The rapid decline of the once-great poacher Mateja Kežman

The rapid decline of the once-great poacher Mateja Kežman

The modern football fan can be ruthless, stark and unforgiving. He or she lives in a world of instant gratification, where facts on any subject can be obtained with the merest flick of a thumb. There’s little time for romance, little room for meandering narrative. Players are either great or terrible. Clubs are either hip or meaningless. Managers are either progressive or worthless. Anything that doesn’t meet our concept of success is disregarded within seconds, left behind as the world spins on apace.

Through this portal, the career and legacy of Mateja Kežman was mangled beyond repair. His underperformance in the biggest spotlight of all left his reputation in tatters. Many years of toil and genius were ignored because he failed at Chelsea, a Premier League club that garners inordinate attention. When Kežman didn’t dominate at the highest level, he was written off with stunning rapidity. Few people cared about civil war besmirching his childhood. And almost nobody cared about the raging talent that once defined him.

We only care about results, and he who fails to deliver is hardly worth thinking about.

To the vast majority of football fans, Mateja Kežman is the ultimate avatar of failure. His move to Chelsea was one of the worst transfers of all-time, if popular perception is to be believed. The guy could hardly keep his balance, let alone score Premier League goals with enough regularity to warrant attention. He came, he flopped, he went. End of conversation.

Many of those things are incontrovertibly true. Mateja Kežman did struggle at Stamford Bridge, and it was the beginning of a remarkable demise. But I recall the earlier stages of his career with immense fondness, for he possessed a goalscoring ability like few strikers I’ve ever seen. Surely that skill and the beautiful destruction it caused should not be forgotten.

At Partizan and PSV, Kežman was a force of nature, and it was a pleasure to watch his mind work. Of course, the inability to showcase it on the grandest stage should impact his legacy, but the extent to which his bygone talent has been airbrushed from history is extraordinarily myopic.

I remember watching Eredivisie matches on a small portable television as a kid, and Kežman reigned supreme as a master puppeteer. He authored an endless stream of goals, no two the same. It was like watching a robot, programmed to destroy the will of opposing teams. From tap-ins and long-range benders to flick headers and emphatic volleys, Kežman did it all. He glided at optimum speed about the pitch, fleet of foot and quicker of mind, hustling to the right place at the right time to score. Kežman was a blur of elbows and knees, and he lived in fast motion, double the speed anybody else in Holland could muster.

Perhaps this is all contextual. Perhaps it means nothing because this fine striker excelled only in leagues of diluted quality. But art should be enjoyed no matter where it resides and regardless of external opinion. That is undoubtedly the case for Mateja Kežman, an athletic genius in the right context, a football marvel before discerning eyes.

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Zlatko Kežman was a professional goalkeeper during the 1980s for FK Zemun, a small Belgrade club. Mateja, his son, was born in 1979, so he grew up in a football environment. At the age of seven, Mateja began playing in the youth sections of Zemun, where he stayed for a decade without the club recognising his innate ability.

Shortly after his 16th birthday, Kežman moved 200 miles from his Belgrade home to join FK Radnički Pirot. This was the first stop in a nomadic professional career that took Mateja around the world. He also enjoyed brief spells with FK Loznica and Sartid Smederevo, gaining a crash course in the rough world of Balkan football. Along the way, he piqued the interest of representatives from Partizan, the majestic capital club, and Kežman signed for them in 1998.

It was a dream come true. Mateja grew up a huge Partizan fan, even attending games with the most hardcore fan groups. Red Star, the sworn enemy, offered him a contract earlier, but Kežman declined. His love for Partizan was such that, after his first training session, he went home and slept in the kit because he didn’t want to take it off. He also cried at the thought of representing his boyhood club, no matter where his career went from there.

Unfortunately, much of Kežman’s time at Partizan was disrupted by the terror and tragedy of war. The old Yugoslav First League was disbanded in 1992, as civil war spread throughout the country. Partizan found themselves in the new First League of Serbia and Montenegro when Kežman arrived, but his first season was halted as Belgrade came under attack from NATO forces.

He celebrated his 20th birthday in a bomb shelter, as any sense of normality was lost. During this period, Kežman returned to playing football with his friends in the streets and that provided sweet escapism. Strangely, he enjoyed the freedom caused by mass chaos, but football became his passport to a better life nevertheless.

Such difficult beginnings hardened Kežman’s personality. A life of uncertainty and bomb shelters taught him to fight hard on the football pitch, and that’s exactly what he did in the black and white of Partizan. In his first season, Kežman scored eight goals in 33 games as a 19-year old. Partizan won the title, but even that was overshadowed by what the prodigal son did in the main event against Red Star.

