Igor MladenovicComment

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF VLADIMIR STOJKOVIC: PART ONE

Igor MladenovicComment

Igor Mladenovic brings us the first part of the unusual story of a very usual goalkeeper.

The goalkeeper spot is generally home to long-serving, cool as beans football types. Few of them could indeed better justify the entry "Eccentricity" among the technical attributes of goalkeepers in Football Manager as well as Vladimir Stojkovic, who at 28 has already enjoyed a roller-coaster of a career.

The relative anonimity of Vladimir Stojkovic is certainly not down to his name. Thanks to Dragan (to whom he is thoroughly unrelated, be it in family lineage as well as on a football pitch), the name Stojkovic echoes with pride in many stadia across Europe and as far as Japan today. However, the gloss and glamour that was once accompanying the prononciation of this name has made way to apprehension and even a slight shiver down one's spine.

It all looked rosy as back in 2006. A star prospect at Red Star Belgrade, the country's and region's most famous club, Stojkovic had found an unparalleled mentor to put the final brushstrokes on a painting that promised to attract the masses all across Europe : Walter Zenga. The Italian legend, goalkeeper of Inter Milan and the Italy squad that reached the semi-final of EURO 1988 and ended the 1990 World Cup third, was indeed Red Star's manager at the time. 

Together with Zenga, the club clinched the double in 2005-2006 (national league, which they failed to win since, and national Cup) with Stojkovic in goal and Stojkovic as club president, since the legendary one was then occupying the function of club president, doing everything in his powers for his namesake to produce as much of an impact on Serbian football like he once did. However, as much as they share a certain sense of playfulness, Vladimir's hot-headedness today provides a stark contrast to Dragan's legendary cold-bloodedness on a football pitch. 

As is always the case when a player from such horizons blasts above the average, Vladimir was then made to subscribe to what one could call the new Yugoslavian regulation for player transfers. Though until 1991 the Yugoslavian regime forbad players to leave the national league before their 28th birthday, the unwritten rule now says it is unthinkable for a promising player to leave the country if he is aged higher than 18.

The clincher for Stojkovic was the U21 European Championship in 2006, as a couple of remarkable performances (none of them as noticed as his propension for spectacular, and indeed needless, leaps and dives) with a Serbian team that made its way to the semi-final got him on the books of several clubs. French commentator Pierre Ménès made the best observation of him during their semi-final  against Ukraine, as he was filmed crossing himself and fidgeting his rangy frame (6 feet 5 inches and 206 pounds) before the penalty shootouts : ‘This, I think, is the sort of goalkeeper who will either never stop a penalty in his entire career... or stop all of them.’ Years later, on June 18th 2010, as he parried Lukas Podolski's effort to make Serbia the only team of the 2010 World Cup to defeat Germany aside of eventual winners Spain, these words came back like a boomerang, echoeing in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium of Port Elizabeth, like a long forlorn promise almost held. 

For there were penalties saved by Stojkovic since – the first of that shootout against Ukraine, though unsufficient to put his team through to the final; or a missed Panenka by Antonio Cassano back in the 2005 UEFA Cup, in the same stadium where Antonin Panenka invented it during the 1976 European Championships.  But these saves, a pinnacle for every goalkeeper dreaming to spring to the limelight within a split second, proved mere respites amidst long, dull periods spent roaming in the shadow of ever lowlier clubs.

He was first transferred to one of France's most renowned teams : FC Nantes. The club that revealed Claude Makélélé and Didier Deschamps to the public eye. Shortly upon arriving as a high profile replacement for club legend Mickael Landreau (421 appearances for a club he left barely aged 26), he made his first appearance against no less than the country's best club, Gérard Houllier's Olympique Lyonnais, surfing on the back of five consecutive titles in the Ligue 1.

In his very first minute in the French league, he produced an immense save to deny Benzema from point-blank range, his defence completely surrendering to waves and waves of attacks by Les Gones. Thoroughly outclassed, Nantes was humbled to a 1-3 defeat.

Misunderstood by his team-mates, single-handedly confronted to a welter of offensives by a side that later went on to beat Real Madrid in the Champions' League, that first game was an absolute trauma for Vladimir, used to mullering other clubs and barely seeing his back line on the horizon with Red Star Belgrade.  He started making blunder after blunder, got demoted to the bench as his club, till then the longest serving in the French top flight, experienced relegation for the first time in forty years. Nantes tried to make for Stojkovic's failed adaptation by bringing in Fabien Barthez during the winter transfer window, but even he could not extinguish the numerous fires ablaze on the pitch during games.

Though Stojkovic could blame circumstances for having brought him to a sinking ship, as FC Nantes was in an early stage of decay and has failed to rise back to Ligue 1 ever since, his own performances were in a stark contrast not only to what people expected of him, but also and more importantly of what he expected of himself. Empowered by his collaboration with Walter Zenga, brimful with self-assurance, he had convinced himself he would step remarkably into Landreau's trail. But as reality kicked in, his mates from Belgrade ever so far away, Stojkovic's self-confidence started eluding him. He was loaned out to Vitesse Arnhem, who make a trade out of hiring young Serbian players since the glory days of Bosco Bursac, thrice the club's best scorer in the late 1970s. But it didn't work out as a bunch of horrific performances sent him back ‘home’ in the West of France.

