CHESTER, Pa. — For the past two-and-a-half years, Serbian striker Veljko Paunović has been retired from professional soccer. But that didn’t mean he stopped caring about the sport he loved.
“I lived for football, every day, even when I stopped playing,” Paunović told MLSsoccer.com. “Every day, before I go to sleep, I have to know what’s happening in the whole world.”
It’s that kind of passion that made Paunović realize he wanted to come out of retirement, a decision that has led him, after a few twists and turns, to Major League Soccer and the Philadelphia Union.
On Monday, after much speculation, the Union announced they had officially come to terms with the 33-year-old forward, who had been training with Philly for more than a month. The signing had been in the works for a couple of weeks but was slowed down because of what Paunović called “bureaucracy stuff,” which included getting his work visa.
“I’m very happy to be here,” he said. “I’m very happy and proud to be a member of this great soccer family. I’ll really try to help as much as I can.”
Paunović, who has played for 12 different European clubs since beginning his professional career in 1994, announced his retirement while playing with the Serbian side FK Partizan — the same team for which he made his pro debut — in late 2008 because of family problems.
He’s had a few offers to come back since then, including one from the New York Red Bulls in 2009, but felt like he had to wait until the time — and the team — was right.
“I thought this was the best opportunity for me,” said Paunović, who most recently lived in Spain, where he completed a coaching certification course. “I feel very motivated to come here. And I feel physically very good. I’ve been doing this all my life, ever since I was six, so my body still feels fit and good and wants to compete.”
Paunović spent most of his career in Spain’s La Liga and believes he can bring a wealth of experience, as well as sound technical ability, to Philly’s offense. The forward knows, however, that the first-place Union are already blessed with a lot of talent, specifically pointing to some of the club’s younger players, who he said “can still explode.”
“I think we have very good players,” said Paunović, who’s played against some of the Union’s veterans like Faryd Mondragón and Carlos Ruiz. “All together, we have good balance.”
The Serbian was also quick to point out that, even while living in Spain, he was able to watch a few MLS games on TV, so he’s well aware of the ever-growing quality of the league.
“There is a very good opinion of MLS [in Europe], especially about the future,” he said.
What the future holds for Paunović himself is still to be determined. But for now, he is simply excited that playing soccer is once again his career.
“All the time, I was thinking of coming back,” Paunović said. “I’m going to try to make this a great comeback.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.