WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
Dragan Stojkovic accidentally became my first football hero when his sticker fell out of a cereal box in 1990. Now, in the first part of a two-legged interview with TheInsideLeft, he recalls his move to Marseille, European Cup final anguish and his refusal to let serious injury beat him…
He doesn’t know it as he warmly announces himself down the telephone with the words “Greetings from Nagoya”, but Dragan Stojkovic once made me cry.
You see, my earliest memories of football are as a five-year-old, experiencing the 1990 World Cup, a tournament that Stojkovic and his Yugoslavia team-mates graced with some breathtaking attacking football and a vulnerable side that appealed to fans of the underdog.
Of course, those few weeks in Italy have a safe place in the nostalgia section of the English collective memory because of the heroics performed by Bobby Robson’s team on their way to semi-final heartache at the hands of eventual winners West Germany. And, aside from some wayward penalty-taking, nothing has come to symbolise the nation’s grief that night in Turin more powerfully than Gazza’s tears.
Yet I remember that tournament for a salty-cheeked moment of my own, one I suppressed for years to come due to its sheer ludicrousness.
After all, my first footballing tears weren’t shed for the flawed genius of Paul Gascoigne, or for any of England’s nearly men. I had already poured my heart out at the quarter-final stage, when Yugoslavia were knocked out by Argentina after another penalty shoot-out.
I couldn’t help it. I saw the Argentinean players celebrating afterwards and I just could not control myself – I cried my eyes out like five-year-olds do when they sense injustice in defeat. And for years afterwards, my older brother, Oli, would sneeringly use this strange outburst to put me in my place, especially if I embarrassed him in front of his mates.
-“Yeah, but Dom,” began the taunt that made my heart sink. “You cried when Yugoslavia lost in the World Cup.”
-“I was five!”
But there was a perfectly good reason I was reduced to tears when a country I had never heard of lost at football. Just hear me out.
Prior to that tournament, I recall my mum handing Oli and me a sampler packet of Panini stickers, which must have come free with a breakfast cereal, and soon afterwards the wardrobe in our bedroom was adorned with images of international footballers in Belgium and Yugoslavia shirts. Oli’s door was now decorated with Eric Gerets’ beard and I had two new heroes of my own – Darko Pancev and Dragan Stojkovic (both clean-shaven, since you ask).
So, aside from trying to work out why Yugoslavia was pronounced the way it was when it was spelled with a ‘J’ on the stickers, we also gained an allegiance to the teams whose players we had each been introduced to at random by a box-stuffer at Kellogg’s. I therefore became a Yugoslavia supporter for the duration of the 1990 World Cup, which explains how I came to be blubbing because of a missed penalty by the man who is now on the end of the phone.
Suppressing a smile at the memory, I realise there is no way I can now suggest to Stojkovic that we shared that moment of grief 22 years ago – him on his knees in the centre circle of Florence’s Stadio Artemio Franchi, head in hands, and me looking up at the telly in Banstead, stickle bricks falling from my snotty fingers.
Instead, I settle for a lengthy chat about his extraordinary career as a player, manager and club president; about his significant role in the history of Balkan football and the success he is currently enjoying in Japan.
Naturally, though, I begin by taking the legendary No.10 back to 1990. After all, the man they nicknamed ‘Pixy’ emerged from that World Cup with his reputation greatly enhanced, particularly after a brace in the Last 16 that put Spain to the sword. Those goals added the gloss to a collection of performances that showcased Stojkovic’s startling sense of balance, his unshakeable poise and a touch that paralysed the ball on his toe, no matter how hard it came towards him.
He had also just completed a transfer from Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade) to Olympique Marseille for what was an immensely high fee of £5.5million. No wonder his confidence was high – and he had the ambition to match as he prepared to make his mark in Western Europe.
“You know, after the World Cup, I was one of the best players in Europe, definitely,” he says, reflecting on the days when he was at the peak of his powers on the pitch.
“My nickname was ‘Maradona from the East’ and I knew that I had the extra quality that other people didn’t have.
“So I chose the best team in Europe, from my point of view, to become a champion. I wanted to share that joy together – to be the best player in Europe and the best team in Europe.”
Under the presidency of Bernard Tapie, Marseille were investing big in the hunt for trophy success, both domestically and in Europe. Stojkovic joined Chris Waddle, Jean-Pierre Papin, Eric Cantona and Abedi Pele in a collection of attacking talent that was the envy of the continent at the time.
However, fate construed that the man who had outgrown the Red Star galaxy would find his former team in the way of his ultimate dream, as Marseille met the Yugoslavian champions in the 1991 European Cup Final in Bari. Understandably, Stojkovic had mixed emotions about the match.
