The record-breaking brilliance of peak Dejan Stanković

The record-breaking brilliance of peak Dejan Stanković

It’s the evening of 5 April 2011 and Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is utilising the high-risk goalkeeping strategy he would become world-renowned for in just a few short years, rushing from his box to intercept an Internazionale attack with a perfectly-timed diving header in the first minute of their Champions League tie.

The sweeper-keeper style that Neuer became synonymous with would ultimately advance the position, his unparalleled passing ability and reading of the game ensuring that keepers at the top level were now expected to be the first line of attack as well as the last line of defence. While one can attribute many reasons for the success of Neuer’s style – from the aforementioned passing range to his infallible composure – there is undoubtedly a level of luck in the fact that he didn’t face too many players who could strike a ball like Dejan Stanković.

On the evening in question, Stanković would duly punish Neuer’s ambitious interception with an even more ambitious halfway line volley that soared past the stranded German keeper and into the empty Schalke net, sending the Giuseppe Meazza into a state of pandemonium. Although Inter would ultimately come up short in the tie – losing 5-2 in a pulsating, ramshackle affair – the headlines around the world belonged to Stanković, who’d produced the type of goal destined to be overdubbed by faceless, cheesy, Eurodance tracks in YouTube compilations forevermore.  

While those less familiar with the Serb’s career sat with their mouths agasp, long-time followers of Serie A simply viewed the strike as the latest jaw-dropping goal in a career littered with jaw-dropping goals. Like a bestselling popstar producing yet another worldwide hit, the Nerazzurri midfielder’s screamer against Schalke was just the latest addition to an extensive back-catalogue of classics.  

Phenomenal though the goals were, they only tell half the story of Stanković’s glorious career; a career stacked with domestic trophies and European honours that began amidst the political chaos of the old Yugoslavia and ended with Stanković enjoying legend status at no less than three clubs, while simultaneously holding the pub quiz-worthy distinction of being the only man to represent three nations at the World Cup. 

Born in Zemun, Belgrade on 11 September 1978, Stanković’s childhood would coincide with increasing political and societal tensions across Yugoslavia. A toxic combination of economic hardship and political corruption, coupled with the historical dividing lines of region, religion and ethnicity, made civil war and eventual fragmentation of the communist nation likely as the 1980s bled into the 90s. 

Whilst the accelerating unrest created less than ideal conditions for a child to spend their early years, Stanković, like so many others, found solace in the beautiful game, spending endless hours honing his skills in the many street matches that occurred his neighbourhood. To this day, he credits these anarchic, jumpers-for-goalposts affairs as a vital component of his eventual success, stating: “When I look back at my own football career, I can honestly say it started with futsal, though at the time it was simply street football or football in the school playground.”

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With both parents having had footballing careers of their own – his father Bora played for the OFK Belgrade, while his mother Dragica played for ŽFK Sloga Zemun – the youngster’s passion for the game came as little surprise, and Stanković soon began to show that he possessed more than enough talent to match his undeniable dedication.

Beginning his youth career at Zemun-based club FK Teloptik, Stanković’s impressive performances soon attracted the attention of Red Star Belgrade’s famed talent hunter Tomislav Milićević, and he would sign for his boyhood club in 1991 aged 13. 

The Red Star that Stanković signed for were, to quote Pet Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant, at the height of their ‘imperial phase’, the club’s phenomenal development throughout the late-80s culminating in an immortal European Cup victory in 1991 with a side boasting the Balkan brilliance of Robert Prosinečki, Dejan Savićević and Siniša Mihajlović. 

Sadly, Stanković would not be granted the opportunity to learn from his heroes for long as the legendary side was emphatically broken up just one year after their greatest success, with the majority of the stars heading to either LaLiga or Serie A. This, coupled with the European ban imposed by FIFA on Yugoslav clubs as a response to the atrocities that occurred in the Bosnian War, resulted in Red Star’s golden period morphing into a dark age overnight.

Disastrous as it was for the Crveno-beli to lose so many of their top stars, this less than ideal situation granted certain youth players a level of first-team exposure that would have been unfeasible had the established stars remained at the Marakana. Of all the emerging talent, none would shine brighter than the teenage Stanković.

