Ranko Veselinovic - celebration with Janio Bikel

"Everything just stopped": Ranko Veselinović reflects on first year away from home

Coming from his hometown of Novi Sad on the banks of the Danube River, Ranko Veselinović’s journey across the globe from the northern Serbian city to Vancouver has had a good number of surprises.

After leaving his boyhood and hometown club of FK Vojvodina on loan for the Whitecaps in February, Veselinović had a matter of days before things ground to a halt.

“It was tough in the beginning because after just two training sessions with the team, everything just stopped,” Veselinović said. “I was in my apartment for almost two and a half months.”

While Vancouver and the world reacted to the novel coronavirus, the ‘Caps were forced to pause activities as with the rest of MLS. For Veselinović, this meant pausing the progress he was eager to make in his new home. By the time things returned to semi-normalcy, the young defender had a number of new experiences - traveling across the continent for the MLS is Back Tournament and stationing in Portland to name a few.

“It was all new to me and there was a lot of time on the road,” Veselinović said of his first season with the ‘Caps. “It was the first time I left home as I was previously living with my parents in my home city. I played for my hometown club all my life so there were a lot of challenges for me. At the end, everyone in Vancouver — the coaches, the people — they helped me and made it easier for me to adjust to a new team, new teammates, new colleagues and new coaches.”

Veselinović’s former club of nearly a decade, FK Vojvodina of the Serbian SuperLiga, was what the defender was used to. Coming to Vancouver and Major League Soccer was quite a difference for Veselinović as the Serb’s primary style of play needed to be altered.

“It was hard to adapt to a new system of football,” Veselinović admitted. “It’s different in MLS than my former league in Serbia; it’s more transitional, faster football. I managed to adapt, and I’m pleased with my performance over the last year.”

Veselinović’s growth and performance over his debut season in Vancouver earned the 21-year-old 16 starts in 18 league appearances along the defensive backline. His successful adaptation to the pace and style of MLS was apparent as the first-year defender ended the 2020 campaign tied for third across MLS with 22 blocks, and in the top 20 with 78 clearances.

Crediting his early success to the relationship with teammates, Veselinović was able to bond quickly with his new squad. Leaning on the older, more experienced players as well as relying on Vancouver’s young core, Veselinović adjusted quickly.

“[David] Milinković speaks Serbian and he helped me a lot with the initial language barrier and he was there for me if I needed something,” Veselinović said. “I also spent a lot of time hanging out with Janio Bikel. Honestly, I’m not saying this to be nice, I really mean it when I say that all the players and people in the club helped me a lot and it was really easy to adapt to the new environment.”

“We are a really young team and that’s good,” Veselinović added of his teammates. “We can always be there for each other and we understand each other since we are younger.”

Off the pitch, Veselinović is adjusting well to his new home of Vancouver. While mentioning that he hasn’t been able to truly explore Vancouver amidst the pandemic, Veselinović has enjoyed what he referred to as “a whole different kind of life” in Canada. While acclimating well, however, the Serb knows there’s no place like home.

Veselinović will spend his offseason and holiday back in Serbia as he relishes in the company of his family this Christmas season — something that he has missed out since the beginning of the year.

“When I left for the first time, I really realized how important family is,” Veselinović said. “This holiday is going to be special and I wanted to make the most of this Christmas because after that I’m going to come back to Vancouver and be away from my family for eight to nine months.”

“I’m in Serbia now and I’ll be here for the entire offseason with my family,” Veselinović added. “I missed them so much so I’m going to be here with my family and friends. Also, because of COVID, I’m not planning to go anywhere.”

Christmas, or Božić, is a bit different in Serbia than back in Canada, though, Veselinović explained. Utilizing the Julian calendar, Serbia celebrates Christmas on January 7. In Serbian culture, the Božić period is celebrated between the third Sunday before Christmas Day and the beginning of Epiphany which corresponds to the period of January 7 to January 18 and is known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.

“The difference is that our Christmas is two weeks after Canada’s Christmas but other than that I think it’s pretty similar,” Veselinović clarified. “We gather as a family with our grandparents, parents, my brothers, my cousins all in one house with a big meal and we celebrate together, and we spend time together. That’s the spirit of Christmas.”

While there are a number of unique traditions and activities that take place in Serbia during the holiday season, Veselinović particularly looks forward to the traditional cooking from his mother and grandmother during Božić. Veselinović indulges in Sarma, a cabbage stuffed with beef, pork, and rice. He also enjoys pečenje, typically a whole roasted pork, and pasulj, a type of white bean soup. On Christmas Day, Veselinović’s family will enjoy česnica, a sweet loaf of bread.

While Veselinović is eager to spend his holidays relaxing back home in Novi Sad, the defender is already thinking ahead to next year on the pitch and has his eyes on the playoffs. With his loan from FK Vojvodina becoming permanent in October, the Serb was able to reflect on his first year out of Serbia and is ready to get back to Vancouver following the holidays.

“It was a crazy year, but it was a good year for me,” Veselinović concluded. “I went to a new club, a new country, to a whole new environment and I played a lot of games. I’m a little bit disappointed because we didn’t make it to the playoffs but at the end it was a crazy year, we played a very tough schedule and only had three games at BC Place. Overall, it was good, but I hope that next year is going to be better for us.”

“I was a loaned player to begin the season but now my contract is permanent and my individual goals for next season are to progress in my game physically, tactically and to train hard, to be better in every training and every game.” Veselinović added. “For the team, I always say that next year anything except playoffs will be below our expectations.”