Yesterday, Besart Berisha announced his departure from Melbourne Victory, ending a seven year stay in Australia. The forward has had an immeasurable impact on the Hyundai A-League.
BYE-BYE BES: Berisha to leave Hyundai A-League
Not long after Berisha claimed his fourth Championship in May, Australian football's arch-antagonist declared he had conquered the Hyundai A-League.
It's hard to argue with him.
The 32-year-old is leaving Australia to take on a new challenge in Japan, and departs the country as one of the most important figures in the Hyundai A-League's short history.
For the first time since 2011, the Hyundai A-League will begin without Berisha's involvement in it. For half of the competition's existence, Berisha and the Australian footballing community have been entangled in a peculiar love / hate relationship. But now that marriage is over, the upcoming campaign represents a new dawn for Australia's top-tier competition.
Berisha's journey to this point has never been plain-sailing. As a five-year-old, he walked 1,200 kilometres from birthplace Pristina to Berlin as a Kosovan refugee. By the time he had settled in Germany and picked up football as a teenager, the sport was nearly a matter of life and death.
“I really had the situation where maybe they will send us back to Kosovo, so, you know, at 17 I was really… I need to score goals. Because when I am 18, I have to sign a professional contract,” Berisha told the Guardian in 2013.
“I had one year to show myself, because back then, it was so tough for a non-German to play at a high level, to get to a professional club as a foreigner, and I really put everything into [that] one year and it was crazy.
“So I really had a dream, a dream which wouldn’t let me go and kept saying ‘train, train, train’. I really appreciated that time, that I never gave up, because I don’t know what [I would] do without football.”
His dream materialised when he signed his first professional contract with Hamburg as an 18-year-old in 2004. Two years later, Berisha scored against CSKA Moscow on his Champions League debut with the six-time German champions.
The forward garnered the attention of Burnley in 2007, but tore his ACL a month after joining and was shipped out on loan spells in Norway, Denmark and Germany. He has since appeared on a 'worst signings ever' forum run by Burnley fans.
While he may not have resided in the last-chance saloon, Berisha's career was firmly at a crossroads when he decided to accept Ange Postecoglou's offer to join Brisbane Roar in 2011. After failing to truly find his feet as a professional in some of Europe's toughest divisions, Berisha says his decision to come to Australia was led by the need for a fresh start.
“When I came to Australia I didn’t know what to expect", he told reporters in May, after Melbourne Victory's Grand Final win over Newcastle Jets.
"I came here to work hard, to show myself who I am.”
Although Berisha touched down in Australia with his stock arguably at a career low, there can be no doubt that the toil, heartache and unrest of the last five years and beyond had been the making of the man.
This unflinching desire to prove himself has underpinned his career in Australia. The 26-year-old had plenty to offer, and in turn Berisha's arrival came at an ideal time for the competition. The Hyundai A-League was improving steadily, but Berisha's entry was a huge jab in the arm.
The clean slate of Postecoglou's Brisbane offered the perfect platform for Berisha to rediscover his love of the game. Led by the irrepressible Thomas Broich, the Roar were playing some of the finest football to grace the Hyundai A-League and had won their first Championship in 2010/11 prior to Berisha's entrance.
The forward spearheaded Brisbane's successful title defence with 21 goals, culminating in an infamous brace in a frenzied Grand Final contest against Perth Glory. Berisha's late antics - a trademark glancing header in the 84th minute, followed by a coolly dispatched penalty in the last kick of normal time, would come to typify his reputation as the ultimate antihero.
While the competition had seen pure goalscorers in previous years like Shane Smeltz and Sergio van Dijk, Berisha's deadly prowess instantly raised the competitive stakes. He had also firmly established a target above his head because of how the 2011/12 Grand Final unfurled. When the new campaign commenced, there was a genuine desire to beat Berisha from all quarters, and this would more than often galvanise the opposition - not only because of Berisha's threat as a goalscorer, but because of his intensely evocative temperament.
Berisha's fierce competitiveness and willing to push the laws of the game to their limits quickly fostered a status as the league's perennial arch-villain, but this betrayed his nature off the pitch. The father of two is a sincere, reserved and softly spoken figure, as opposed to the hulking menace who prowled around every Hyundai A-League ground for seven years as if it the turf was his own. Moreover, he has always been aware of how much he can grate the opposition, but says there is method behind the madness.
“Friends have told me, ‘Privately, I cannot imagine a better guy, a better man, a family man, but why are you such a different person on the pitch?
"It goes with my story. The game is my life and I take it so seriously.
"Even at 14 I was so serious. I didn’t want to lose any game."
As a result, Berisha was soon recognised as box-office entertainment, and it is perhaps no coincidence that in the two seasons following his debut, Hyundai A-League attendances scaled new heights. He signed off from Brisbane with another Championship win in 2013/14, and the clutch 85th minute equaliser against Western Sydney Wanderers in the Grand Final almost seemed inevitable.
With his latest moment of audacity, Berisha had cemented his status as one of the Hyundai A-League's greatest ever goalscorers and players. If he had sought to move on from the league then, arguably few could've held many complaints.
Instead, Berisha moved on to a new challenge in Melbourne Victory. It was testament to his ability to keep improving and evolving as a footballer. The best footballers, sportspeople or people at the top of their respective fields are always adaptable, and Berisha embodied this adage in the second half of his tenure in Australia.
Berisha was undoubtedly a pure goalscorer for Brisbane throughout his three seasons at the club. But when he joined Kevin Muscat's Victory, the striker had joined one of the most prized attacking quartets in the competition at the time. Fahid Ben Khalfallah, Gui Finkler, Archie Thompson and Kosta Barbarouses were producing goals from all over the pitch, and Berisha was now privy to aiding the supporting cast as well as his role as chief frontman.
Despite this, only Sydney FC's Marc Janko finished above him in the scorers ranks in his debut season in Melbourne, and Victory would go on to clinch the Premiership and Championship double. Berisha's transition from pure nine to striking all-rounder continued in the following three seasons, as he utilised clever movement and combination play with Victory's midfielders to maintain his ranking as one of the competition's most dangerous assets.
Berisha remained just as selfish as any great striker must be, but never allowed a voracious sense of entitlement to infringe on Victory's strategy, even when in the final days of his Hyundai A-League career, his talismanic status may have inadvertently allowed it.
Berisha now leaves Australia a Championship winner for the fourth time, after what he labels as his toughest season down under to date. Of course, it was only fitting that he has the last laugh.
Most rival coaches, players and fans might not be mourning his departure as things stand, but there's no doubt the full extent of Berisha's legacy will be realised in the coming years - even if some remember his achievements through gritted teeth.
"I thank, of course, Australia for welcoming me with open arms in this beautiful country and allowing me to play the game I love and to achieve such great success," Berisha said yesterday in a message to fans.
"I’m sure I will be back in Australia, maybe not as a player but hopefully maybe as a coach, and to live in Australia.
"I love this place, I hope that one day I see you all soon again."