Having impressed coach Vladimir Petrović in the youth team, the fresh-faced midfielder was handed his first-team debut by manager Ljupko Petrović in February 1995 against OFK Beograd. Entering the pitch as a second-half substitute, the 16-year-old midfielder became the youngest player to wear the famous red and white kit at senior level. It would be the first of many club records set by the young Serb over the next few years.

With levels of physicality and maturity far beyond his teenage years, Stanković soon became a vital cog in the Red Star midfield, his blend of tenacity and technique ensuring there was always a defensive bite to the playmaker’s abundant creativity. Beginning the 1995/96 campaign with another record-breaking feat – his goal against FK Buducnost Podgorica making him the youngest goalscorer in Red Star history – Stanković would enjoy a rollercoaster year. Whilst the relinquishing of the league title to Partizan left a bitter taste, Stanković would exact revenge in the Yugoslav Cup final, scoring away to complete a 6-1 aggregate rout in the Eternal Derby.

By the 1997/98 season, it was clear that Stanković had outgrown the domestic game. In what was an otherwise disappointing year for Red Star, the teenager was inspirational, at times carrying his underperforming side as he scored an exceptional 21 goals in all competitions. Such was the consistency and maturity of the 19-year old’s performances, manager Milorad Kosanović took the unlikely step of giving the youngster the captain’s armband, making Stanković – you guessed it – the youngest Red Star skipper. It would only be a matter of time before Europe’s elite clubs, as well as his country, came calling.

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With a number of the continent’s heavyweights lining up summer bids, Stanković would make his international debut in April 1998 against South Korea, hoping to stake his claim for a place in that summer’s World Cup squad. Showing no signs of big stage nerves, the youngster secured his ticket to France in resounding fashion, scoring two goals in a commanding 3-1 victory. As the youngest member of the Yugoslav squad, he would make the most of his opportunity to shine on the grandest stage of them all.

After impressing from the bench in the opening victory against Iran, Stanković was afforded a starting place for the monumental group tie against Germany. Although 1998 is not remembered as an iconic vintage for Die Mannschaft, manager Berti Voggs still had his fair share of firepower, with the likes of Thomas Häßler and Andreas Möller providing chances for the terrifying strike force of Jürgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff.

Just 13 minutes into the game, Stanković would latch on Predrag Mijatović’s sumptuous low cross, his faintest of touches dinking the ball over Andreas Köpke and into the German net via the post. With his confidence soaring and market value at least trebled, he continued to give the German defence nightmares as Yugoslavia raced to a two-goal lead. 

While a compulsory German late show meant that Yugoslavia had to settle for a draw – their tournament would ultimately end in a last-16 defeat to the Netherlands – Stanković was now hot property across Europe, and it came as no surprise when the young midfielder sought to test himself in one of the continents big leagues.

After much speculation, Stanković would swap the fury of the eternal derby for the beauty of the Eternal City, signing for Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio in an £11m deal. Bankrolled by the millions of food tycoon Sergio Cragnotti, the Roman club was in the midst of their golden age, boasting a ridiculous squad including the likes of Pavel Nedvěd, Alessandro Nesta, Christian Vieri and Marcelo Salas to name but a few.

In a dream league debut, Stanković emerged from the bench in the season-opening fixture against Piacenza. With the game level, the Serb produced the type of strike which would soon be considered his trademark, opening the scoring with a net-busting piledriver from 35 yards that immediately endeared him to the Laziali.

Operating mainly as a central midfielder, Stanković was a key component in Lazio’s title challenge as well as their European campaign; his mix of power, efficiency and flair making him the ideal creative midfielder for Eriksson’s pragmatic sensibilities. His four goals in Europe – including one particularly sweet strike against old foes Partizan – were a key component of Lazio’s run to the Cup Winners’ Cup final, where they would defeat Mallorca at Villa Park in the competition’s final match.

While the importance and quality of Stanković’s goals cannot be overstated, it was his visceral blend of untampered passion and unparalleled work rate that had the most profound effect on fans who bestowed on him the nickname of ‘The Dragon’.

