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Former pro soccer player to coach Mercyhurst men

Friday, July 17, 2015

When the Mercyhurst men’s soccer team takes the field this fall, a familiar figure will be coaching on the sidelines. And when the team is practicing, he’ll be running right alongside them.

Nenad Vidakovic never was one to shy away from a soccer game.

The 57-year-old former professional player recently took over the reins to the men’s soccer program, the latest chapter in his soccer career that’s taken him all over the world.

Vidakovic was born in Goražde, Bosnia, in 1957. A multi-sport athlete as a child, he began playing soccer for a small club at age 12. In 1973, the 17-year-old Vidakovic caught the eye of national team coaches during a game in Sarajevo and two years later, signed his first professional contract.

“Every year, hundreds of kids try out. Everybody has the dream to sign a professional contract,” he said.

Over the next 15 years, Vidakovic’s skill on the field, playing every position from defensive midfielder to fullback to sweeper, took him to teams all across Europe, including FK Sarajevo and FK Čelik Zenica in the former Yugoslavia and the Yugoslavia National Team for Olympic qualifying games, as well as teams in Yugoslavia, Turkey, Cyprus and France.

Two of the most unforgettable moments from his professional career found him playing in front of some impressive audiences. While captaining the FK Čelik Zenica club, Vidakovic led his team to a huge win in Croatia. When they returned home, 20,000 screaming fans greeted them and the team celebrated with an impromptu scrimmage well into the night. Another time, with FK Sarajevo during a Europe Cup game against FC Hamburg (Germany), Vidakovic played in front of 45,000.

Vidakovic began the transition from player to coach in the late ’80s, a change he said wasn’t too difficult thanks to his “good nose” for the game.

“When I played, my coaches told me I should coach. They were always pushing me,” he said. “They said I had a good nose because I was able to read where someone was going to move. I always try to be a few steps ahead.”

His coaching instincts paid off in his first stint as coach of a Division 4 club in Yugoslavia in 1989. He led the club to the elite eight of the Yugoslavia FA Cup, where they played against Division 1 teams, a huge success for a team from Division 4.

In 1994, Vidakovic earned a Diploma for Higher Trainer for Football from the University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This national coaching license, equivalent to the FIFA A-level license, enables him to coach anywhere in the world. He also holds a National Coaching Diploma from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. 

In 1992, war broke out in Vidakovic’s native Bosnia, throwing his life into turmoil. His wife and children fled to Croatia, but Vidakovic was unable to join them for two years.

“This was a hard time for everybody,” he said. “I lost my apartments, my business, everything I had.”

He rejoined his family in 1994 and they briefly settled in Croatia, where Vidakovic began to play and coach soccer again to make money. When it became clear they couldn’t go back to Sarajevo, Vidakovic and his family made the decision to relocate.

“I started from zero, with no money in my pocket,” he said. “It was difficult for me and my family to leave our lives, the place where we had everything, and go to another city, another country.”

Given the rising popularity of soccer here, they headed to America, but had never heard of the northwest Pennsylvania town in which they settled. Erie was home to a large population of Bosnian refugees, and soon after Vidakovic and his family arrived in Erie, his instincts for soccer kicked in.

“As soon as I got here, I said ‘show me where is field,’” he said. “The Bosnian population in Erie had a club that played at Family First. This is how everything started.”

Slowly, word began to spread that a former professional player had taken to the Erie fields, and Vidakovic was recruited to help out the coach of the Villa Maria Academy girls team.

In 1997, Vidakovic began coaching the boys team at Cathedral Prep, shortly after his son transferred to the school. Over the next six years, the Prep team thrived under Vidakovic, winning six Erie Metro championships, five District 10 championships and the PIAA state championship in 2001 – all while Vidakovic was learning the English language.

With his sons with him on the sidelines helping him translate and his hands-on approach to coaching, the language barrier wasn’t too difficult to overcome.

“Prep went to the state finals in my first year, and they asked me how I was doing it. I said my language is soccer,” he said. “The soccer language is much better, because I still can show them if I cannot explain to them.”

In 2005, Vidakovic got a call from Mercyhurst women’s coach Keith Cammidge (also coach of the Mercyhurst men’s team at the time) to see if he’d be interested in helping out with the men’s and women’s teams. He was.

“I was here every game and every practice for the girls and boys,” Vidakovic said, adding he didn’t travel with the team that year. “All my life I traveled, and I was sick of it.”

When Dale White began coaching the men’s team in 2009, Vidakovic took on a bigger assistant coaching role to help out the young coach. Now that White has left to coach the Gannon men, Vidakovic is a head coach again.

But don’t expect too much to change.

“This is the first year, I don’t want to change a lot,” he said. “Yes, my style is more discipline, but over the last five years, all is good. We have a good team.”

And if history is any guide, you’ll find Vidakovic practicing alongside his players, showing them how it’s done.

“I’m out in the field, every time. If we are doing some tactical stuff, I show them exactly where they should be, where the ball should be,” he said. “I can show them, so they’ll see I’m right.”