Melbourne Heart have sold Eli Babalj to Red Star Belgrade leaving the club short of strikers for next season.
Babalj was Heart’s top-scorer last season with nine goals in 22 games but has been allowed to move to Serbian club Red Star.
Heart coach John Aloisi has admitted Babalj will leave a significant hole in his squad but was keen to label the transfer as the first success of the club’s youth policy.
“Our club has always been committed to presenting a pathway for talented youngsters, offering the training and guidance required to give players the best possible opportunity to advance their career,” Aloisi said on Thursday.
“While Eli will undoubtedly be missed, we won’t unreasonably stand in the way of any player seeking to take the next step in their career.”
Babalj thanked Heart for giving him his first start in senior football after a youth team stint with Perth Glory.
“I’d like to thank Melbourne Heart for the opportunity they have given me to play professional football and develop as a player over the last two years,” Babalj said.
“Hopefully, one day after my European adventure, I’ll be able to return to Melbourne and once again play for the Heart.”
Babalj was reportedly tracked by Red Star’s coach Robert Prosinecki throughout last season.
Prosinecki is a legend of Red Star and has been impressed by Babalj’s development as the 20-year-old Serbian-born striker helped Heart to their first A-League finals appearance.
Aloisi has seen Babalj improve first hand, first as a team-mate and then as the Heart’s youth team coach.
“Eli’ transformation over the past 24 months has been obvious to see, and we are delighted to have been able to play a significant part in shaping his growing career,” Aloisi said.
“It’s great our members have had the chance to see Eli transform from an unknown youngster to a future international.
“We will make sure there are many more of them to come.”
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