This is the story of how one Serbian footballer became such a legend in Brazil that he has his own pop song, his own movie and his own spot on the Maracanã Walk of Fame. This is the story of Dejan Petković, and given how unorthodox a story this is, there’s a need to start towards the end, not at the beginning.
Aged 37, the man from Serbia was already a popular figure in Brazilian football on the morning of 6 December 2009, but by midnight he was partying in Río de Janeiro as a true superhero, one who tucked in his cape just enough that it was hidden from view. In truth, he didn’t play his best game as he represented Flamengo on the day they competed for their first Brasileirão league title in 17 years, yet it was his corner that set up Ronaldo Angelim’s winning goal against Grêmio, with the 2-1 result earning the Rubro-Negro the trophy.
The Río club had been in 14th when Petković, not for the first time, signed with them in that 2009 season, and his presence in the side made as big an impact as Mentos in a Coke bottle, even if he was humble enough to play down his importance.
“This year was wonderful for me, it was unforgettable,” he said after winning his first league title in his adopted home. “I just have to thank everyone. They say that I arrived and raised this group, but it’s not true. It was this group that improved me. I was lucky to be a part of this group, to be a leader. I just have to thank them for everything they’ve done for me. I also thank the wonderful crowd. They deserve this title a lot. I’ll never forget what I’ve witnessed here at the Maracanã.”
The Maracanã will never forget Petković either. But why? How is it that a footballer born in the tiny industrial Yugoslav town of Majdanpek became so popular that he can hardly walk down a street in Río without being recognised and lauded?
It helped that he was an excellent footballer, one with technique and just enough flair. It was obvious from very early on and, at just 16 years of age, he became the youngest ever player to feature in an official Yugoslav First League match, beating the previous record of Mitar Mrkela by one day. At this point in his blossoming career, the attacking midfielder had moved to Niš, the hometown of his father, and to Radnički Niš, where he was highly rated.
From his 1988 debut against Željezničar Sarajevo onwards, he caught the eye. Crowds were especially entertained by this footballing adventurer. “This one dribbles like Rambo,” one fan shouted during a match, and the nickname stuck, even if Petković didn’t really like the connotations.
Not only could he could he dribble past defenders as quickly as Sylvester Stallone can fire a rifle, but he was a set-piece grandmaster and his feet boasted power and precision. A Petković free-kick could be curled over the wall from just outside the box, while he could also blast it from distance, on one occasion scoring with the third touch of a match as his teammates kicked-off, offloaded the ball to the number 10 and watched as it sailed into the net.
It was little surprise, then, when the biggest club in the country wanted him to join, with Red Star signing him up in 1992, believing he could fill the void of playmaker Dragan Stojković, who had also arrived from Radnički Niš before departing for Marseille. This was just after Red Star had lifted the European Cup. Even amongst these greats, the young Petković stood out. “He was one of the best players to ever play for Red Star,” his teammate Ivan Adžić later admitted.
He didn’t stay at Red Star for long, though, a development which club historian Radovan Maksimović considers desperately sad as “there were no more players with such technique and quality”. After three and a half years and just 55 appearances at the Marakana, he was off to Real Madrid, who were struggling in LaLiga and who had just seen long-term president Ramón Mendoza forced to resign due to the mounting issues, but who were still one of the biggest and most glamorous clubs in the world.
When he moved to Real, he’d actually had better financial offers from other clubs, but he considered Los Blancos “a once in a lifetime opportunity”. Even though he and his family needed a major payday, the lure of the Spanish capital was too great. “If you had held me upside down in Belgrade and shaken me so that everything in my pockets fell out, there wouldn’t have been a lot of money,” he one day explained in an interview with the newspaper Blic. “But football was a game that was more important than money. My life is about enjoying football.”
New president Lorenzo Sanz, who had taken over from Mendoza, made Petković his first signing, although the December arrival didn’t immediately convince coach Jorge Valdano and he was soon loaned out to spend the second half of the 1996/97 season with Sevilla, where he turned in a series of seasick performances.
By the time the playmaker returned to the Spanish capital, Fabio Capello was in charge – and the Italian wasn’t impressed. “He doesn’t have the necessary qualities to play for Real Madrid and I have told him this,” was the coach’s damning assessment, while Petković claimed Capello was biased against players from Yugoslavia. Another loan followed, this time to Racing, but the fact that Petković flew back to Serbia to marry his childhood sweetheart Violeta on the same day as a league match didn’t do him any favours.
It was clear that Petković’s Spanish adventure wasn’t going to work out and he needed an escape route. Few, though, would have put any money on his landing spot being Brazil, apart from Teo Fonseca, the vice-president of Vitória and a man who put a lot of money towards convincing the attacker to move to the country. Fonseca flew out to Europe to speak with Petković and to try to persuade him that he should join Vitória and become the successor to Bebeto.
Petković agreed, although he later admitted he’d only gone to the Salvador-based team because he believed he’d be competing for the league title, only to then realise that Fonseca had carefully declared Vitória as state champions, not national champions. While most footballers would have researched such a life-changing move further, the Serbian had been told that the Pope was about to visit Brazil and that he had to make a decision immediately, before the country’s bureaucracy froze for the length of the papal visit.
Admittedly, this wasn’t a great start to his Brazilian experience and Petković had been promised he could return to Europe at the first opportunity if he wasn’t happy in the South American nation. Yet he loved it. He rediscovered his scoring and creative touch at Vitória, so much so that he went on to be voted as the best player in the club’s history, even ahead of Bebeto.
He became good friends with Fonseca and was even allowed to move to Italian side Venezia after two years, earning a major payday and managing to be closer to his family in 1999, which was a troubled year back in his home country.