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As sweet as the victory in Europe had been, Lazio squandered the league in heartbreaking fashion, surrendering the top spot to AC Milan in the penultimate fixture having once enjoyed a seven-point lead. Desperate to end the club’s 26-year title drought, Eriksson would spend big in the following season, bolstering his midfield with the formidable Argentine pair of Diego Simeone and Juan Sebastián Verón.

With such a glut of midfield quality, one could have been forgiven for expecting Stanković to become a marginalised figure in the presence of such world-renowned teammates. Instead, the versatile Serb grew from strength to strength, operating as a winger, a deep-lying playmaker, and in his favoured advanced central role at various points throughout the season. 

Just like the previous campaign, the 1999/2000 title race would go to the wire, with Lazio starting the final day in second place. This time, however, it would be Le Aquile who reigned victorious, overhauling Juventus with a cathartic 3-0 home win over Reggina. Whilst Stanković did not feature in the deciding game, he was at the heart of the fervent on-pitch celebrations with fans just as he’d been at the heart of the team in the last two seasons. A key member of perhaps the club’s greatest season, Stanković had already secured his place as a Lazio legend.

Consistent though his performances remained, he was powerless to prevent the financial collapse that occurred at the Stadio Olimpico over the next few seasons. Desperate to balance the books, the club sought to offload many of their top stars, at times for a fraction of the fee they initially paid. Despite being a key figure in a side now managed by former Lazio teammate Roberto Mancini, Stanković reluctantly agreed to leave Lazio in January 2004.

Initially, he looked to be heading to Turin, with Lazio agreeing a fee with Juventus for a mid-season transfer of their talismanic midfielder. With the deal all but complete, Stanković had a last-minute change of heart, instead signing for Inter in a cut-price £4.5m deal. It was a move that would prove inspired for both club and player.

If ever a blueprint was needed on how to gain immediate popularity at a new club, then Stanković’s move north would provide the ideal case study. Not only did he turn down Juventus, but the former Red Star man took a pay cut to sign for the Nerazzurri and contrived to score his first goal against Milan in the Derby della Madonnina.

The goal in question came straight from a corner, Stanković wrong-footing everyone as his curled inswinger flew past the bemused Rossoneri guard and into the bottom right corner. A regular scorer in both the Rome and Belgrade derbies, he exuded a belligerent, rabble-rousing swagger on the pitch that was tailor-made for the intense cauldron of a local battle. The site of the Serb storming towards the Curva Nord, his face a mask of passion and volatility, was one that would become familiar to Milanisti over the years with Stankovic scoring no fewer than four goals in the derby, each one seemingly more spectacular than the last.

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After an impressive half-season in Milan, Stanković would be reunited with Mancini, who Alberto Zaccheroni in the summer of 2004. The former Lazio man would have an immediate impact, ending the Neruazzuri’s 16-year domestic trophy drought with back-to-back Coppa Italia victories over Roma in 2005 and 2006. Like at Lazio, Stanković was an ever-present figure in the side; weaving his magic in a midfield that included the likes of Verón, Esteban Cambiasso and Luís Figo.

Although 2006 would bring Stanković his first Scudetto with Inter, it would be won in far less glorious circumstances than the championship in Rome. Having finished the campaign in third, Inter were retrospectively awarded the title after original champions Juventus and runners-up Milan were both caught up in the Calciopoli scandal. The match-fixing scandal sent shockwaves through the Italian game, and with the previously dominant Juve banished to Serie B, it would be Inter who filled the power vacuum.

With signings the calibre of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Patrick Vieira and Maicon, Inter would the storm the next two Scudetti with Stanković playing arguably the best football of his career. By now, the midfielder’s staus as a terrace hero was beyond question, and his wonder-goals against Chievo and Milan – the latter followed by a crazed throttling of a momentarily startled Mancini – further enhanced his myth. Sadly, Stanković would not enjoy the same success when wearing the colours of his country. 

Despite performing admirably in two more World Cups, he was one of the only truly elite players his country could rely on during this period, with the Yugoslavian golden age of the 1990s now an increasingly distant memory. Despite enduring the disappointment of two consecutive group stage exits, Stanković would nonetheless find his way into the World Cup history books. 

