When the UEFA Women's Champions League round of 32 draw was released in November, a number of clashes caught the eye: Swedish champions Goteborg against Manchester City, title-holders Olympique Lyonnais against Juventus, PSV Eindhoven against Barcelona.
But for 18-year-old Australian Vesna Milivojevic, there was one game that stood out from the rest.
On Thursday morning (01:00, AEDT), Milivojevic will be part of Serbian side ZFK Spartak Subotica as they take on two-time UWCL winners VfL Wolfsburg, who also finished runners-up to Lyon last season.
It’s enough to make any player nervous, let alone a teenager playing in her first ever season abroad. But Milivojevic is relishing the opportunity.
“I have no pressure on me, so I’m not nervous,” she told The World Game. “We’re the underdogs. I’m just super excited to play.
“It’s been such a big goal of mine to play in the Champions League and to play against big clubs. Wolfsburg are literally one of the best teams in Europe. If I’d stayed home [in Australia], I would never be versing that team.
“We’ve also played friendlies against other top 32 teams like St. Polten from Austria, CSKA Moscow from Russia, Minsk from Belarus. I’ve played teams all over Europe.
“Our path there hasn’t been too hard – our past two Champions League games weren’t very difficult opponents.
"But now we’ve drawn a top team, so I feel like it’ll be really good for me to see their level and see where my game needs to go further to get there.”
It’s been a rapid rise for a player who, just over a year ago, was scoring goals for fun at Bankstown City FC in the NSW National Premier Leagues competition.
She was named the 2019 NPLW Player of the Year after bagging 15 goals in 22 games before signing her first W-League contract with the Western Sydney Wanderers in 2019.
However, the young dual-nationality player – who’s eligible to represent both Australia and Serbia – didn’t get the game-time she wanted in Australia, and soon looked elsewhere for a new challenge; one she felt would embrace her natural style.
“For me, I feel like I fit the style of football in Europe more because they appreciate your technical ability, how you are on the ball, your passing, your touch,” she said.
“I know in Australia, you get overlooked because they see the faster players who run past everyone, but they have the worst first touch that I know of. That happens to me a lot.
“I love football and I really feel like I can make a career out of this. I felt like going overseas could give me more opportunities to be seen by bigger clubs rather than staying domestically in Australia.
"Already, I’ve played teams from many different countries. It’s a great experience and I’ve learned a lot.
“I’ve always been a technically gifted player, but you come to an environment where everyone is technically gifted, so you see that you have even more to improve and more to work on.
"Especially my tactical side of the game, like understanding your positioning on and off the ball – in defence, in attack – it’s very important here.”
Serbia didn’t just catch Milivojevic’s eye because of the technical standard of its top clubs. It was also a place where she felt she could learn more about her own culture and heritage.
“Part of it is because of my parents,” she said. “This is my first time ever coming to Serbia, but my parents are from here. I’m in Subotica, which is in the north. I’ve known about [the club] for a couple of years. When I played NPL in my later years of high school, I thought, ‘well, why don’t I try and go over there?’
“I did everything myself, really. I didn’t have an agent or anything to help me. I created highlights videos, I created my own CV, and I sent that to the club. I was really shocked that they sent an email back saying, ‘yeah, we’re interested in you, would you be open to talking to us about coming here?’
“Both my parents came from a relatively poor background [in Serbia]. They came to Australia as refugees; they were so poor, they came with nothing.
"So, it’s made me really reflect on how hard they had to struggle to put me in this position that I’m in today. I still have a long way to go but I really owe it to them.
“They were so supportive of [the move], they said, ‘this opportunity comes once in your life, so you need to take it. Enjoy it, be at your best each day, and what happens, happens.’
“I’m not fluent in Serbian – I have learned a lot – but it is fun being the translator sometimes between the English speakers and the Serbian speakers. When the coach is explaining things, I talk a lot to everyone in two different languages, so I get along with everyone.”
Milivojevic’s football upbringing made a move to Europe or South America seem inevitable.
From when she was young, she was playing football on the street with her brothers. She also loved and quickly excelled at the more technical, small-sided game of futsal.
“Futsal is a huge part of me as well,” she said. “It’s so important and so underrated. I think I started when I was nine or ten and played all the way up until recently.
“I remember a coach telling me, ‘don’t go to futsal, it’s a waste of time.’ And I’m like, ‘no, it’s not!’ I enjoy it so much; I love the fast-paced nature of the game.
"You have to move the ball quickly, whether that’s through passing or dribbling. For your first touch, you can’t stop the ball because you will get tackled. There’s no space, so you need to be smart.
“In Australia, there’s not really that culture of street football or futsal, I guess. But throughout Europe and South America, there’s always kids playing on the street or on little concrete fields.
"That’s where the stars of tomorrow are born: on the street. You see top players like Ronaldinho or Neymar, they both played futsal. You see the types of players they are.”
While Milivojevic has national team aspirations, her immediate focus remains on excelling with Subotica and hopefully securing a move to a bigger league in Europe.
“That’s the one-year, two-year sort of goal,” she said. “I want to solidify myself at a good club and be challenged day-in, day-out by the players around me and by my opponents.
"I’d like to stay in Europe. England is a stretch at the moment – that’s the top of women’s football right now, their league is physical and technical, and there is no easy team – but I would like to go to Spain, Italy, anything like that; I’m not very picky.
“I want to be at a decent club where they will nurture me as a player and not hinder me. I don’t want to go to a club where I’m going to be a bench player or just in the squad. I want to be a starting eleven player. That’s always been me; I’ve never been one to sit on the bench.
“I’ve never represented any national team, whether at under-17s or whatever. Never been in the youth systems either. Everyone wants to play for their national team, so of course I have that aspiration.
"But for me, I just want to focus on being the best version of myself and becoming the best player that I can possibly be. If national team comes calling, then they come calling, but that’s not my focus.
“I really wanted to challenge myself by going somewhere I knew nothing about. I just wanted to be hit by a truck and have that culture shock to be like, ‘okay, this is where I need to be at, these are the things I need to improve on'.
"In the past eight or nine months being here, I’ve definitely become a better player. I encourage other people to do what I did.”