Recently, I had the distinct privilege to interview Chicago Riot goaltender Ante Cop. It's not every day that you get the chance to interview a professional soccer player who has played all over the world and has been very successful everywhere he has taken the field. It was amazing to hear his personal insights and stories from his soccer playing years. Just a couple of hours ago, Cop's game-winning goal on January 16 against the Baltimore Blast was featured on ABC's the Winners Bracket. His career highlight reel just keeps getting longer. Follow me after the break to gain a unique perspective into the life and times of Ante Cop...
1. Ante, how long have you been playing soccer? Did you start out by playing outdoor soccer right away, and when did you get into indoor soccer?
-I really started playing soccer around the age of 8 or 9. Being from Croatia, I started out playing on some of the ethnic Croatian teams, and played very well. However, it was a little hard to play outside during the winter, so I began playing indoors to get more practice in, stay sharp, and stay fit. It was definitely a change from traditional outdoor soccer. To this day, I still don't like the walls in indoor soccer, I prefer the openness of outdoor soccer. But I have learned to adapt to this and create my style of play around these obstacles.
-I feel very fortunate to be living my dream. I would describe soccer as my conduit to see the world, and meet so many unique and interesting people that I never would have otherwise met (including my wife). I played in Europe for 5 years, and surprisingly enough I played as a forward during that time. I always worked hard, and it payed off with a NCAA goalkeeper of the year award for Division 2 while I attended Southern New Hampshire University. I won that award in 1997, and I was also named to the All American first team when I attended the College of DuPage.
-It was after this that I turned my soccer into a professional career. My first club was NK Marsonia in Slavonski Brod, which was my father's birth place. This made us both immensely proud as you can imagine. I even played with the current coach of the Chicago Riot, Jeff Kraft, when we were at Rockford together. I just feel so fortunate to be able to play in so many different places and experience different things.
2. What is one of the toughest aspects or challenges about being a goalkeeper at a professional level?
-One of the biggest things without a doubt is the level of focus you need to have. All top goalies must have great focus, but I think the world of indoor soccer even goes above and beyond that. In outdoor soccer, there are fits and starts to games, and the ball may be in the other half of the field for minutes at a time. In indoor soccer, it's a stop and go atmosphere, where there is constant action. You can't afford to be off your guard for a second, especially with the smaller field and walls that come into play. There is absolutely no room for error in terms of losing focus.
-Additionally, there is a fear factor that needs to be overcome, and that is present at any level, but especially with indoor soccer. Again, the field is smaller, the players are close together, and it can be a bit daunting when you know you have an 80 MPH shot coming at your head. Also, at the end of the day, many things can contribute to the final score of a soccer game. However, as a goalkeeper, you are either the winner of the match or the loser of the match. You're essentially on your own little island to add to all the other pressures I have to face.
3. Apart from level of focus, how else would you say indoor soccer differs from outdoor soccer for a goalkeeper?
-Well, in indoor soccer, you play with your feet much, much more. Keepers do occasionally in outdoor soccer, but I make a lot more passes and I am required to dribble a lot more in indoor soccer. Additionally, many times I push forward and even try to help out the attack, which is something that doesn't really happen at all in outdoor soccer.
-I think the other big difference is the walls or boards. They are literally extra attackers. So, at times it seems like you are facing 10 attackers rather than the actual number on the field. I can't tell you how many times a ball has bounced oddly off the boards or right to an attacking player. Again, you have to be focused 100% at all times or you don't stand a chance.
4. Did you have any favorite soccer players or heroes growing up? How about currently?
-Without a doubt, my hero is my father. I look up to him so much and owe so much to him. My father, Mile Cop, was also a great soccer player when he was younger. He is still and will always be my #1 hero and idol. He had a very storied career. He played on the 1964 Olympic Soccer Team for former Yugoslavia. He played for one of the biggest, world renowned Serbian clubs by the name of Red Star Belgrade. He also played in some of the earliest indoor league sin the US, for example in the NASL and the NPSL with the Oakland Clippers. I was fortunate to be old enough to remember watching him play at the end of his career. The memories of watching him play when I was young are memories I will cherish forever.