Following that brief stint in Venice, the former Real Madrid man decided he wanted to move back to Brazil, a country he was already falling in love with. “I was shocked by the facilities I found when I first arrived, as I was used to playing in the stadiums of Spain,” he told Blic in an interview. “But when I began to train, to play games and to enjoy the beaches, I discovered a whole new world. It was a new place where people were relaxed and their only ambition was to enjoy life. There is a better way of life in Brazil.”
So certain was he that he’d be staying for the long haul that Petković started learning Portuguese, a language he now speaks fluently, even with a Brazilian accent.
This time he was off to Río, more specifically to Flamengo, one of the great clubs of Brazilian football. They play at the Maracanã, the famous stadium from which Red Star’s ground took its nickname, and Petković quickly became as much of a legend at the one spelt with a ‘c’ as he had been at the one spelt with a ‘k’.
One of the important mileposts in his journey to Flamengo stardom came in the final of the 2001 Campeonato Carioca, the state championship. Vasco da Gama were the opponents and the Maracanã was the stage. As the clock ticked over into the 88th minute of the second leg, the scores were still level at 3-3 on aggregate, and that was when Petković delivered one of the most perfect free-kicks you’ll ever see into the top corner.
“A new idol appeared in 2001,” says Flamengo’s own website as they reflect on that period. That’s exactly right. “The way of pronouncing his name was the least important thing,” the club added. “What was important was his talent on the pitch.”
The pronunciation of his name was an important dilemma, though, as Brazilian football supporters had so rarely had to deal with an Eastern European surname. In the end, he was generally referred to as Pet, pronounced like Pech and sounding like the Portuguese word for Fish.
Unlike with Rambo, Petković appreciated this nickname and there even a song written about him, by MC Robinho. It was called ‘Pet’s Funk’ and was far catchier than most football chants. It’s no ‘Will Grigg’s on Fire’, but it was a good listen and praises the player’s amazing ability to score Olympic goals, when the ball goes directly in from a corner. In official matches, it has been recorded that Petković achieved this on eight occasions. From set-piece situations, he really was a killer.
The Flamengo fairy tale was soon dead too, though – at least temporarily. In 2002 he left the famous club to join their city rivals Vasco. Despite the rivalry between the two sides, Petković was welcomed with open arms. “I was not concerned,” he later said of the move in a TV interview. “I was received well and treated well,” he said of the Vasco fan base.
There, he once again won the Carioca, this time the 2003 edition, before making a surprise move to China and to Shanghai Shenhua, unable to resist the big bucks promised to him. He soon returned to the Estádio São Januário and helped Vasco to avoid relegation, which he considers one of his greatest achievements, before once again heading abroad to trouser a major paycheque, this time to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad.
However, after this very profitable period in the middle of the noughties, the Serbian returned to Brazil to finish his career in his adopted home. He never could resist the South American country and he became something of a journeyman player within the Brazilian league, playing for a hearty Brasileirão casserole of clubs, namely for Fluminense, Goiás, Santos and Atlético Mineiro in a four year-span between 2005 and 2009.
That was when he returned to his true home; to Flamengo, to the Maracanã. The club still owed him money from his previous stint and, as a way of settling this debt, he was reportedly promised 15 percent of gate receipts from home matches. This didn’t go down all that well with some sections of the fans, who believed he was already past his prime at the age of 37.
“The biggest criticism and the biggest doubt when I returned to Flamengo was my age at that time,” the player later explained in the movie made about his life, which was titled O Gringo, meaning The Foreigner. “Everyone said I was too old and that my physique wouldn’t be able to hold up, even if the quality might. But I was able to prove that age does not matter, that the important thing is the spirit, how you feel.
“How many would like to wear Flamengo’s shirt at least once? Flamengo has millions of fans and they still consider me the greatest idol after Zico. It is an honour for me to have returned all this love now. After a long period I returned to my club, to my fans and to my home, where I became a true idol.”
By helping them to win that 2009 league title and by dedicating the final few years of his career to the Rubro-Negro, ahead of his 2011 retirement, Petković became a true idol of the club and of Brazilian football in general, becoming just the third foreigner to be inducted into the Maracanã Walk of Fame, along with Eusébio and Franz Beckenbauer, after netting a total of 167 goals during his time in Brazil.
He was recognised in other ways too, such as being named as one of the best midfielders in the country in the Bola de Prata award on three different occasions and for three different clubs. Additionally, he was given honorary citizen status in Río de Janeiro and made an honorary consul of Serbia in Brazil too.
“When he goes inside a restaurant in Brazil he must first take a picture with all of the other diners, and when he goes outside afterwards he stops traffic,” explained Darko Bajić, the director of the film made about him. “It’s difficult to comprehend just how popular he is. Women want him to sign their dresses and men their shirts.”
There were even some calls during his career for Petković to be allowed to play for Brazil, given that he hardly played any international football for Yugoslavia before the national team splintered. Sanctions imposed on the country made it difficult for all players, while Petković didn’t help his international caps count by confronting coach Slobodan Santrač following a substitution in a match in 1995.
While he never did play for the Seleção, he did earn the kind of fame that many capped Brazilian players can only dream of. It’s amazing to think that a man born in Yugoslavia in the 1970s would be a 21st century hero of Brazilian football, and that a player could be cheered by both the Marakana and the Maracanã, playing more than twice as many games at the latter of these two very different stadiums in two countries with very different footballing scenes. Yet that’s exactly what happened, and the now-45-year-old couldn’t be prouder.
“The word Marakana or Maracanã is very important in my life,” he has stated, describing both venues as temples. “The Serbian one is not as big as the Brazilian one, but they are both very important to me.” He is very important to fans in both countries, especially in Brazil. As MC Robinho would say, we have the king of the Olympic goal. It’s the Pet.
By Euan McTear @emctear