As the clock ticked into its ninetieth minute, the game was deadlocked at 1-1. Partizan, the home team, mustered one last counter-attack, which culminated in the ball falling in front of Kežman wide inside the penalty area. The Red Star defence was tired, ragged and unable to close the space. Mateja raced onwards towards destiny, as the stadium stood still.

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Then, in a moment of delirium, he crashed the ball home with an instinctive left-foot rocket into the top corner as pandemonium ensued. Kežman hurdled the advertising boards and was mobbed by euphoric fans. From that day on, he was considered a saint by Partizan fans and a villain by those of Red Star. But no matter what, his love of scoring goals was clear to see, based solely on the emphatic celebrations that became so commonplace.

The following season Kežman became the main man at Partizan. He was the top scorer with 35 goals in 41 games. The sight of a wiry, lightning quick talisman excited fans at the stadium, known colloquially as The Temple of Football. Kežman became a cult hero, scoring in every game he ever played against Red Star. Those games meant so much to him that he often retreated to a hotel several days beforehand to sharpen his focus. This was a young man who lived for football and the emotion it could provide.

Kežman made his international debut for Yugoslavia in March 2000, scoring in a friendly against China. He was part of the squad for Euro 2000 but somehow managed to get sent off against Norway in his lone thirty seconds of action.

Ultimately, he outgrew Partizan, and a move to western Europe was needed to further his career. In July 2000, PSV signed him for around £8m. Legend has it that Philips, once the parent company of PSV, was supposed to provide new floodlights for Partizan as part of the deal, but they never arrived. Adding to the confusion, payment of the transfer fee was delayed due to European Union sanctions against Yugoslavia. But Mateja Kežman finally arrived in Eindhoven, and the city had rarely seen anybody like him.

In his first season, Kežman scored 31 goals in 49 games for PSV, then managed by former captain Eric Gerets. He was briefly a teammate of Ruud van Nistelrooy, until the master poacher left for Manchester United. Incidentally, the Old Trafford club featured prominently in Kežman’s introduction to PSV, as a wonder goal against them in the Champions League inspired the Eindhoven club to a 3-1 victory. Kežman picked the ball up on the right flank, twisted and turned past a couple of challenges, then fired a shot high past Raimond van der Gouw into the net. The Philips Stadion erupted in approval as a new era was launched.

With Kežman scoring more than anybody else in the league and young stars such as Mark van Bommel, Johann Vogel and Dennis Rommedahl meshing nicely, PSV won the Eredivisie with ease in 2001. They fell into the UEFA Cup later in the season and managed to reach the quarter-finals, as the ingredients for a new dynasty fell into place. At the heart of it all was Kežman, who took his place alongside Van Nistelrooy, Luc Nilis, Ronaldo and Romário in a PSV goalscoring lineage traced all the way back to Coen Dillen and Willy van der Kuijlen. That was a huge responsibility, but one that Kežman relished.

The Eindhoven club took a step back in 2001/02 as Ronald Koeman revitalised Ajax in a title-winning effort. Kežman was less prolific, but he still managed to notch 20 goals in 41 games. Opposing managers had a greater understanding of his game, and defenders were able to stop him running riot, in relative terms. Nevertheless, the Serbian still maintained a fine ratio of a goal every other game, despite the season ending in frustration as bitter rivals Feyenoord dumped PSV out of the UEFA Cup.

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That cost Gerets his job, and the heavyweight Guus Hiddink returned to Eindhoven as boss in July 2002. During the 1980s he revolutionised the club and led it to a sacred treble, replete with a European Cup triumph over Benfica. Two decades later, Hiddink guided South Korea to a semi-final in their home World Cup before recapturing power at PSV, heralding a new epoch of dominance.

In his first season back, the old master coaxed every drop of ability from his resources. PSV beat Ajax to the title by a point, and every goal Kežman scored mattered immensely. All 40 of them. He benefited hugely from the arrival of mercurial winger Arjen Robben from Groningen, as a constant supply of goalscoring chances was ensured. The duo became known as Batman and Robben, and the theme tune from that famous show was often played when Kežman scored at home. He was duly crowned Dutch Footballer of the Year, causing scouts around the world to sit up and take notice.

In February 2003, Kežman briefly retired from international football, citing the embarrassing performance of Serbia & Montenegro in Euro 2004 qualifying. Nevertheless, he returned to the fold a few months later after a change of manager. As his fame grew, police uncovered a plot by Yugoslav criminals to kidnap Kežman and extort a ransom payment from PSV. The striker required detailed protection but continued to score goals. Once again, football was his escape from a complex world, and it’s to his credit that performances didn’t dip amid the uncertainty.