-I also look up to my younger brother, Bajo Cop. I am very close to him, and he is also a great soccer player. I think my style differs from my father's and my brothers. I would call their styles very technical and gifted. They can truly do amazing things. I would describe myself as more of a heart player than anything, so it's a nice contrast between styles for all of us.
5. Who would you list as some of your favorite professional teams and players (apart from the Chicago Riot of course)?
-Without a doubt, I would say Manchester United and Ryan Giggs. I was fortunate enough to be able to meet Ryan when he was very young, right as he was breaking through for United. I think he was probably 16 or 17 at the time. I will never forget meeting him, and also that he scored his first ever goal in his first professional appearance for United. It came against Everton. How about that for a 17 year old?
-I would also list Danish goalkeeping legend Peter Scmeichel, as I also looked up to him greatly. Another of my favorites of all time would easily be Zvonimir Boban. He has played for Dinamo Zagreb, one of the biggest Croatian clubs, and was a long time member of the former Yugoslavian national teams, as well as the Croatian national team (12 goals in 51 caps). In fact, he captained the Croatian national team to a wonderful 3rd place finish in the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.
-The other couple of clubs I would like to mentioned would be the aforementioned Dinamo Zagreb. I actually played for them, which is one of my proudest accomplishments, and a point of my career which I will always remember. Another club would be Red Star Belgrade, the Serbian club my father played for. Belgrade is a giant club, and they are notorious for the bitter rivalry they have with another Serbian side, that being FK Partizan Belgrade. In fact, this rivalry was rated as the 4th greatest rivalry in the football world. The largest game between the two once drew over 108,000. The passion is unlike anything I can describe in worlds. Unfortunately, that passion sometimes carries over into violence as well. It can be scary to attend a game between the two, but if you do, you can always say that you lived through that experience!
6. How does the soccer atmosphere in Chicago compare to the various other places you have played in your career?
-Well, the first thing I would say is that soccer in the last 20 years in general has grown so much in the US it's almost unmeasurable. It's exciting to see how much it has grown here and what the future holds for growth. Growing up, for me, indoor soccer was a big thing to do. And it's nice to see a great indoor community here in Chicago that supports the newly formed Riot and the MISL in general.
- I will go on record and say that, BY FAR, Chicago is the best soccer community of anywhere I have played in the US, and it's not even close! Other cities have good support, such as San Francisco and New York City, but Chicago has such a storied soccer history with teams like the Sting, Power, Fire, and the Riot, just to name a few. I think this is also helped by the fact that there are so many nationalities in the Chicago area. In fact, a friend told me that there are actually more Polish citizens in Chicago than there are in Warsaw! That just blew my mind when I heard it. I think it's wonderful to have such a large and diverse community for support here in Chicago.
7. Ante, if you could pick one piece of advice that you would give to young soccer players, either indoor or outdoor, to help them become the best player they can be, what would it be?
-Without a doubt, one of the main things would be to ALWAYS keep your head up. No matter what, above all else, don't let anyone kill your dream and love for the game. I have had the chance to meet some wonderful people in my soccer career, but I have also meet some very shady people that are not looking out for your best interests, they are looking out for their best interests. So don't ever let anyone derail you from reaching your dream. If you want to do it, you can.
-Another piece of advice would be to never give up. Even the best players go through highs and lows in their careers. Even if it seems that you have failed, don't stop trying. As soccer continues to grow in Chicago, more and more opportunities are opening up for soccer careers. Keep striving for that goal. And finally, many people over look this one simple thing: ENJOY IT! The experiences are something you will never forget, and a career doesn't last forever, so enjoy every second of it while you can.
8. Give me your top two moments or accomplishments of your storied career so far.
-The first would definitely be winning the NCAA Division 2 player of the year in 1997. It was amazing to see my lifetime of hard work pay off with an award as prestigious as that.
-The other would have to be the first ever professional contract I signed in 1998 with Marsonia Slavonski Brod in Croatia.
Thank you Ante Cop for the great interview. You can get out to the Odeum this Sunday and all season long to see Ante and the Chicago Riot in action.