WINNIPEG – Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania have all been home for Stefan Cebara so far in his professional soccer career.
Add in destinations such as Guatemala, Qatar, Spain and England while with the Canadian national team, and the 28-year-old Valour FC trialist from Windsor, Ontario has a collage of passport stamps to his name.
But for a player born in Croatia and raised in Serbia, as well as Alberta and Ontario, Winnipeg may be the biggest surprise city on his list of destinations.
“I’m very happy to be here, I haven’t seen much of the city but so far I like it,” Cebara told CanPL.ca after a recent training camp session that included the dreaded “beep-test” alongside Valour players and a few other trialists looking to earn a contract with the CPL club.
As stressful as a day of physical testing can be, the stresses of the training session were no match to the stress of uncertainty that Cebara lived through the past year.
“I ended my contract in Serbia with FK Vojvodina and still had a year left,” he said. “Some things that were supposed to happen fell through and I got cut off at the transfer deadline, (so) it was very hard to join another team midway through the season.”
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Over a year has gone by since Cebara played an official match. He remained in Serbia and trained with his former club to stay in shape and spent a fair share of time staring at his phone.
“There are a lot of days when you are running by yourself, hitting the gym or just waiting,” he recalled. “It’s the stressful life of a professional athlete as a free agent.”
While not yet able to strip “free agent’” or “trialist” off his name tag, Cebara is in Winnipeg for more than a kick-a-bout. He has his sights on taking advantage of an opportunity that was not even close to reality when he was a teenager and took off for Europe to chase his pro soccer dream.
“When I was growing up if you had hopes of playing professionally the best route was going to Europe, but now the game is evolving here with a lot more enthusiasm and energy on football in Canada and with this league (players) know if they play well here they can get noticed for sure,” Cebara offered.
“This league (the CPL) needs to be here, so I am excited to see what it’s all about.”
Capped five times by the Canadian men’s team (all five in 2013), what caught Cebara’s eye from the first season of the Canadian Premier League was the list of players with national team pedigree, especially the new faces that earned the national team call based on their form in the CPL.
“It’s a goal of mine if I do get to play (with Valour), stand out and hopefully get a (national team) call,” he said. “I have to take care of my business on the field and see where it goes.”
While it is not a given that Cebara’s time in Winnipeg will end with one of the few contracts left on offer at Valour FC, he is putting his focus on showing coach Rob Gale what he could offer as a veteran pro on a team that has added experience this off-season.
“I’m a very versatile player, can play offensive or defensive,” Cebara said when asked to describe his game. “I think I’m fast, athletic and have the technical ability to play up front but also I can read the game well when I am playing at the back.”
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That versatility was an asset Cebara picked up over his time playing in first division leagues across Eastern Europe. At times he was found in the midfield, upfront and occasionally at fullback. The leagues had their differences, but also plenty in common.
“It’s all very technical, a lot of good players start there and make big careers in Europe so it was good to be around that environment,” he said. “If players have a weakness you won’t know because of the setup tactically, they play to their strengths.”
All the years abroad have also played a part in Cebara’s desire to try to land with a club in Canada. Other than a trip with the national team to Edmonton for a match in 2013, he hasn’t suited up for a game on home soil since moving across the Atlantic over 10 years ago. So how does a potential road match vs. Forge FC or York9 sound? A little over three hours drive from his stomping grounds in Windsor.
“A lot of family and friends would show up to that game and I haven’t really played in front of them in years, it would be nice for me to see that,” Cebara said.
Though Winnipeg isn’t exactly a quick trip from southern Ontario, he says it’s close enough.
“I grew up (in Canada), my family lives here and I would love to play here, it would be a sweet homecoming,” Cebara stated.
For now, all Cebara can do is keep his head down and hope a new league in his home country can be the start of his next chapter.
“Just here working hard, showing my strong suits on the pitch and hopefully they’re impressed and I get a contract,” he said. “I am thankful to Rob (Gale), Damian Rocke (assistant coach and assistant GM) and everybody here for the opportunity.”