Having failed to qualify for the previous competition, he entered the 2006 tournament in Germany as a representative of Serbia and Montenegro after the remaining Yugoslav states were re-constitutionalised in 2002. By the 2010 tournament in South Africa, he would captain a nation that was now known simply as Serbia, with Montenegro previously voting in favour of independence. As Stanković led out his team for their opening fixture against Ghana, he etched his name into footballing history as the only man to represent three nations at the World Cup. 

Despite Inter’s domestic dominance, Stanković would find himself playing under yet another coach for the 2008/09 season. As successful as Mancini had been, he would ultimately pay the price for a string of failed European campaigns as Massimo Moratti’s thirst for Champions League glory morphed into an obsession. When Moratti revealed José Mourinho the replacement, Stanković’s future was placed firmly in the balance.

With the enigmatic coach at the peak of his powers, Mourinho immediately sought to place his own identity on the squad and usher out some of the Mancini acolytes. When asked by an interviewer about his plans for Stanković, the Portuguese manager stated candidly: “As for Stanković, I do not see in him the player who he was at Lazio.”

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Naturally, speculation was rife around his future following Mourinho’s comments with many believing his position at the Giuseppe Meazza to be untenable. Once again, Juventus would come within a whisker of signing the player in a move passionately opposed by the fans. Thankfully for the Nerazzurri, history would repeat itself.

With the deal almost finalised, Stanković would again turn down the Bianconeri at the eleventh hour. In a hallmark display of iron-willed determination, the veteran midfielder opted to stay in Milan, fight for his place, and force Mourinho to re-evaluate his hasty judgment. Despite his notoriously bloody-minded nature, this would prove to be a rare instance where the self-proclaimed “special one” was happy to eat humble pie.

Beginning the campaign as a bit-part player, Stanković would grow in prominence as the season went on, establishing himself as a regular starter as Inter retained the Scudetto. He was, in many ways, the perfect Mourinho player: an experienced, mentally tough pro possessing the right balance of grit and finesse that usually sees a player gain access to the Portuguese coach’s trusted inner circle.

As good as the first year under Mourinho was, though, it served as a mere palate cleanser for the next season, which would not only wield the best moments in Stanković’s career, but also the greatest achievement in Inter’s history.

Following the sale of Ibrahimović to Barcelona, Mourinho bolstered his squad with the attacking flair of Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito. In what was perhaps the quintessential Mourinho side, Stanković would form a midfield pivot with Cambiasso, the pair charged with supporting the attack as well as providing cover for the impenetrable defence of Javier Zanetti, Lúcio, Walter Samuel and Maicon in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

With a side oozing personality and Mourinho’s tactical nous at its absolute peak, Inter would enjoy a season of unparalleled highs, winning the Champions League and becoming the only Italian side in history to secure the treble. For Stanković personally, it was a season littered with magical moments – from his final screamer against Milan to the original hallway line volley against Genoa – in which he’d conclusively silenced those who’d suggested his powers were on the wane. Less than two years after almost being frozen out of the club, Stanković embraced Mourinho in the centre of the Bernabéu pitch, both men immortalised as European champions and treble winners.

While Stanković’s playing career would never again scale such dizzying heights, he did continue playing for another three seasons before calling time on his career. Since retirement, Stanković has already worked for two of his beloved clubs. Initially working as youth team coach at Inter, he has now taken the managerial reigns at Red Star in what looks certain to be a marriage made in heaven.

The career of Stanković is a gold standard in loyalty, longevity and excellence. Over two decades, the Serb not only acquired an avalanche of honours but did so whilst becoming a bonafide legend at every club he ever played for. In an era filled with bigger names, he deserves his place amongst the finest midfielders of his generation for his all-round brilliance, summed up perfectly by former teammate Mihajlović: “Stanković had it all – strength, running, intelligence, the ability to get forward, technique. In my eyes, he actually achieved less than he could given his attributes.”

He may not have possessed the silky passing of Andrea Pirlo or the ruthless tackling of Gennaro Gattuso, but there were few who possessed the complete, all-round quality of Dejan Stanković.

By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92

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