Mario Gjurovski, one of Thai football’s greatest imports, talks Fowler, Jokanović and moving to Asia

Mario Gjurovski, one of Thai football’s greatest imports, talks Fowler, Jokanović and moving to Asia

For many people reading this article, Macedonian maestro and star of the Thai League Mario Gjurovski may be one of the best players they have never seen. Those that know of him may remember a wacky goal celebration that saw him sent off for taking off his shorts and putting them on his head. But the goal that preceded that rash moment was much more representative of Gjurovski the player – a sublime chip over a stranded goalkeeper that he made look a lot easier than it was.

More than five years on, he admits to having mixed feelings about such a memorable moment. “I made a mistake,” said Gjurovski to These Football Times. “There have been a few times in my life when I was not so clever. I lose my head and this was one of those moments. When I look back, of course, I will never do that again, especially because I got my second yellow card. 

“However, when I look back, this was also one of the best moments for me. I don’t want to say for Thai football, but it was a special moment because it gave the league worldwide attention. It was a long time ago and now I’m not proud but I’m happy now looking back that this moment will always stay and everyone can see it. It’s so funny and even now people still send me links to it. It was a stupid, special moment.”

Gjurovski followed in Robbie Fowler’s footsteps to Thailand and played under Slaviša Jokanović on his way to becoming arguably the best foreign player to play in the country. He quickly outshone the former Liverpool and England striker after joining Muang Thong United, the club that Fowler had just left.

Growing up in Serbia in the 1990s, Gjurovski’s early footballing heroes very much set the template for the type of player that he would become. Giuseppe Signori, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti were the Serie A stars that he idolised and those who have watched the former Macedonian international in action can see the heavy influence they had. 

He is a classic 10 in terms of the flair and imagination he brings to the game and this is complemented by an eccentric side that can best be seen in some of his goal celebrations. Gjurovski’s father, Milko, played for Yugoslavia at the 1984 Olympics and his life was very much shaped by his environment. 

His early ambition was to play from Red Star Belgrade but he ended up in Thailand via Ukraine after failing to earn a move back to the club he played for as a youth. “I come from a big footballing family and this is probably one of the reasons why I started to play football – because of my uncle and my father,” Gjurovski said. “They were Yugoslavia national team players. 

“I was a youth player at Red Star Belgrade and wanted to find a way to return there after I left but I was bit disappointed that I never could. I ended up at Vojvodina, which was the third best team in Serbia at the time. After that, I moved to Ukraine and started playing for the Macedonian national team.”

But things didn’t work out for Gjurovski at Metalurh Donetsk and he was soon looking for a new challenge. At the time, Thailand was certainly not one of the options Gjurovski would have considered and his preference was very much to stay in Europe. But the fact that Fowler had agreed to play there interested him and fate decreed that he would find his spiritual home in Asia.

“At first, I wanted to stay in Europe to achieve something there but, in the end, it was the best decision of my life to move to Thailand and play for Muang Thong,” said Gjurovski. “I met their assistant manager Miloš Joksić in Belgrade and he talked about how Fowler was there and he was one of the reasons I chose the Thai League. If you can bring Robbie, it doesn’t matter what condition he is in, that means it’s interesting for me to come and see.

“And the club really wanted me a lot because we didn’t agree on a deal for about three months. Then I made my decision, which was a little bit risky but I wasn’t playing enough at my club in Ukraine and when you are struggling, you have to look for a better option.”

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The move surprised a lot of people given the low profile of Thai football around the world. The league was relatively young and it was not an obvious choice for such a gifted player. “For everyone, especially European people, they didn’t have too much respect for Thai football at that time,” admitted Gjurovski. “In Asia, they only really thought about China, Japan or Australia. Nobody talked about Thailand. It was a very strange move.”

A strange move turned out to be a match made in heaven as the player’s undoubted talents finally found the right platform at the right club. “It was like karma for me,” said Gjurovski. “Since I started playing football, I have always been talented and many people had big expectations. But football has changed a lot. You need to find a good coach and a club that really likes your style to know how to work with you. I am this type of player, I think. From the first moment, this kind of football in Thailand was for me and I saw myself here. It was the time to show all of my quality and this is what I did at Muang Thong.”

It did not take long for Gjurovski to hit it off with his new teammates in a squad full of Thailand internationals and strong foreign players. But the key ingredient was Jokanović, who would end up at Fulham in the Premier League via clubs including Watford and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

“In 2012, after Slavisa came, we weren’t expected to win the league that season but he created some good chemistry between us. We had Teerasil Dangda and Datsakorn Thonglao – they were the biggest stars. Then Adnan Barakat came and also Dagno Siaka. When I look back now, this was a really great team. If you gave me this team again now, I would take it immediately.”

Jokanović stayed at the club for just that one memorable unbeaten season and he certainly made his mark on Gjurovski and his teammates. “When he arrived at Muang Thong, I was happy because he was not old-school Serbian,” Gjusovski admitted. “We have Serbian old-school coaches and younger more modern managers and he was one of the latter. 