“On my last day with Red Star, during the ceremony, my last words were: ‘Okay, I wish you good luck, good results and see you next year in the Final’”, he recalls. “And then as it turned out, it was true!
“When I heard the result from Munich, where Red Star had won 2-1 against Bayern in the first leg of the semi-final, it was unbelievable. Then they drew in Belgrade – we would both be in the Final! Some things in your life you never imagine would happen but life is full of surprises.”
“Then, to go and play against my old friends, that was really difficult to understand but maybe they were very lucky because I was on the bench! I had a very serious injury to my knee earlier in that season and was not a starting member in the game.”
“I think at that time, the Marseille coach Raymond Goethals was scared a little of playing me because it was my former club, my former team-mates, et cetera. So, probably, he thought I wouldn’t be at my 100 per cent and for that reason maybe he put me on the bench but maybe for Olympique Marseille and for himself, you could say that was a mistake!
“Eventually the final score was 0-0 and they won on penalty kicks – they made history for Red Star.”
In retrospect, Stojkovic admits he was gripped by sentimentality that night in Puglia. Having entered the game with just eight minutes left of extra time, the love he still held for the Belgrade club who endowed him with the honour Star of the Red Star displayed itself at the most critical moment of a tense tie.
“You have to remember the opponent was my former club – a club where I am a legend,” he continues. “So after the game he [Goethals] came to me and asked me to take a penalty kick and I just said, ‘No, it’s not possible – I don’t want to do that.’
“It was a decision I made in the moment, definitely. He approached me and said, ‘You’re going to shoot’ and I said, ‘No, not possible.’
“He asked, ‘Why not? You are fresh and you are a technical, skilful player’, and I just said, ‘No chance, I don’t want to.’ I rejected his opinion.”
Red Star won the shootout 5-3, dispatching each and every spot kick with practised calm. The names of the scorers reveal much about the quality of that side. Robert Prosinecki, Dragisa Binic, Miodrag Belodedici and Sinisa Mihajlovic all struck past Pascal Olmeta to ensure that the winning penalty would be tucked away expertly by none other than Darko Pancev – the man whose image still proudly sat next to Stojkovic on my wardrobe door almost a year later, the corners of the stickers now beginning to peel away.
In tribute to their momentous achievement, each and every one of the players in red-and-white stripes that night would receive the Star of the Red Star, while the previous recipient of the accolade was left to contemplate a year in which his remarkable progress had stuttered to a painful halt.
“My ambition had been to become the best player in Europe,” Stojkovic reflects, reiterating the ultra-confident mindset that was driving him as he signed for Marseille’s pre-Galactico squad of superstars.
“But unfortunately, just at the beginning, in the second match of the French championship, in Metz, I got the knee injury – a cartilage problem – and that was a very, very difficult time for me.
“I lost all my dreams at that moment because all expectations from the doctors were very black. They practically said I would never play again – it was a very serious injury.”
Stojkovic’s voice cracks at the memory all these years later. His disappointment at losing out on the European Cup was tempered by seeing the team so close to his heart take the trophy back to his home country. However, those eight minutes at the end of the Final represented one of many aborted comebacks for the No 10, who had never fully recovered from that injury suffered right at the start of the 1990/91 campaign. Instead of forming the pivot around which he bamboozled opponents, Pixy’s knee now became the scourge of his career, just at the time when he should have been entering his prime.
Because of that injury, he had started only the first game of Olympique Marseille’s road to the European Cup Final – a 5-1 dismissal of Dinamo Tirana. Although he was on the bench for most of the subsequent games, the problems in his knee showed no signs of going away and eventually ended his time in France before he could make anything like the impact he had dreamed of. Perhaps most disappointingly of all, the season in which the star-studded side eventually lifted the European Cup – 1992/93 – was a complete washout for Stojkovic, who played no games at all.
“I had problems with that knee for almost four years and I spent a long time in rehabilitation, with hard work in the gym and in the pool,” he explains.
“I really gave my best and I worked like a horse, day and night. But the problems always persisted and, to resolve that problem, it was necessary to take time and to be patient. It was a very long-term problem and, of course, everybody said, ‘It’s a big pity that a player like Stojkovic cannot play anymore.’
“But I never gave up. I had a lot of support from my family, from my wife, and I knew that I would be back. I just didn’t know when.”
If you pressed him, he’d probably admit that he didn’t know where, either. For when Pixy eventually rediscovered his magic touch, it happened on the other side of the world as he learned to love the game again by teasing defences in the J-League for Arsene Wenger’s Nagoya Grampus Eight. But that is a story for another day…