Igor MladenovicComment

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF VLADIMIR STOJKOVIC: PART TWO

Igor MladenovicComment

Igor Mladenovic with the second part of Stojkovic' tale. You can read part one here

Confined to the bench, said to be heavily depressed by his wobbling personal and professional life, the Serbian goalkeeper had at least one thing to look forward to : playing the 2010 World Cup with his Serbian team. Despite his woeful spells throughout the continent, coach and former Luton Town legend Radomir Antic was forced to maintain his confidence in Vladimir as Serbia faced a severe shortage of goalkeepers.

The first game against Ghana was uneventful until a ridiculous Kuzmanovic handball in the dying minutes gifted the Ghanaians (coached by another Serb, Milovan Rajevac) a penalty to reap all three points. Stojkovic must have known one would come ; he must have craved one to finally put his doubters to bed, his name proudly standing behind that of Vidic on the team sheet. He confidently walked up to Asamoah Gyan, Ghana's penalty taker (who infamously failed to convert Luis Suarez's handball later in the competition), looked him in the eye and said in fumbling English : "I know where you are gonna shoot. You are gonna shoot straight in the middle." Gyan did indeed proceed to shoot right down the middle. The problem was that Stojkovic had plunged to his left.

Hopes for Serbia were grim after this defeat, as they prepared to take on the German machine. Yet, for the first time since 1982, Germany was defeated in the group stages by a resilient Serbian team led by an otherworldly Nemanja Vidic. Otherworldly right until the sixtieth minute, when in a surreal replica of the Ghana penalty days earlier, Vidic under no pressure at all leapt and handballed an innocuous cross to offer the Germans a possibility to level it out.

Not since 1974 and Uli Hoeness' miss at home had the Germans missed a penalty in the World Cup. As Michael Ballack, the usual captain and penalty taker of the Mannschaft, was out through injury, Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger argued as to who would inherit the responsiblity to step in his boots. Podolski took the ball, stepped up confidently, and missed.

Or rather, Stojkovic denied him. In the most unexpected turn to his career, he was now a national hero. Not in his wildest dreams must he have imagined he would one day save Nemanja Vidic's face in the mind of Serbian fans at a World Cup.

However that was it from the Serbian team, as they unexpectedly failed to get the upper hand on Australia and were sent home a week later. Had they scored a single goal more, they would have faced the US and possibly Uruguay: a relatively navigable path to the semis. Football history would have taken a different turn, as would that of the Serbian national team who later sunk back into disarray.

And as it was, Stojkovic was back at Wigan, at a club that did not want him. In order to escape, he made the worst decision a Red Star Belgrade product could ever make: joining the enemy, Partizan.

He himself had said in a 2005 interview that he would never wear the colours of the Grobari (literally translated as grave diggers, a nickname given to Partizan by Red Star fans because of their white and black shades, which Partizan fans amusingly adopted). His decision was solely motivated by Partizan's qualification for the Champions' League, the first time since 2003 when they went out of the competition early but proudly, undefeated at home by both Real Madrid and Mourinho's Porto, who would of course go on to win the trophy.

The club was drawn in the same group as Arsenal, which was yet another opportunity for Stojkovic to display his penalty saving capabilities as he denied Arshavin in the home leg at Belgrade. His performances did not go unnoticed, but Partizan covered themselves in shame : they were out of the competition without a single win.

However, the end of the nightmare for Partizan fans was only the beginning for Vladimir Stojkovic.

In the early days of October, Serbia took on Estonia at home with a new coach, Red Star playmaking legend Vladimir Petrovic. An easy victory was foretold for a Serbian team that had not lost an official game at home in more than eight years. Yet the Serbian fans, chiefly Red Star ones, who made their way to the stadium on that cold evening had a single goal in mind: not to cheer for their team but to bring down Stojkovic. Whistled during the entire game by his own fans, insulted upon taking goal kicks, he pulled off a preposterous performance that left the Estonians with a 3-1 away win - eventually allowing them to qualify for the European Championship qualifying playoffs just ahead of Serbia where they were hammered by Ireland.

Three days later, on October 12th, the Serbian team travelled to Genoa to face Italy, the group's leader. A draw was necessary for the team to keep its Euro 2012 dreams alive. It was not meant to be however, as 3000 Serbian fans (and some hardcore Red Star hooligans) travelled all the way to Genoa with the sole purpose of punishing the traitor Stojkovic. Before the game, a group waited for the team bus to arrive at their hotel and assaulted it. Entering the team bus by force to look for Stojkovic who was hiding at the back, only a physical intervention by Red Star idols Dejan Stankovic and Nikola Zigic prevented the worst from happening. The players were shell-shocked.

As a shaken Stojkovic pulled out of the game, the Serbian team got to the stadium only to find its own supporters creating mayhem in the stands. Red Star hooligans had indeed decided there would be no game that night, because as they said later during the investigation, the Serbian football federation (led by former Partizan Belgrade president Tomislav Karadzic) "resented  having to play Red Star Belgrade players." For the first time there had been no Red Star Belgrade players among Serbia's ranks in South Africa, a decision taken bitterly by the Red Star fans.  They kicked off a big trouble in the stands and the Serbian team, despite being victim to their attack, lost automatically 3-0 without even playing. That was it for the Euro campaign.

Stojkovic was crestfallen, and upon coming back to Serbia said he was not sure he would ever play for the national team ever again. At the Veciti derbi (Eternal derby) between Red Star and Partizan, he unveiled a shirt reading ‘forgive my ugly past’ in reference to his Red Star days. Serbia coach Vladimir Petrovic, one of Red Star's best ever players (who even got his name in the Ballon d'Or rankings in 1980 and 1981), decided Stojkovic was too much of a disruption to the team atmosphere and did not call him up again. With Partizan out of the Champions' League and only the Serbian league to console himself, as the the national football team turned its back on him, Vladimir had unwittingly came back exactly where he started. He is now plying his trade at the JNA Stadium of Partizan Belgrade, half a mile north from the Marakana where he started it all. A very long journey indeed for such a close destination!

You can find Igor on Twitter @Mladenovic_

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