Dejan Kulusevski is reflecting on his latest life adventure and there is certainly a richness to the back story. A ballsy and controversial move from his native Sweden to Italy before he was 16. Experience in Serie A with Atalanta, Parma and Juventus. An explosive start to his career at Tottenham, where he went in January. A billing as the great hope of the Sweden team, who he hopes to drive to the World Cup finals over the next week and a half.
It is hard to believe that Kulusevski is only 21 as he speaks with an easy confidence in English – one of the four languages in which he is fluent.
The others are Swedish, Italian and Macedonian; his family’s roots are in North Macedonia. Kulusevski can understand some German and he is starting to do likewise with Spanish. But there is something else for him now.
Kulusevski can call himself a reality TV star. Maybe that is pushing it a bit. Kulusevski sees Playmakers – which is made by TV4 in Sweden – as “something very small … it’s not even on television, it’s on an app on the internet”. The show, which entered its fifth series on Thursday, follows women who are together with sporting personalities and lead glamorous lives. But if Kulusevski’s girlfriend, Eldina Ahmic, who has played football at a good level, is one of the principal subjects, it is not as if he is not in it, too.
“They follow her life more,” Kulusevski says, explaining that Eldina shoots the footage on her own phone. “There’s no cameras. We’d never done it with cameras. I’m just there maybe acting a little bit funny, sometimes.” Kulusevski mentions a Carpool Karaoke-type scene. “It was me and my girl singing together in the car, like everybody does … we love music.” But it is when he is asked whether they were nervous about opening their private lives to the public that his character shines through.
“She was nervous, absolutely,” Kulusevski says. “Me less. Because I know for some years that everything I do comes out in a way or another. Yeah, you have to be very careful with what you show to people because they cannot wait to bring you down. But I am maturing a lot and the more the time goes, the more comfortable I feel in who I am. So here I am. I don’t care what will happen and what I say. I just love being myself.” Kulusevski came to feel stifled at Juventus. After Max Allegri replaced Andrea Pirlo as the manager last summer, he found that his playing time decreased.
“It was hard,” Kulusevski says. “You really have to be strong when things are not going the way you think they should be going and there are things you can’t control. It’s very frustrating when you love something and you can’t show it. I knew I needed a change.” Kulusevski looks reborn at Spurs and it is a mark of the impact he has made since his move on an initial 18-month loan from Juventus that the supporters already have a chant for him. “Gimme, gimme, gimme a ginger from Sweden,” they sing to the Abba classic. Kulusevski is heavily into his hip-hop so Abba? Really? “They’re quite good … I can’t say anything bad about them,” he says, laughing. “I love the song. All my friends send it to me all the time and think it’s really funny.”
Kulusevski has been energized by the trust that the Spurs manager, Antonio Conte, has placed in him. He gave a powerhouse performance in his first start – the 3-2 Premier League win at Manchester City, in which he scored one and set up another – and he has kept his place for the six games that have followed. Conte has used him as the right-sided No 10 in his 3-4-2-1 system and he will count on him again in Sunday’s home derby with West Ham.
“It’s especially the coach and the staff who are helping me a lot, letting me make mistakes and be me, letting me play without pressure,” Kulusevski says. “When you are good in your mind, you usually play good football.
“About my best position, it’s hard to say because football is evolving and I am a guy who cannot stand still and I want to move in big, big spaces. The coach has helped me a lot because I really find my space right now. I like where I’m playing and every game I have had chances to score.”
Kulusevski’s football journey was fired when he left his first club, Brommapojkarna or BP – in the west of Stockholm – for Atalanta. Considered a prodigy, BP did not want him to go and their director, Ola Danhard, infamously said it was “almost kidnapping” by Atalanta. Kulusevski and his family did not see it that way. They wanted the move, no matter the challenges it would present.
“I went when I was 15-and-a-half, without parents … going to school in a language that I did not understand,” Kulusevski says. “I did a lot of hard things but it helped me a lot. I learned so many new things.” These days, Kulusevski can learn from one of his heroes – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who came out of retirement for Sweden last March. The 40-year-old is in the squad for the World Cup play-offs; Sweden face the Czech Republic on Thursday and, if they win, they will play Poland on Tuesday week for a place at the finals.
Kulusevski talks reverentially about Ibrahimovic, who was born in Sweden to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother. Kulusevski was also born in Sweden, as was his father, Stefan, although his parents were from North Macedonia. Kulusevski’s mother, Katica, was born and raised in North Macedonia, moving to Sweden as an adult.
“Zlatan opened doors to us people in Sweden that nobody can imagine,” Kulusevski says. “He really helped every young kid … kids who were outsiders, showing them that everything is possible. When he started mentioning my name as a player, I was like a kid at Christmas.
“For me and my family, Macedonia is very important. Like my mum says, we will never forget where we come from. I go there every summer and I love it.
“I’ve always said that if I could play for Sweden and Macedonia I would. But I had to choose and I chose Sweden because I am from there. Now we have the West Ham game and, after that, I will be ready to bring my country to the World Cup. It’s where we belong.”