Matija Sarkic remembered: ‘He was half of me – it’s devastating’

Oliver Sarkic was having breakfast in Mauritius, just three days into his honeymoon, when his phone rang.

It was his father, Bojan. In a faltering voice, he told Oliver that his twin brother, Matija — the Montenegro and Millwall goalkeeper — had collapsed.

“I was surprised but then his next sentence was ‘and he died’,” Oliver recalls. “I didn’t really believe it. It was devastating.”

Matija was just 26 years old. The cause of his death is still to be determined but his family have been told he suffered sudden heart failure. He had been on holiday with his partner Phoebe, the former Aston Villa defender Oscar Borg and his girlfriend.

Matija died 10 days after he was named man of the match for Montenegro in a friendly against Belgium and just a week since he acted as best man at Oliver’s wedding, along with their older brother Danilo and a childhood friend.

“That was the last time I saw him alive,” Oliver told The Athletic. “It’s bittersweet but it is an amazing last memory to have.

“We were always together. There was no Matija without Oliver and no Oliver without Matija. We came as a package. He was half of me. I will always have great memories of him but I wish we could make new ones like we did at the wedding.”

Matija, a thoughtful, studious and hugely popular player for every club he represented, was coming ever closer to fulfilling his dream to play in the Premier League having just enjoyed an excellent season with Millwall in the Championship.

That dream has now been cruelly snatched away, leaving his family and friends struggling to come to terms with seeing a young man in the prime of his life taken far too soon.

After finishing the season with Millwall, Matija flew to Turkey and then Spain with Andy Marshall, his goalkeeping coach since his time at Aston Villa, to prepare for Montenegro’s friendly match against Belgium on June 5.

For Matija, who spent the majority of his childhood in Belgium, it was a game that carried extra meaning and gave him the chance to line up against old friends from Anderlecht’s academy, including Wout Faes and Orel Mangala.

The extra training paid off, as he pulled off a string of outstanding saves and was named man of the match in Montenegro’s 2-0 defeat. It was, as Bojan tells The Athletic, “the best game of his life”.

Sarkic makes one of several fine saves in his last match, for Montenegro against Belgium (Peter De Voecht / Photo News via Getty Images)

Tragically, it was also his last.

Matija was given permission to miss Montenegro’s next game, a friendly against Georgia, to attend the wedding of Oliver — also a professional footballer, having had spells at Leeds United and Blackpool — in Guimaraes, northern Portugal, on June 8.

Afterwards, he returned to the UK before travelling to Montenegro for a mini break. Having landed in the country on Friday, he spent a day at the beach and proudly showed off his newly furnished apartment in the coastal town of Budva on the Adriatic coast.

However, in the small hours of Saturday morning, Matija woke up feeling unwell and collapsed shortly afterwards. Borg’s girlfriend, a nurse, administered CPR until an ambulance arrived and paramedics then attempted their own resuscitation, but without success.

“It was an instant death,” Bojan said. “He was not suffering.”

Bojan was told his son had passed away at 6am and it fell to him to inform Oliver. He and his new wife, Natacha, immediately cut short their honeymoon, flying back to Montenegro via Dubai and Albania, to attend his twin brother’s funeral on Monday.

“The traditions here are that brothers place their brother into the coffin,” said Oliver. “So me and my brother and the two workers from the morgue picked Matija up and placed him gently in the coffin. He looked peaceful and he was in his national team kit.

“In the space of a week, we saw the same people (who had been at his wedding). We went from the highest high to the lowest low.”

A memorial service was organised the following day by the Football Association of Montenegro, attended by the country’s president, where Oliver gave a tribute.

“I said in my speech that I will always remember him as he was last: a tall, handsome, smart man, a loving brother and a greatly talented goalkeeper, hardworking and dedicated.”

Matija was buried with his grandparents, Beba and Alija, in the main cemetery in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro.

“They both believed in him so much,” Bojan said. “My mother decided on the name Matija and my father was a footballer who always said he would make it as a professional. Now he’s with both of them.”

Matija, who was fluent in English, French, Dutch and Montenegrin, was born in Grimsby and spent his early childhood in London before his father’s work for the Montenegrin government took the family to Brussels when he was seven. His mother, Natalie, worked as a government official and now runs her own business combating disinformation in the media.

Football was always an obsession, and Oliver remembers how he and Matija would commute an hour and a half across Brussels to school, loaded up with their books and football kit, and get home at 10pm after training.

Matija (right) and his twin brother Oliver at the Anderlecht academy in 2004 (Oliver Sarkic)

Matija began life as a defender but switched to goalkeeper when a gap needed filling one day for his Sunday league team, Chelham, a play on the names Chelsea and Fulham. There he found his calling, modelling his game on Claudio Taffarel; as a 10-year-old, he would study videos of the Brazilian goalkeeper, trying to pick up tips.

“You wouldn’t expect a 10-year-old to go into such detail, but that was him,” Bojan remembers. “He became really professional, thinking about every detail. He wanted perfection.”

Matija returned to England after signing for Aston Villa in 2015, the beginning of a nomadic journey through the English league system that included loan spells at Wigan Athletic, Stratford Town and Havant & Waterlooville, as well as Scottish club Livingston.

