NEMANJA VIDIC HAS BECOME SO SYNONYMOUS WITH MANCHESTER UNITED, ANCHORING THE TEAM'S backline and taking the captain's armband this past season, that it's often forgotten how close he came to playing elsewhere. In 2005, when the then 24-year-old Vidic was a star center back for Spartak Moscow, he had many suitors, and it appeared that Fiorentina had won the bidding. The Serie A side and Spartak settled on a transfer fee, and Vidic agreed to a $41,000-a-week contract to play in Italy. But in a move that caused a considerable stir Spartak and Vidic reneged on the Fiorentina deal after Manchester United swooped in with a sweeter offer. Spartak got more money—reportedly $12 million—and Vidic doubled his weekly salary.
Losing Vidic has become something of a lingering pain for Fiorentina—the team's director, Pantaleo Corvino, said that failing to sign the Serbian defender was his biggest regret. United, meanwhile, got all that it imagined and more when it signed the 6' 1" Vidic, who has developed into an incomparable center back.
"I really do think he's the best defender in England, and if you are the best in the English league, you are the best in Europe, in my opinion," said Manchester City defender Aleksandar Kolarov, who is admittedly biased toward his friend and countryman. City attacker Mario Balotelli concurs. He told Italy's Sport Magazine, "The best defender I've faced who I hadn't heard of before I arrived in England? I'd have to say Nemanja Vidic."
Balotelli may not have heard of Vidic before he came to England, but Vidic had long been a rising star. He first played for Jedinstvo Putevi, a team in his Serbian hometown of Uzice. At age 12 he moved to a bigger club, Sloboda Uzice, and by 15 he was a standout in the youth system of Red Star Belgrade. Five years later Vidic was wearing the senior captain's armband.
His run at Serbia's most popular club was bittersweet, however. Vidic enjoyed great success—Red Star won a double (the league title and the Serbia and Montenegro Cup) in 2003--04—but in '01 he had lost one of his best friends, Vladimir Dimitrijevic, who at age 20 collapsed and died of a heart attack before Vidic's eyes while training. "We were inseparable," Vidic told The Observer of London. "We dreamt the same dreams, wanted to touch the sky with Red Star, but unfortunately Vlada is not with us anymore. When I play, I think about my friend, and I will do everything I can to save his memory."
In July 2004 Vidic jumped to Spartak for what was rumored to be the most money ever paid by a Russian team for a defender. A year later Sir Alex Ferguson called. "Good defenders win you things," Ferguson told Manchester United's website. "[Vidic] is really natural and athletic. You need good defenders, and that is exactly what this lad is."
The lad was also a little out of his depth that first season in England, when he made 15 appearances. "The start was hard for me," he told The Observer. "I arrived having not trained for 40 days, because in Russia the season was finished. Also, injuries caused problems for me—these were difficult days and months. But I learned so much. [Ferguson] was patient to wait for me to improve while I was a bit unstable in the first team. He was saying to me, 'Don't be upset, take it easy, everything will be O.K.' He was like a father to me, and I want to repay him."
Vidic has repaid Ferguson by playing at least 33 games in each of the past four seasons and by helping lead Manchester United to three league titles and one Champions League crown. He has been named to the Premiership's Team of the Year four of the past five seasons, and after the 2008--09 season he became the rare defender selected as Barclays Player of the Season. After that campaign, which included a record-setting 14 consecutive games in which United did not concede a goal, Vidic's status among the faithful at Old Trafford rose so high that he is now talked about as one of the greatest defenders in club history. He also replaced his oft-injured teammate Rio Ferdinand as the anchor of the defense and put himself in position to become captain.
Ferguson had other options in 2010 when right back Gary Neville's constant injuries took him out of the lineup and required that he give up the armband. Ferdinand and veteran midfielder Ryan Giggs were seen as worthy successors, but Ferguson went with Vidic. The manager was swayed by the center back's leadership abilities and, perhaps more, his durability.
"We had to choose someone we felt was going to be fit and playing every week," Ferguson said. "That is difficult when you rotate the squad the way we do. We felt Vidic was closest to that. And he is a defender, and I always think they make better captains."