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Thursday February 16, 2006 Football :: Sebastian Hassett

From the ashes of war, a star is born

Sebastian Hassett goes one-on-one with Newcastle United Jets’ star striker Labinot Haliti to reveal one of the A-league’s great stories.

Hyundai A-League “HAD we of stayed, we would have been killed.”

It’s not everyday that a star footballer produces these words, let alone an Australian one.

Labinot Haliti’s sobering analysis of why his family fled Kosovo is delivered in an alarmingly calm, matter-of-fact style. This is not a man intent on mincing words.

He’s an acutely alert figure, and not just on the football field. As soon as I walk into the lobby at the Rydges Hotel in Melbourne’s CBD, Haliti spots me first – even though we’ve never met.

Having been through what he’s been through, it’s probably justified. He is all of 21 years old.

“The main reason I played football was to get away from all the trouble. There were problems everywhere, but I tried to just concentrate on working hard.”

“You can’t say you never look back, you always think about that time. But when I look at where I am now, here in the A-League, it’s amazing.”

Since arriving in Sydney in 1999, Haliti has stamped himself as a potential superstar of the game with impressive stints at both Sydney Olympic and Sydney United in the defunct NSL.

Now with Newcastle in the A-League, the only frontline Haliti partakes in is when paired with renowned strike partner Ante Milicic.

“I respect Ante almost like a second father to me. Playing alongside him on the field, it’s just such a big bonus for me. He’s had some problems with injuries this year but with the more games he plays, the more dangerous we will get.”

Haliti’s story begins in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, where he and his family were forced to flee the tyranny ignited by the rule of Yugoslav dictator, Slobodan Milosevic.

The incumbent regime targeted Haliti’s ethnic group, Kosovo Albanians, slaughtering thousands and eventually bringing about global intervention to end the so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’.

“We had to make a decision – do we stay or do we go? We decided it would have been too dangerous for the family had we of stayed.”

His family landed at the East Hills refugee camp, but found the going tough not being able to speak the language of a country they knew nothing about.

“The Australian Government had everything organised for us. We did one year in the camp, and while we were pretty much free to do whatever we wanted, we were always under their eye.”

“I didn’t speak any English, but I just had to learn it, there was no choice. I picked up something here, something there, it took a bit of time. My brothers are the same, but now they’re both into University.”

It was in that first year where Haliti met with Paul Kohler (now a Newcastle team mate), whose father teed up a trial with Sydney Olympic.

“I didn’t care if it was a day or a week or whatever, I just wanted a go. Paul’s dad organised it, and then after that, week after week, they kept asking me back.”

Like so many juniors of the past few decades, Haliti’s talent was spotted by the legendary Frank Arok.

“He just must have seen something that he liked, and he signed me on for three years. After that time, Sydney United came in, they were really interested and I joined with them.”

Haliti only scored once in his 20-game NSL career, but did more than enough to arouse the interest of scouts all over the country as the new A-League clubs assembled their initial rosters.

Despite the array of options in front of him, the choice of Newcastle was an easy one.

“Newcastle came for me from day one, and everything they offered was what exactly what I wanted.”

“It’s a great club with a good support staff. Not only that, but the people up there love their sport and it’s a fantastic town to live in.”

His form in season 2005-6 has justified all the hype, playing a crucial role in Newcastle exceeding the expectations of critics as they clinched a finals birth despite a poor finish to the regular season.

“I made a really good start to the year, and I’ve been pleased to hold my place. I’ve stayed injury free, which is the main thing, and hopefully more goals will start to come.”

“On paper we look very strong, but it’s a very even competition and anyone can beat anyone. That means you have to turn up on the day and play well every single week.”

Haliti’s talent has fuelled speculation about where his national allegiances lie, with the striker eligible to represent both Australian and Albania.

“They’ve made some calls,” he says of the Balkan nation’s football authorities. “But I can’t choose either of them, for me they’re both the same. If either (nation) came in, it wouldn’t really matter, it would just be great.”

While his boyish modesty is charming, as a man, Haliti is the eternal optimist and ever thankful for the opportunities that have come his way.

“A lot of young kids out there dream to make it into the first team of any club, in any country. I’m happy with my life, I can’t complain. I’ve been lucky. I’m doing what I love to do, which is play soccer.”

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