WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
After four years of continuous injury struggles, one of the greatest players of a generation considered hanging his boots up. But, following an unexpectedly successful operation, Dragan Stojkovic rediscovered his magic touch in Nagoya, where he has become a hero to the local fans
Dragan Stojkovic has enjoyed nothing short of a love affair with Japanese football, and specifically Nagoya Grampus, since he made the decision to join the club as a player in turmoil.
Having suffered for the best part of four years with a chronic knee injury during a difficult spell in Marseille following the 1990 World Cup, the Serbian superstar experienced a new dawn in the Land of the Rising Sun. What for so many star names was a short-lived adventure into the recently formed J-League, proved to be the opportunity of a lifetime for Stojkovic. It revitalised him completely.
To understand his need for a fresh start, it’s important to understand Stojkovic’s situation upon making the move east. Recurring injuries to his knee ligaments had cost him dear in the most valuable currency of all to a footballer – time.
Between 1990 and 1994, he made less than 30 league appearances for Olympique Marseille, who had forked out vast sums of money for one of the most exciting talents in world football. He could have been forgiven for falling into a deep depression and, in his darkest moments (such as his completely action-less 1992/93 campaign), who knows what went through the playmaker’s mind?
However, he decided to channel his frustration into the rehabilitation process as he worked on regaining the form that doctors said he would not likely see again.
“During those four years, I had two big operations – the last one was in Antwerp in Belgium, with Dr Martens,” he explains, taking us back to that make-or-break moment in his career.
“When I decided to go for the second one, I said this is the last time and if the pain continues, I will have to give up and say to everyone, ‘Thank you very much but I am going fishing.’
“Mental strength is very important and I think I was always a fighter; I did a lot of work and didn’t give up. But I didn’t play, after that, with 100 per cent of my agility or technique, not to my potential. It was me, but I didn’t play like myself, it was like somebody else.”
After trailing off from describing his personal anguish during those years in which aborted comebacks must have taken a hard toll on his state of mind, Stojkovic’s tone changes when he recalls what happened next with an air of pride.
“I was reborn as a player when I moved to Japan, where I started to play like old times. I did something really special here in Japan, for myself but also for the Japanese audience and my club – also for Arsene Wenger, who became my coach at Nagoya Grampus Eight for the next two years.”
The future Arsenal boss’ preference for positive, technical football was one of several reasons why Stojkovic’s broad smile returned, along with his form, in Nagoya. After years of fitness worries that caused him to consider his future in the game, he was now able to appreciate the magnificent talent he had even more and to embrace the basic joy of playing professional football with the spirit of a child. Flicking the ball over defenders’ heads and bamboozling them with twists, turns and nutmegs, Stojkovic was entertaining himself as much as the crowds who flocked to see him in Grampus colours.
Playing for Wenger, it seems, has had a big affect on Stojkovic’s career, both as a player who returned to form under the Frenchman’s stewardship and as a coach who has taken on board some of his former boss’ methods.
“We worked together for the seasons 1995 and 1996, so we had two years together and that was a fantastic experience for me,” he says of his relationship with Wenger. “In 1995, I became MVP – the best player in Japan – and he became the best manager in Japan and that is a really good memory for me. I always liked his style and some specific work he did has been a huge influence on me.”
Some media sources have actually tipped Stojkovic, who remains close to his former manager, as a possible successor to him in the Arsenal dugout. While there is no real sign of any movement on that front at the moment, you can see why the talk has arisen – it would certainly mean a continuation of the free-flowing attacking philosophy preferred at the North London club these days.
Refreshingly, in a game that so often sees its most talented players transform themselves into pragmatic disciplinarians once they find themselves in charge of the tactics board, Stojkovic’s name remains a synonym for artistry and expression. The great No.10 is still the same ‘Piksi’ after making the move into the dugout. Once compared to Maradona in his playing days, Dragan the manager now finds his name regularly mentioned in the same breath as Wenger.
What we really owe Stojkovic, though, is to stop measuring him against other big names and their totemic reputations and to let him bask in his own success with the club whose supporters have unfurled a huge banner with his face on it, beside the message: “ENJOY NAGOYA, ENJOY FOOTBALL”.
That is precisely what Stojkovic has set out to do since moving to Japan and, while he admits that Grampus was an unknown entity to him when he first pitched up in Nagoya nearly two decades ago, he looks back on the move as one of the best decisions he has made.
“I joined the club in 1994 after Olympique Marseille and it was a really fantastic choice. I really enjoyed to play in the J-League and this was a very important part of my life and my career.
“I never knew that it would be like that and it was something very new to me – I knew only that Gary Lineker played for them at the time. But it was a really incredible experience for me as a player and I spent almost seven years at the same club. Now, as their coach, I am in my fifth year. I am really pleased to work in Japan and I like the football here.”
One of the most appealing aspects of the J-League is its unpredictability. Champions last season, Stojkovic’s Grampus side currently sit in seventh spot, seven points behind surprise leaders Vegalta Sendai after 16 games. Far from craving security and guarantees, the 47-year-old delights in the added excitement offered up by the relative equality of clubs in Japan.
“Do I enjoy that? Definitely, because the league is very equal – there is no difference between the teams really,” he says. “Every game can give some surprises and if you ask who is going to be champions this year, I think half the league says their target is to be champions.
“In England, if you ask all 20 teams who is going to be champions, they will say two or three teams maybe. But here, almost 50 per cent are candidates for the title and I think this is unbelievable.
“But this is not the only reason I like it here. I like very much the fair play on the pitch and in the stands, before and after the game. It’s really nice to see and this is really amazing for me, something absolutely fantastic.”
And what about the standard of play? Has the man who once wowed the crowds here seen an improvement in the quality of Japanese players since the mid-Nineties? Stojkovic ponders the question, before giving a considered response.
“Look,” he begins, ensuring he has my full attention for this final point. “Japan is a big country and here there is space for everybody to do what they would like to do, and there is everything you need to be successful. So, football finds its place as well.
“You cannot compare the situation now with two decades ago because everything has improved. Organisation is better, play is better, tactical and technical skills of the teams are better and the national team is better.
“This is very, very positive and the most important thing is they don’t want to stop; they want to continue improving themselves in all aspects. I have been here now as a coach almost five years and this is the best explanation of why I am still here.
“In Japanese football, everything is under control and scheduled perfectly. In my opinion, the J-League is the best organised football in the world. I am very happy, and lucky, to work here, to continue to improve my team, to improve myself and to give something back to Japanese football.”