The following season, Ajax once again enjoyed a resurgence, winning the title by six points. Kežman scored another 31 league goals to claim his third golden boot in Holland, with the next best player, Dirk Kuyt, languishing 11 goals behind. The pursuit for Kežman’s signature began in earnest and Chelsea appeared to have the inside track after agreeing on a deal for Robben midway through the campaign. The winger remained in Eindhoven until the summer, at which point Kežman was also signed for £5.3m as José Mourinho sought to replicate their lethal partnership in London.

In his final home game for PSV, Kežman provided a wonderful parting gift with possibly the greatest goal he ever scored. Den Haag provided the opposition as PSV wore their new kit for the following campaign. Kežman missed a penalty early on but managed to put his team 2-0 up with a breathtaking goal shortly after. The ball was played down the left flank as he galloped freely into Den Haag territory. After carrying it for 20 yards, Kežman stopped to square up two hapless defenders who were tired by his industry and bamboozled by his imagination.

All around, there was stillness and silence for one second, then two, then three. Out of nowhere, Kežman spotted a vacant area of the net with fine peripheral vision and proceed to deftly clip a shot into it from an absurd position. The goalkeeper was rooted to the spot, unable to move. The goal was stunning and it also helped secure second place for PSV and, as a result, qualification for the Champions League in 2004/05.

Of course, Kežman wouldn’t be there to enjoy that fairytale campaign, as PSV pushed AC Milan all the way in a titanic semi-final. But that final goal proved that, aged 25, he could no longer be contained by Dutch defences. Nevertheless, the sight of him in those iconic PSV kits, wheeling away to celebrate another goal, defined a generation. In total, he scored 129 goals in 176 games for PSV, or one every 1.36 games. It’s an astounding achievement which deserves greater appreciation.

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Like all the greats, Mateja Kežman saw a picture in his mind then proceeded to make it a reality. At Partizan and PSV he had a phenomenal sense of where the goal was; without looking he knew what was needed in any situation to beat the goalkeeper. Perhaps it was a curler or a thunderbolt, a side foot or a chip, a lob or a dink. Kežman had all the tools in his locker, and there was a constant sense of adventure to his game; a probing determination to risk everything because football was a game to be enjoyed.

Kežman was always thinking, inventing, conceiving. In the box, he was a calculating menace, defined by an instinctive understanding of where he needed to be. He was clinical, ruthless and austere in front of goal. He was economical in the six-yard box. He was every goalscoring cliché brought to life, and it was enchanting to watch. Yet Kežman was also very good in possession and a seriously underrated dribbler.

Mateja had a low centre of gravity but was tall and lean. He enjoyed the physical side of football but was also incredibly fast. Kežman was a focal talisman wrapped in a winger’s soul, akin to a poor man’s Thierry Henry. There seemed little way of stopping him until the wheels came off at Stamford Bridge and the star began to fade with immense rapidity. His was a decline like few others.

Pressure lurked right away, ominous and foreboding. Chelsea handed Kežman the number 9 jersey vacated by club legend Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink after he left for Middlesbrough. Following in the footsteps of goalscoring demigods at PSV was one challenge but this was another entirely. The jersey carried an inherent burden, as Mateja was expected to replace a fan’s favourite in performance and charisma alike. That didn’t end well.

The wait for his first Chelsea goal was torturous. A few weeks went by, then a couple of months. Pressure, that ugly toxin, continued to mount, as Kežman struggled to locate the skills that once distinguished him. Finally, he opened his account in late October 2004 with a goal in the League Cup against West Ham. His first Premier League goal didn’t arrive until early December, and even then it was a stoppage-time penalty with Chelsea already 3-0 up.

Kežman didn’t score again until March before a surge late in the season made his campaign look slightly more respectable. Still, he managed only seven goals in 41 appearances as howls of derision emanated from west London. Chelsea won their first league title since 1955 and Kežman was a part of that no matter how small. But he simply wasn’t the same player as before and that could not be ignored in the most scrutinised league on earth.

Mateja did score a crucial goal in extra-time of the League Cup final against Liverpool, nudging Chelsea into a lead that proved decisive, yet the fans wanted so much more. In fairness, they supported him well, waiting for the genius of Eindhoven and Belgrade to re-emerge. It just never happened, and Kežman became an expensive substitute by wintertime, known more for picking up stupid bookings in a state of discombobulation than scoring with any sufficient regularity.

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Contrary to popular belief, Kežman actually enjoyed his time living and playing in London. Despite claims that he failed to settle, Mateja viewed representing Chelsea as the pinnacle of his career. So why couldn’t he replicate the form he had at Partizan and PSV? And how did he go from being a player of sensational dynamism to one of painful ineptitude seemingly overnight? That remains a mystery.

“Kežman had amazing service at PSV,” says Miloš Dušanović of Serbian Footy.“He was provided with assist after assist, and the attack was pretty much set up for him to score. At Chelsea that was not the case. They had other weapons and Kežman was not the focal point. He was also played out on the wing quite often, which was not the position for him to succeed. He was a great poacher but did not do well creating chances for himself or winning challenges, and that was a major reason why he didn’t have a better career.”