“We developed a very good relationship and we are connected by our success in Thailand and how the move to Muang Thong really boosted our careers. He is a great guy and very easy-going and I have a lot of respect for everything he did, including leading Maccabi Tel-Aviv into the Champions League and earning promotion to the Premier League with Fulham.”

One disappointment for Gjurovski in the years since is that the league hasn’t gone in the direction it could have taken. Buriram United have been dominant, winning five of the last six titles and some of the games have become less than competitive. “To be honest, from 2012 to 2018, the quality of the league is similar,” said Gjurovski. “I have had seven seasons here. Now there are more goals in the game and more easy games. But back then, we had to fight really hard for every point. From 2012 to 2014 were the most competitive years in the Thai League in my opinion. In these three years, the quality really was there.”

But after four years at the same club, Gjurovski felt it was time for a new challenge. He would not move too far away, however, as he was signed by Mano Pölking, the Brazilian head coach of Bangkok United. 

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Pölking’s side had gone from relegation strugglers in the middle of 2014 to a fifth-place finish in 2015 and needed players like Gjurovski to take them to the next level. “Bangkok United was a great move, said Gjurovski. “I thought that after four years at Muang Thong United, I was struggling a little towards the end. 

“I talked with Mano. I knew his vison and how they played. It was a risky decision but I like to take risks. I knew that if I moved there, I would bring the X-factor to the team. I knew that I would fit in easily and this is exactly what happened. I went into the club at a time when it was still far from being a big club. For two years, we built a team that earned a lot of respect in the Thai League. It was an unbelievable improvement for this club in these two seasons. For these two years, I have great memories.”

In his two years at Bangkok United, the club finished second and third and the Macedonian’s goals were often the highlights. And, as usual, he showed a flair for the dramatic. In his early days at the club, he struggled to find the net but got off the mark in their hour of need. At Army United, Gjurovski volleyed home twice from the edge of the box, the second was to level the score at 3-3 after trailing 3-1, before a late Dragan Bošković winner gave his side all three points. 

If the goals were spectacular, the celebrations were intriguing. He approached Pölking like a man possessed and with a look of anger rather than joy before the pair bumped chests and embraced. Gjurovski has a lengthy back catalogue of special goals but his personal favourite is far from the most exceptional. “The biggest game in Thailand is Muang Thong versus Buriram,” said Gjurovski. “If you haven’t played in it, you might not know. The pressure, the feeling, the atmosphere. Everything is there and I was lucky that I scored a lot of goals against them. 

“Let me say that against them, it was always special – any goal. But if I need to choose one, it was when we drew 2-2 at their stadium and I put us 1-0 ahead with a header. This goal was special for me because usually with my head I am not so good. This goal was fantastic. Teerasil crossed the ball and I got between two defenders and jumped like a true striker.

“The atmosphere at this game was so crazy that I can’t explain. When I scored to make it 1-0, it went so quiet, it was like a training session. This is the goal that I remember as one of the most special because at that time, I was struggling a little for form and it gave me more confidence for the rest of the season.”

But Gjurvoski also acknowledges that another special strike was one that for most fans summed up his ability to see things that other players would not see and attempt things that other would never risk. “If I can choose one more, it was against BEC Tero for Bangkok United,” he said. “I shot from almost the halfway line. This showed what I have best, which is imagination and vision. People who know football will recognise that from this goal. 

“The camera shows me pointing to where I wanted it from the goalkeeper. He found me with the ball and I just took my chance and nobody could believe it. This was the best goal I scored and it was a pity that the stadium was empty and not many people could see the quality of the goal.”

Despite his rich talent and his success during the best years of his playing career, the move to Thailand spelt the end of Gjurovski’s time with Macedonia after winning just 12 caps. “I was sad in one way but my life is here,” he said. “The national team is something special and one of the best things that ever happened for me. But you need to think about it and decide, do you want to stay in Thailand and play every game or do you want to go to the national team and miss around 12 games in a season? The club didn’t want this so you have a problem that needs to be fixed.”

Gjurovski will be 33 by the time the 2019 season kicks off in Thailand and his future is uncertain. He has one more year on his contract at Bangkok Glass – a relegated club who cut him from the league squad in mid-2018 due to apparent fitness concerns. But beyond the immediate future, he sees a continued involvement in football. 

“I love football but football brings a lot of stress,” he said. “I’m sure other jobs do too but I have never done anything else. I am not sure about the future. Possibly, it will depend on what happens in the next two years before I stop playing. It’s difficult to speak about the future. If I need to choose something, I would like to continue working in the Thai League as a coach or something else. I would also like to find a way to help young kids to play football and to give them opportunities.”

If he can play a part in instilling a similar kind of talent to his in the next generation, he will have succeeded in encouraging the continuation of a style that has somewhat gone out of fashion. With boyhood heroes Del Piero and Totti retired, he sees the likes of Lionel Messi and Marek Hamšík as carrying the torch. “I have a lot of respect for Messi and Hamšík,” said Gjurovski. “They are the players who are keeping the number 10 alive in modern football.”

By Paul Murphy @PaulmurphyBKK

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