Sporting Lisbon then gave him a chance but the emergence of Rui Patricio, now a full time Portugal keeper, kept him at bay within a few weeks. He left the club with the curt statement that ‘when someone gets games ahead of you despite you being not two times, but one hundred times better than him, it is perhaps time to sail away.’

His international status still intact thanks chiefly to the lesser responsibilities induced by having Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic patrolling in front of you), he moved to la Liga, at Getafe, the infamous black sheep of Madrid's glorious family of football clubs. Getafe was a recent promotee into the Spanish top flight, having worked its way up in 2004-2005. 

Changing countries for the fourth time in little over a year, he was now asked to perform in the southern suburbs of Madrid, where he knew no one and no one knew him. He started off on the bench and barely got the chance to prove his worth, for the incumbent goalkeeper, the experienced Argentine Roberto Abbondanzieri, was more appreciated and better understood by his team-mates despit coming short in terms of talent. Around that time Stojkovic was confronted to his father's death back in Serbia, which for a man still only 24, from the distance of a foreign country, is an excruciating experience to deal with.

Yet he did not give in to the gloominess.

An injury to Abbondanzieri came at the very best – or very worst – moment as Getafe was preparing to face the top three performers in Spain consecutively : Sevilla away, Barcelona at home and Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. The first of these games saw Stojkovic keep his goal unviolated as Getafe eked a point out of its trip to Sevilla, so he could prepare with serenity the hosting of Lionel Messi and his team-mates.

The reception of Barcelona, the high point of any Spanish club's season, first seemed to look like any other encounter as Messi broke the deadlock after 19 minutes. But just as everyone was already picturing Barça coasting to another landslide victory, something ticked in Stojkovic's brain for the first time since that very first minute of play against Lyon, back in the French league. He proceeded to come up with one of the finest displays of goalkeeping ever seen in Spain denying chance, after chance, after chance in a performance for the ages

And that evening, neither Messi or Iniesta crought the Player of the Match award home. It wasn't even Thierry Henry, or Samuel Eto'o. For the first time indeed, Vladimir Stojkovic made his namesake proud.

Adrenaline still high at having denied some of the greatest talents in the world so relentlessly, Stojkovic reproduced some of that magic at the Santiago Bernabeu a few days later, though again Getafe came up short as Higuain scored a last-minute winner in a game otherwise remembered for Pepe losing his mind completely and shooting a Getafe player going down as if they were an actual football.

Things finally looked on the right track for Vladimir, but he quickly vanished back into oblivion. For, probably because of the length of his stays in anonymous spells of self-doubt, he was one to get carried away far too easily by success. He did not manage to take his accomplishments and his mistakes with the same measure, thereby giving away his actual insecurity sailing through rough seas. And in the very next game, he made the most unexpected pass to his opponent from a goal kick, cost his team all 3 points and if was all downhill once more. 

In yet another twist to his career, he managed to land in the Premier League that winter, at Wigan. No one to this day can tell why the Latics purchased the substitute goalkeeper of Getafe, though rumour has it their Spanish coach Roberto Martinez had caught wind of Stojkovic's legendary performance against Barcelona and hired him on that basis alone with the long term goal of making him Chris Kirkland's successor at the DW Stadium. On March 29th, 2010, he was lined up against Manchester City at the Stadium of Light and proceeded once more to bemuse his audience. Thirteen minutes in, a splendid save to deny Carlos Tevez prompted Jacob Steinberg, writing a minute-by-minute report for The Guardian, to write this :

13 min: Well if there were any doubts about Vladimir Stojkovic, he's gone some way to alleviating them. Wright-Phillips gets into a one-on-one situation with Figueroa, and when the Wigan full-back inexplicably slips, Wright-Phillips chips the ball back for Tevez, whose volley, as he falls, is brilliantly beaten out by the goalkeeper. It looked certain that Tevez would score there.

In the very same minute however:

Stojkovic comes out to catch a cross - and drops the ball. Luckily for him, Figueroa mops up. 

And another hour on, came the inevitable:

GOAL! Manchester City 1-0 Wigan (Tevez, 72 min) That's appalling goalkeeping from Stojkovic. Vieira, just outside the Wigan area, dinked a pass over the defence that found Tevez onside. Stojkovic came hurtling off his line to confront the striker, but was cowed by Adebayor's presence too. Adebayor stuck out a leg to poke the ball past him, and Tevez tapped it into an empty net. That was just woeful from Stojkovic, who just opened up his body instead of clearing the ball or picking it up. 

Two minutes later, Tevez would add another goal and Vladimir would never be heard of again on this side of the Channel, much to Jacob Steinberg's relief. 

Part Two to follow. You can find Igor on Twitter @Mladenovic_  

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