I think England will win the World Cup but I have a feeling it could be Spain that lift the trophy. I know that if Ghana get knocked out, I will be shouting loudly for England."