Modric, Kovacic and Kelava: Get to know Victory’s No.1

Had Ivan Kelava’s career taken a different course, he would have been every chance to be part of Croatia’s 2018 World Cup squad. Potentially even starting in the final against France.

The Croatia Euro 2012 squad member and youth international, in his European pomp, was thwarting Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo and company in the Champions League and a Dinamo Zagreb and international teammate of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Mateo Kovacic and Vedran Corluka to name a few.

After stints in Italy and Spain’s top tiers – Udinese and Granada respectively – several European moves backfired, coinciding with him falling out of favour with Croatia, as Danijel Subasic solidified the no.1 spot.

WATCH: Kelava talks to KEEPUP about his relationship with Victory’s supporters

Kelava and Subasic, who were opposing keepers in the Dinamo-Hajduk derby from 2008-12, were fighting to displace legendary Stipe Pletikosa – who kept against the Socceroos in 2006 – and were his Euro 2012 back ups.

He continued a series of short spells in Hungary, Romania and Cyprus, before Tony Popovic signed him at Xanthi and now Melbourne Victory, where he’s making up for lost time and making quite the impact on and off pitch.

Kelava, who extraordinarily never won a Croatia cap, admitted it was surreal coming through this era.

“When you are surrounded by players like Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Darijo Srna, Stipe Pletikosa. And young guns, (Dejan) Lovren, (Domagoj) Vida, it’s an amazing experience and they make you even better because they have high demands,” Kelava said.

“I was a Croatian youth national team regular since Under 15s, through to Under 21s. Then I played over 100 (games) for Dinamo. Senior national team Euro 2021, some qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Melbourne Victory goalkeeper Ivan Kelava launches for a high ball against Western United, in his debut game. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

“My highlight was qualifying for the Champions League for the first time after 12 years – I was man of the match (in the qualifier against Malmo). The Croatian newspapers rate the players, I got 10 out of 10.

“But you never want to talk much about yourself, you want others to judge you. As a goalkeeper, player, teammate, I just want to give my team a feeling that they know they can count on me. That I will be there for them. 

“This is what drives me, that’s why every day I come to the session smiling, I come an hour or more early. I’m first in, last out.”

Kelava, 33, has fond memories of the pressure-cooker Dinamo-Hajduk derby in Croatia, but is preparing for his first Melbourne derby on Saturday night, against Melbourne City at AAMI Park.

The charismatic shot-stopper is bound to play a leading role. Kelava has become a fan favourite with the Victory faithful with his on-field exuberance and fan engagement. Meanwhile, City’s star-studded attacking quartet of Jamie Maclaren, Mathew Leckie, Andrew Nabbout and Marco Tilio is bound to test him out.

“I knew all about the derby, especially last season the results didn’t go our way (6-0 and 7-0 Victory losses). Derbies are always derbies. Wherever you play, you need to know about the history of your club, previous seasons. Even though I wasn’t here, it’s part of the history of the club,” he said.

“I was watching some Victory games (last season). We have a completely new team, but we still have that in the back of our mind what happened last season, and we want to show it’s one season of bad results. We want to fix that. 

“But it’s a new Victory, new season. We have new, high expectations. We’re expecting a competitive, difficult game.

“We’ve been working on tactical details, the gameplan. We need to execute it on the pitch.”