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Illustration by Federico Manasse

On the wrong side of retirement, in the pained days of forced leisure, memories can often be the most prized possession for the ex-footballer, as well as for those who shared in their treasured careers.

Some are best remembered by the compliments paid to them by their fans, those who gladly parted with their hard earned wages, week after week, just to watch them play in the flesh. Some are reminisced over through the words of their coaches or managers, those privileged to have held within their ranks such unique and precocious talents. And then there are the few whose most telling eulogies come in the form of the words spoken by their rival players, those who warranted a depth of admiration that even the heat of competition couldn’t wither.

For Serbia’s Dragan Džajić, his country’s greatest ever footballing talent, the most memorable commendation came from none other than Pelé. “Džajić is the Balkan miracle – a real wizard,” said the legendary forward, after the two did battle in 1968, “I’m just sorry he’s not Brazilian because I’ve never seen such a natural footballer.”

It was with good reason the man widely regarded as the most talented footballer in history had become so enamoured by the performances of Dragan Džajić. It has been almost 40 years since Džajić played his last game – and 54 since he played his first – and still no player from his native Serbia has dazzled, deceived or delighted the world as effectively as he did with a ball at his feet.

Having signed for Red Star Belgrade in 1963, aged just 17, Džajić quickly became an instrumental part of an often insurmountable domestic machine. In his first stint with Red Star – with whom his 12 successful seasons preceded a further two with Bastia in France before one final season-long salvo back in Belgrade – Džajić picked up no fewer than five league titles and four cups.

Barely a year after forcing his way into the team, Džajić was handed the first of his record 85 caps for the nation then known as Yugoslavia. The quintessential number 11, deployed on his favoured left wing where he could reign supreme with his immense pace, incisive trickery and inspired left foot, Džajić quickly became an automatic choice for both club and country. No single campaign better illustrates his influence than the one of 1968.

Original Series  |  The 50

Having already helped Red Star to a league and cup double at home, Džajić travelled with the Yugoslavia squad to Italy to partake in the year’s European Championships. With only four teams participating – such was the fashion in the late 1960s – he and his countrymen were drawn against reigning world champions England in the semi-finals while hosts Italy took on the Soviet Union.

With the Italians through having drawn 0-0 with the Soviet Union, not by virtue of an extra-time winner or a victorious penalty shootout but instead a favourable coin-toss, Yugoslavia would instead book their place in the final thanks to their star man Džajić.

With 87 minutes on the clock, and their game also goalless, many feared the second of the two semi-finals may also be heading the way of the dreaded coin-toss. Then Džajić received an incisive cross from the opposite wing which he controlled with his chest and allowed to drop to his feet. Before any England player could react quick enough to avert the immediate danger, Džajić was already firing the ball over Gordon Banks and under the crossbar, scoring the goal that would carry his country into the final. Back in England, the back pages of the national papers ran with the headline ‘The Magic Dragan’ in honour of the man who had sent their hopeful world champions home early.

In Rome three days later, Džajić again played the role of the architect, constructing another lead for his team by beating Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff with an impulsive prod home shortly before half time. Sadly his team would surrender the lead late on, the game ending 1-1, and worse still would lose the replay 2-0.

Džajić may have been denied the European Championship title but he was paid some recompense in his placing third in the year’s Ballon d’Or, behind George Best and Bobby Charlton; a result that, though an honour itself, Germany defender Franz Beckenbauer was said to have taken issue with, believing Džajić to be the rightful winner. 

Perhaps on account of his belonging to the ever retreating past of the beautiful game, or maybe as a result of his unerring commitment to remaining in the country of his birth for so much of his illustrious career, all too often Džajić’s name is met with a look of bemusement, present in so few discussions regarding the all-time legends of the game. But given his success in Serbia, his role in an unforgettable Red Star squad, and the part he played in taking Yugoslavia to within minutes of a European Championship win, Džajić certainly remains Serbia’s greatest ever footballer 

Writer  |  Will Sharp 

Editor  |  Andrew Flint