For Kirovski a typical day begins with morning training, followed by a quick lunch and a bus ride. While other apprentices hone their ball skills in the afternoon, Kirovski attends Manchester's Salford College, where he studies business, which helps him maintain his student visa. He practices on his own after school, both to sharpen his technique and to dull his homesickness.
When Kirovski arrived in Manchester there were whispers that he was a "dancer," a player with marvelous skills but one who avoids contact. To exploit Kirovski's scoring touch, United coach Alex Ferguson moved him from the mid-field up to the front, where he is regularly whacked by opponents. That's like placing a reputedly fragile quarterback on an NFL team's interior line.
As a result English football has toughened Kirovski. "I get kicked a lot," he admits. "But you don't whine about it. You just give 'em one right back." Adds United reserve coach Jim Ryan, "The trick is to produce your skill when the studs are flying. That doesn't seem to affect Jovan at all."
Kirovski has shown he has the goods to survive in English hall. In April 1993 he headed in the winning goal against Millwall at Millwall's infamous Den to earn United a berth in the Football Association Youth Cup Final. He has also shown flashes of brilliance with the U.S. team in low-profile exhibition games and in the consolation game of last summer's Copa Am�rica, against Colombia. Kirovski got a lot of attention when he flicked the ball over Colombian defender Jorge Bermudez with his right foot to set up a shot with his left.
U.S. national team defender Alexi Lalas, who plays for Padova in Italy's first division, says that because of Kirovski's "incredible skill and vision," the youngster is "very, very important for the future of our team." Adds U.S. forward Roy Wegerle, himself a veteran of the English League, "United has a reputation for bringing kids through. They only want the best around. That they consider Jovan in that way says that he must have a good future. All he needs now is experience."
But gaining that experience won't be easy, even if Kirovski gets his work permit. Because United's attendance is double that of the typical team in the Premier League ( England's top division), the Manchester organization has the funds to maintain an unusually talented roster.
In 1993-94 United became the fifth squad in the 107-year history of league soccer in England to win the league title and the Football Association Cup in the same season. But by local standards, the '94-95 season was a disaster. Man United was knocked out early from the European Champions competition; it finished a point shy of the first-place Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League and lost to Everton in a dreadfully dull FA Cup Final. Hughes, the scorer of so many critical goals, was sold to Chelsea in June, and United's brilliant but temperamental Frenchman, Eric Cantona, who was suspended from January through September for making a Bruce Lee-style assault on a heckler, wanted out of England. The remainder of Man United's strike force consisted of expensive acquisition Andy Cole and 20-year-old Paul Scholes. So this fall might have been the best time for Kirovski to make his move.
One squad with a huge stake in Kirovski is the U.S. Olympic team, because most of its candidates are now engaged in a three-month college season in which club ball is prohibited. History conspires against the U.S. in Olympic soccer, and the team needs all the help it can get. Even the talented 1992 squad led by Reyna, Lalas, Brad Friedel, Joe-Max Moore and Cobi Jones failed to advance beyond the opening round.
For now, though, Kirovski's focus is on continuing to improve in England. He hopes to fare better with the Department of Employment when he reapplies for a work permit in December. That a player of his talent is in such a bind is testimony to wildly inconsistent standards. "I don't understand the whole permit process," U.S. national team coach Steve Sampson says. "It's not as if the boy's talent isn't apparent. When I first saw Jovan in 1993, he had good ball control and a good mind for the game. Now he's much more dynamic. He sees the little gaps that he can exploit."
Says Kelly, "Jovan can make as much of an impact on world soccer as Giggs. In two years he'll be a big name. I'd bet my life on him."