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Dragan Stojkovic, one of the Greatest

Dragan Stojkovic

Dragan Stojkovic

Dragan Stojković nicknamed “Piksi” (or Pixie, from a cartoon Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks) is a Japanese deity, currently coach of Nagoya, team for which he played for years. Deity? Yes. Well, not literally, but he is loved by Japanese so much that a street in Nagoya has his name, as well as one stand of Nagoya’s stadium. Japanese automobile manufacturer, Toyota, even has a model “Pixis”, named after him. He is Red Star legend (“5th star of Red Star”). Stojkovic played for Yugoslavia 84 times, including two World Cups. And he was one of the most talented footballers I’ve ever seen in my life.

If you were born in the ’90s, you even might have never heard of him. The truth is, his career wasn’t as impressive as it should have been. Injuries unfortunately ravaged his career. But I still stand by what I said, there aren’t too many players more talented than him in the last 25 years. I count myself very lucky to have been born in time to see him play. For those who didn’t, there’s always a way

Piksi started his career in Radnički from Niš where he was born on March 3rd 1965 (you might not know this, but Radnički played in UEFA Cup semifinals in 1982). He played there for 5 seasons and in 1986 he transfered to Red Star. That’s where he had his best years, becoming the best Yugoslav player. He scored 54 times for Red Star in 120 matches.

He was a number 10, a real artist with a dribbling ability that left many defenders in hiw wake. My first memory of him (although probably wasn’t a real memory, but more probably something I’ve seen later on TV, when I was a little older) was a goal directly from corner in a derby vs Partizan. That goal was one of Stojkovic’s greatest moments in an exemplary career. He attempted things that only players who have a lot of self confidence and quality could. Even now, if you read his interviews you can sense the confidence that would sound like arrogance if he was just some player. But he wasn’t.

He won two national titles with Red Star & one National Cup, also being named as the best player of Yugoslavian league twice. Stojkovic played plenty of legendary games throughout his career. Red Star’s Champions Cup game vs Milan, when one of the greatest teams in the history was saved by Belgrade fog, is one such example. He was also part of the Red Star team that were up by 3 goals against the mighty Real Madrid in the Champions Cup after 40 minutes. Real Madrid had one of the greatest players of the time, Hugo Sanchez, in their squad and managed to get the game back to 4-2, winning the tie on away goals with a 2-0 win in the second leg. But that team, lead by Piksi, was the sign of things to come. Perhaps no one expected that the team would reach the top without Stojković.

He left Red Star in the summer of 1990 and went to Olimpique Marseille, owned by rich and controversial- Bernard Tapie. He was a big signing that was meant to help Marseille reach the top of European football, along with other big names like Waddle, Papin, Abedi Pele, Mozer etc. They reached the final of Champions Cup in the ‘90/’91 season and fittingly met with Stojković’s beloved Red Star. It was probably the most boring final of any European Cup ever, but it was at least interesting because of Piksi’s match against his old team. When it came to penalties, he was asked to take one, but he famously answered to his coach Raymond Goethals: “Why don’t you take it? If I take it and score, the whole Yugoslavia will hate me. If I miss, France will hate me”. Whether that’s truth or just a legend is unknown, but the fact is he didn’t want to take a penalty against the team he loved.

Before that season, however, there was a World Cup to be played in Italy. Yugoslavia went through to the knock-out phase from the group in which Germany dominated. In the first knock out match, Yugoslavia played vs Spain and thanks to Piksi’s two magnificent goals, went through to quarter finals where they lost to Maradona’s Argentina on penalties. Stojkovic (as well as Maradona!) missed  his penalty.

Unfortunately, very soon after he came to Marseille he suffered a knee injury which forced him to miss most of the season. He spent a season in Verona in 1992 on loan, came back to Marseille, but injuries would always be a problem. These recurring injuries proved to be a stumbling block in Stojkovic’s bid to realise his true potential.

In 1994 he began his Japanese adventure. He signed for Nagoya Grampus Eight, the club which was then managed by a certain Arsene Wenger, and had Gary Lineker in its squad sheet. It was speculated in Serbian media multiple times that Wenger might suggest Stojkovic as his heir when he leaves Gunners. Two of them are still great friends and, as Stojković said in a recent interview, they often talk about football and coaching. Stojković ended his playing career in 2001 and immediately became the president of Yugoslav Football Association.

In 2005 he finally came back to his Red Star, in the role of club president. His presidency, however, will not be remembered as particularly good. It is still uncertain how much of it is his fault, but the fact remains that the club went from financially troubled- to a club that is in financial hell. Stojković stepped down in 2007 and went to Japan. Reasons behind this are yet to be known – speculations about ties with some criminals who, according to those speculations were asking him to return the money they invested in the club.

While he is still very much loved by ‘regular’ Red Star supporters, his relationship with the so called ultras is not as good. He had multiple unpleasant experiences with them. He even had a bomb of some kind thrown at his house in Niš last year – which probably doesn’t have anything to do with ultras, but with those mentioned criminals.

Back to football – in 2008 he became coach of Nagoya Grampus Eight. In his first season he led the club to 3rd place in Japanese championship. In 2010, Nagoya became champions of Japan for the first time in history, under the guidance of Stojkovic. In the meantime, even as a coach he continued to show his amazing skill.

This season wasn’t that successful for him and his team, but he without a doubt already showed that he has what it takes to become a top coach. Arsene Wenger mentioned him as a possible successor at Arsenal, saying that their ideas about football were very similar. Piksi himself said that he likes positive, attacking football and that he will always try to make his teams play football that is attractive for the fans.

Whether that will really happen it is really hard to say, but it is hard not to be excited by his prospect as a coach. Hopefully, there won’t be any outside factors to hinder his future, like injuries did to his playing career.

Uros Popovic

Uros Popovic

Red Star Belgrade supporter, with a special place in my heart for Fiorentina (and some other teams). Serie A enthusiast who also likes Bundesliga and La Liga. Zemanlandia faithful.
Uros Popovic

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