The 21-year-old from Serbia was setting out hopefully on a career as a goalkeeper with Slovenian club NK Maribor when he was involved in a road accident in 2016 that cost two teammates their lives, and left him facing the future with part of his left arm amputated.
His spirit could have been shattered – far from it; courage, pride, a positive outlook and, importantly, his enduring love for football have all been crucial elements on Ljubo’s road to recovery. Football’s welcoming arms have given him particular hope, comfort and solace – and the strength to rebuild and move on. Now, he is training to be a referee, and has found a new place in the game that he loves.
Ljubo, originally from Niš, began playing with a ball at the age of five. He is part of a football family; his father and uncle were keen players, while his elder brother Ranko, a midfielder, was capped at Serbian youth level. “Football was always present in my life,” he says.
“When I had finished high school, I decided only to focus on football. I dedicated all my time to football, and to try and make a living out of it. This was my greatest wish.”
But then, on 2 August 2016, his young life was turned upside down. “I woke up ready for training and had breakfast,” he recalls. “I went to training, we were all laughing in the dressing room, everything was positive and normal. Just a usual day….”
After training, Ljubo and three of his teammates – striker Zoran Baljak, full-back Damjan Marjanović and defender Žiga Lipušček – set out in a car from the club training centre. Shortly afterwards, the car collided with a set of traffic lights.
Zoran and Damjan died at the scene of the accident, and Žiga suffered minor injuries. Ljubo was thrown out of the car. He was taken unconscious to hospital and spent several days in a coma. His left arm was so badly injured that doctors decided that amputation of part of the arm was necessary.
Ljubo’s world had been changed dramatically, but it was now that a naturally positive nature shone through. “I needed to adjust to this new life,” he says. “It’s not as hard as some people think. You simply need to be strong enough.”
Refused to feel Self Pity
Surrounded by his loving family, he refused to feel self-pity. “I thought to myself that I still had my life in front of me, and the possibility to create something out of my life.”
Football played a primordial role in Ljubo’s journey through recuperation. “It gave me a specific mind set. I was a sportsman who always wanted to prove himself.” He likens his fierce will to recover after the accident to a match that he had to win.
He always remembers the care he received from NK Maribor through the tough moments. “The club is like my second family,” he stresses. “They were always at my side, trying to find a way to help me. All my friends were by my side, too, and that was invaluable.”
After the initial spell of doubt, Ljubo decided that he wanted to stay in football somehow. “If you live for football, football will then help you at any moment,” he explains. Maribor suggested he take up training to be a referee, and a new football pathway opened.