Sasa Kalajdzic: the Austrian colossus waltzing towards superstardom

Sport

Olivera Stajic kept her promise. The day after the young striker Sasa Kalajdzic scored twice against Scotland on his second appearance for Austria, Stajic posted a video on Twitter: “This is how you pronounce Sasa Kalajdzic,” the journalist explained. As in: don’t just remember the name, make sure you can say it correctly.

She needn’t have worried. The 23-year-old is Austria’s most promising striker, scoring in seven consecutive Bundesliga games for Stuttgart at the start of this year followed by three in Austria’s first two World Cup qualifiers. Just as the memories of Austrian goalscorers from the past are starting to fade, the boyish Kalajdzic looks well placed to solve Austria’s striking problem.

The footsteps he is following are not hard to track. Hans Krankl scored goals for the national side throughout the 70s before handing the baton to Toni Polster, who became – and remains – the country’s leading scorer with 44 goals before retiring in 2000. In the more recent past, maybe only Marc Janko ranks as a standout forward, scoring 28 goals for Austria until he hung up his boots two years ago. Now, it seems the search is over.

The first thing that strikes you about the Vienna-born striker is his height. At 6ft 7in, Kalajdzic is the tallest player in the Bundesliga and a natural target for well-aimed crosses. Cross-header-goal is one of football’s most basic moves, beautiful in its simplicity. And with Kalajdzic, one of the equation’s three variables is set. Just put the ball on his head.

But despite the time-honoured stereotype of tall strikers – that they struggle with the ball at their feet – Kalajdzic does not only rely on his aerial advantage. In fact, his technical skills are astonishing. His left foot has prodigious power and, when his side are building an attack, Kalajdzic plays his part with confidence, knowledge and finesse. Partly this is thanks to Ernst Baumeister, his former coach at Admira Mödling, who moved him up front from midfield and ensured that his main task was to score goals. Kalajdzic’s time in midfield helped him to understand the game better and avoid getting lost as an isolated tower in the penalty box.

Kalajdzic’s backstory is somewhat typical for a footballer from Vienna. His parents are from Bosnia and fled to Vienna during the Yugoslav wars. Born in 1997, Sasa started playing football at SV Donau, then Donaufeld, before finding his way to Admira, where he made his professional debut, in the suburbs of the capital. When a young footballer is asked to name his heroes, the obvious answers are Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – or maybe, for players with Balkan roots, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Luka Modric. Kalajdzic’s response is different: “My heroes are my parents, they fled with nothing and managed to provide a good life for me and my brother.”

Interviews with him are a refreshing antidote to the usual fare: he seems to have dodged the media training. There are none of the “one game at a time” or “I’m just a part of the team” cliches. Kalajdzic once said: “I’m not the smartest person around, but also not the dumbest. I’m just an open, honest guy.” The result is a man who always seems to begin an interview with a small grin on his face, like a boy who has just been asked how many goals he scored in the garden. After scoring twice against Union Berlin in December he was asked in the post-game interview why he couldn’t let go of his phone. The reply? “I forgot to put myself in my fantasy league team. I’m such an idiot.”

When Kalajdzic signed for Stuttgart in 2019, his path looked set. But in his first friendly for the club he suffered a horrible injury, forcing him to miss almost the entirety of his maiden season. Looking back, Kalajdzic is thankful to the club: “They gave me the feeling that they really trusted in me to make the comeback and didn’t look for a replacement. But it was a shock.”

The Fiver

Kalajdzic repaid the trust. He returned from injury just in time to help his club clinch promotion to the Bundesliga. He then scored on his top-flight debut after being brought on against Freiburg, the start of a season in which – with 14 goals and four assists in 30 games by the end of April – he has raised interest from bigger clubs and made him first choice for Austria at the Euros.

And maybe, after the tournament, a whole lot more people will have found out how to pronounce his name correctly.