For as long as he can recall, Jovan Kirovski has had the kind of passion for soccer that is often associated with first-generation Americans. And even though the road to soccer stardom is full of detours for a player from a country without a bona fide professional league, the 19-year-old Kirovski remains driven to excel.
Three years ago he left the comforts of his home in Escondido, Calif., and, with a student visa, took on the taxing role of being an apprentice professional player in England. This season Kirovski expected to battle for a spot in Manchester United's star-filled lineup, but getting around English labor restrictions proved tougher than scoring with a left-footed bicycle kick.
Kirovski, the second son of Macedonian immigrants, plays forward on the U.S. national team. In England, however, he is but a speck in a sea of highly talented players. Both Kirovski and the Man United management expected him to gain a work permit after he earned a rare endorsement from the Professional Footballers Association (the English players' union) in August, but no such luck. Despite Kirovski's impressive credentials—he is the youngest player ever to have competed for the U.S. in 10 international matches, and Manchester's newspapers have dubbed him the "next Mark Hughes," after the team's former high scorer—his application for a work permit was denied.
So the kid who has the potential to challenge Claudio Reyna's position as the unofficial golden boy of the U.S. team is, for now, limited to playing with United's reserve squad. While he could make a six-figure salary in Germany's first division, Kirovski prefers to take his chances with the Department of Employment of England, hoping it will reconsider his application and allow him to play for pay for Man United, one of the world's most glamorous teams.
Shortly after leading San Pasqual High to the San Diego County title as a sophomore in 1991, Jovan left the youth soccer scene of team vans and postgame pizza parties for one of the most viciously competitive environments in professional sports. English football hopefuls leave school to become apprentices at 16, despite heavy odds against gaining a pro contract two years later. Survivors enter a world without farm teams: Man United's 40 pros battle daily to be among the 14 who dress for games, and a hefty chunk of their income is based on game appearances and team performance. "Every practice is like a 90-minute game," Kirovski says.
In England, foreign players like Kirovski are anything but welcome. Despite the recent success of the U.S. national team, the few U.S. exports still endure the minority syndrome of last hired, first fired, and they are the players least likely to survive a team's change of coaches. "They're seen as wannabes with no right to be there," observes Bob Gansler, coach of the 1990 U.S. World Cup team.
But Kirovski is nothing if not determined. He nearly left home at 14. While most of the world was riveted to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the Kirovski clan visited Yugoslavia so that Jovan could be evaluated by the management of the team Hajduk Split. The coaches liked what they saw and tried to sign him, but his mother, Ubavka, was reluctant to let him go to a country that was on the brink of civil war. "I wanted his dream to come true," she says, "but I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd let him go."
Kirovski's break would not come until 1992, when he toured England with the U.S. western region's Olympic developmental squad. Among those he impressed was Steve Kelly, who was the youth coach of Man United's latest boy wonder, Ryan Giggs. Kelly arranged for Kirovski to be a guest player for Glasgow Rangers of Scotland in Northern Ireland's Milk Cup, a soccer debutants' ball heavily attended by team scouts.
In seven games of the Milk Cup, Kirovski scored seven goals, including a match-winner in the semifinals. The suitors quickly queued up, with the Rangers and United at the front of the line. So Kirovski swapped California sunshine for the gray winter days and four o'clock sunsets of Manchester, moving into Kelly's modest house across the street from a cemetery. Leaving home, Kirovski admits, "was the toughest decision I ever had to make." He was swayed by the advice of his mentor Steve Zungul, a former Major Indoor Soccer League star from Croatia, who said the earlier Kirovski got to Europe, the better his chances there would be. "The first few months were difficult," Kirovski says. "It takes awhile to be accepted because you're here to take someone's job away. But I always thought I could play."
He's not alone. "Jovan can be one of the greatest players in this country," says Zungul, who is retired now and lives in Escondido. "If I'd call him at five o'clock in the morning, he'd practice. He's a workaholic, which is something that you don't see often with American kids." Jovan's mom agrees. "He was always very serious about his soccer," she says. "The way he is today is how he was when he was five."