He eventually signed with Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2020 before going on further loans to Shrewsbury Town, Birmingham City and Stoke City. Last July, he joined Millwall on a permanent deal and finally seemed to have found his home from home.

Sarkic in action for Aston Villa in 2017 (Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

Every team-mate and manager spoken to by The Athletic spoke of an impeccably behaved individual, who had time for everyone and remembered those who had helped him. At Stratford, for example, he remained in contact with people at the club even when playing at a much higher level.

He was also a dedicated professional, determined to reach the top of his game. He spent hours, for example, mastering the side-on volley out of his hands that stays low through the air.

He was also remembered for his ability to light up a room, sense of humour and mischief, infectious energy, love of travel and good coffee. He was so passionate about coffee that he had a station at home, christened the ‘Sarkic Lounge’.

“Everything he did was fun,” Bojan recalled. “He did it all with a smile and that was him. My mother was an actress, and she called Matija ‘Granny’s actor’ because he was always making fun around her, dancing, doing silly little things.

“His favourite was Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen’s film character), and once at Millwall, when they went out at Christmas, they dressed him as Borat. He did something similar at Birmingham: he bought a plastic Lamborghini and came into the dressing room dressed like Troy Deeney, because Troy had a Lamborghini. It was always to have a bit of fun and make people smile.”

At Wolves, he forged a close friendship with club captain Max Kilman.

“We instantly got along,” Kilman said. “We had similar morals in life. He was very humble, worked really hard, wanted to be the best and had worked his way up the ladder in football. He just wanted to keep improving.

“He would go out of his way to help everyone — not just in football but in life. He spoke four languages so when the manager — Bruno Lage and Julen Lopetegui for a while — would explain something, Mati would translate for the French boys in the squad.

“Everyone would say the same: you can’t say a bad word about him. We built up a real connection. It’s so sad.”

Kilman said he was planning to catch up with Matija this summer in London once he’d got back from his holidays.

Fellow goalkeeper Harry Burgoyne, who spent a season with Matija at Shrewsbury Town, remembers having breakfast with Matija every morning and taking it in turns to buy smoked salmon.

Sarkic playing for Shrewsbury Town in 2020 (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

“The club didn’t provide it but Mati had a deal with the physios where if he kept a clean sheet they would bring him a coffee,” said Burgoyne, who also played for Wolves.

“Then it turned into smoked salmon and we started to enjoy it so we’d bring it in. He always managed to find a better quality smoked salmon so it was always nice when it was his turn because you knew you were getting the best of the best. He also introduced me to a Montenegro-style coffee, which was very strong.”

Matija’s determination to extract every last drop of his talent was obvious to all who knew him. Oliver remembers how he would have a chalkboard in his kitchen where he would jot down things he wanted to improve. “He would look at that every day and that would inspire him to keep pushing for his goals,” he said.

At Birmingham, Matija had a tricky start to his career. But rather than shrinking, or retreating into himself, he made a point of seeking counsel from those around him.

“He had made a few mistakes and he came to myself and Andy Marshall and asked questions,” said Neil Etheridge, another goalkeeper on Birmingham’s books at the time. “It showed how humble he was to seek advice from people who had been in the game longer than him. From there, he kicked on again and a couple of games later he was back on it with man-of-the-match performances again.”

For the managers he played under, Matija was the perfect player: eager to learn and someone who could absorb and retain information very quickly.

“He was very professional, respectful and well-mannered; a manager’s dream,” said Lee Bowyer, his manager at Birmingham. “You knew when he stepped onto the pitch that he’d give you everything he could. As a character around the place, he was well-liked. Everyone respected him. He was one of the good guys.”

Matija Sarkic was liked and respected at all his clubs (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Gary Holt, his manager at Livingston, agreed.

“He was a young man with an old head on his shoulders,” he said. “He was very respectful, very humble but very driven. He had amazing belief in his own ability. If I ever needed someone to do something he’d always say, ‘No problem, gaffer’. He was a credit to his family, the way he behaved, the way he conducted himself, the way he carried himself.

“When he first signed, we sat him down and told him he wasn’t going to start,” Holt said. “He was really annoyed. He said, ‘I accept it but I’m better than him (the other goalkeeper).’ I thought, ‘Fair play to you’. He didn’t down tools, he didn’t throw a huff because as a young man; it’s easy to do that. He fought hard in training, he pushed the other goalkeeper, he wasn’t negative, he was hungry to get in. And when he got in, he was absolutely outstanding.”

When Matija started his footballing journey, he had two main dreams. One was to represent his country, which he achieved, winning nine senior caps. The other was to play in the Premier League, an ambition he was so close to realising.

For his heartbroken family, of course, not seeing Matija realise his huge potential as a footballer is only part of their grief. The hole left in their lives by his death will never be filled.

Matija (right) and Oliver after a game for Montenegro Under-19s against France (Courtesy of Oliver Sarkic)

“No one ever believed we were twins and the next question we were asked was always who was older,” Oliver said. “The answer was that Matija was older by three minutes. But that question of who is older is never going to be asked again. Now I’m older than him and that has hit me hard because I was always the youngest one. And now his journey has ended.”

Additional reporting: Gregg Evans

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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