Young Australian centre-back Phillip Cancar is determined to make his name in Europe after departing Sydney FC and making his first-team debut in Croatia.
Cancar left the Sky Blues at the end of 2018 at the age of just 16 to join Prva HNL club Lokomotiva.
Last year he moved on to second division side NK Hrvatski Dragovoljac and has already broken into senior football there at 18 years old.
The defender, who was part of the Young Socceroos training camp in Europe in February, is thriving in Croatia and is attracting interest from bigger clubs.
Cancar says the Crni, who are based in Zagreb, is the perfect place for him to develop.
“The club is amazing,” Cancar told The World Game.
“I came in just hoping to at least train with the first-team and after two or three weeks I was training with the first-team, I had my debut at 18, I was playing. The coach was pushing me – he still is pushing me to play as much as possible.
“I’m very grateful for that, as you don’t really see 18-year-old defenders in the league playing because it’s a process, it’s a risk for the coach. But I’m very grateful for what the club and the coach have given me so far.
“It’s very aggressive, very physical but very technical [in Croatia]. It’s great, I’m loving it. Every day is a learning opportunity.”
Originally from Illawarra, Cancar came through at the Wollongong Wolves and spent time at the NSW Institute of Sport. He joined Sydney FC’s youth team in 2016.
“I played two and a half seasons with Sydney FC, which was one of my biggest goals,” Cancar said.
“Sydney FC is, for me, the biggest club in Australia. They were great, they treated me really well. Then I had the opportunity to go overseas and I took it.
“My dream from day one was to go overseas and play. As a kid I always grew up thinking of playing in the top European leagues.
“I thought going to Croatia is just one step closer. You’ve got to take those small steps to get to the top.
“I was 16 when I went over. It was very hard to leave my family, friends, everything at that age to go overseas and be fully committed to football.
"But for me that’s my life, that’s my love, so it wasn’t really hard for me, it was harder for my family and my friends. Once I had the opportunity, I took it without a second thought.
“Lokomotiva were great. The first eight to 10 months I had paperwork issues. But they still looked after me, they fed me.
“I trained with the first-team sometimes. Then when the papers settled I was playing there for six months. Then I had an opportunity to go to a first-team in the second division. So I took that to get some men’s football under me.”
It was at the Sky Blues where Cancar was converted from an attacking midfielder to a centre-back. The move into defence has proved a winner, with the Wolves junior lured to Croatia and earning selection for Australia’s Under-20s.
“All my life I’ve played all sorts of positions, but now I think I’ve found my best position,” he admitted.
“For me, centre-back is my dream position right now. Idol is Ronaldo. I look up to a Virgil van Dijk or a Sergio Ramos. I love watching them. I like defenders who play out from the back as I like to keep the ball.”
Cancar played two games for the Young Socceroos, matches against Ajax and FC Utrecht earlier this year.
The defender, who has Bosnian and Croatian heritage, said it was a “dream come true” to represent Australia.
“The camp in Holland was an amazing experience, I enjoyed every moment of it,” he said.
“It was good to meet the boys, play with some old teammates from Sydney FC. It was a great experience to play against top academies in Ajax, FC Utrecht and FC Twente.
“I played the full game against Utrecht, then I played 85 minutes against Ajax. The last game I had a small injury and the coach said it wasn’t worth risking. It was a dream come true, something I wanted to do ever since I was a little boy.
“My dad and mum grew up in Bosnia but lived in Croatia. They came to Australia as refugees. They’re over the moon for me. For me, I still want more. The Socceroos is my main goal; to represent the Socceroos [one day].”
Cancar returned to Australia a month ago because of the coronavirus and the postponement of the football season.
His goal, when the campaign restarts, is to gain more first-team experience in Croatia and continue his rise.
“I want to try to play more,” he said.
“Because of this virus no one’s really sure what’s going to happen, but the goal is to play as many first-team games as possible before the summer transfer window opens. And when the window opens, see what happens.
“After the Young Socceroos camp I had a few offers to go to other clubs but now we’re just seeing what happens day by day.
"Now the only focus is to get back on the field. Whatever happens I’ll be 100 per cent going back to Croatia.”