Indeed, part of Kežman’s Chelsea debacle can be attributed to the step up in class. The Premier League is faster and far more physical than the Eredivisie, and players have comparatively little time in which to play. But Kežman was so far ahead of his Dutch counterparts in these areas that other factors must surely have contributed to his demise. Certainly, he seemed more hesitant as the goal drought wore on, but that’s only natural. Perhaps the underlying problem was world-class coaches and defenders stifling his space, plus a Mourinho game plan that deployed him as just another player rather than the main man.

At Chelsea, Kežman became clumsy and unbalanced, unsure and reticent. Even at his zenith, he was never the most elegant player, but confidence is the great modifier of ability and he simply never had any at Stamford Bridge. From the start, he was just one star in the galaxy of Roman Abramovich, competing with Didier Drogba, Eiður Guðjohnsen, Damien Duff, Joe Cole and Robben for playing time in forward positions. That didn’t suit Kežman, who was accustomed to being the straw that stirred the drink.

Without a doubt, his failure was in being unable to adapt and alter his game to those conditions. That’s what the greats do, and therefore we cannot class Kežman as an elite player. The talent he possessed early in his career was simply phenomenal, but he didn’t deal with the pressure of playing at the highest level. Those are indisputable facts but people should remember his entire career, not just its downward spiral.

Chelsea sold Kežman to Atlético Madrid after a solitary season, recouping their £5.3m outlay. Kežman immediately suffered a knee injury in Madrid and his recovery was problematic. That was the first in a series of niggles that added another layer to his struggles and further derailed a brilliant career turned on its head.

Away from domestic football, Kežman did notch the goal that secured a 2006 World Cup finals place for Serbia and Montenegro. The historic strike came against Bosnia and Herzegovina, of all countries, as Mateja’s reputation improved back home. He was later sent off against Argentina at the competition, however, and did not receive another call-up thereafter.

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In the summer of 2006, a move to Fenerbahçe beckoned as Kežman agreed a four-year deal. To a certain extent he rediscovered his goalscoring touch in Turkey, notching 11 and then 19 goals in successive seasons, but that old spark was still missing. Kežman enjoyed a strong rapport with the fans, who saw him working hard to replicate the form of yore, and he won a league title with Fener. The club also reached a Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea before Kežman was loaned to Paris Saint-Germain in 2008.

In the French capital his career spluttered to a halt, once and for all. Kežman was often jeered by fans that placed him under immense pressure. The relationship devolved when he threw his jersey to the ground after being subbed early in a cup game. PSG suspended him for two weeks and Kežman was booed mercilessly upon return. He was later exiled to Zenit Saint-Petersburg on loan before having his contract terminated mutually in November 2010.

At that point, a complete lack of interest by European clubs revealed the extent to which Kežman’s stock had plummeted. The jaded striker had two spells with South China of Hong Kong, sandwiched between a detour to BATE Borisov, and he was eventually forced to retire in 2011 aged just 33.

At Partizan and PSV in the first six seasons of his career, Kežman averaged 29 goals per season. Over the rest of his career, spanning seven clubs in seven countries, that average was just eight. Mateja became old before his time as skills eroded and memories faded away. In the end, it was a sad affair.

Now, at the age of 39, Kežman is a player agent in Serbia. He has also coached within the national team’s youth setup in recent years. However, he made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2013 for highly controversial remarks about homosexuality that saw respect wane as quickly as his ability. According to multiple reports, Kežman was asked for his opinion on prominent football figures such as Louis van Gaal attending a Gay Pride event in Amsterdam, at which point he uttered the following response: “My opinion is that this is a disease that should not be promoted, and I wouldn’t like it if the Football Association of Serbia decided one day to support the gay parade in this country. The Dutch are moving away from Jesus Christ and are heading towards spiritual destruction.”

Nobody knows whether Kežman was misquoted, and most of us have no way of verifying the accuracy of this reporting. Nevertheless, such views are fundamentally abhorrent. If Kežman did utter such vile words, they speak to a pre-historic outlook that has no place in our modern context. Of minimal importance, they also further sullied the image and legacy of a predatory goalscorer who fell from grace.

In the end, we may never know the true Mateja Kežman. His was a splintered career and polarising personality that cannot be categorised with ease. There was the troubled upbringing and the glorious shower of goals. But there was also the controversial comments and inability to produce when it mattered most. Perhaps he’s doomed to be remembered as the ultimate flop, the goalscoring icon frozen by Premier League rigour. Hopefully there’s time and room to consider his wider work and remember the player he once was, not just the one he became.

By Ryan Ferguson @RyanFergusonHQ

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