Nestled picturesquely amidst the forested hills of Eastern Serbia is the small, industrialised town of Majdanpek. The region in which it lies – Bor – is known for its relatively extensive mineral wealth, particularly its rich deposits of copper, as well as that shiny metal most widely and greedily valued by the human race; gold. However, despite a long history of mining that saw the arrival of many aspiring prospectors and a 20th century industrial boom, it was not until 1972 that the town’s most cherished discovery first saw the light of day.
That year, Dejan Petković was born.
It was on the streets, gardens, and pitches of this isolated – even bucolic – town that the young Dejan learned his trade. According to the stories, Dejan’s elder brother Boban frequently refused to allow him to join in the games, particularly if the older kids were involved. Boban would even physically restrain Dejan from doing so. In later life, he would recall these experiences and refer to them as something of a “rite of passage.”
Majdanpek – though beautifully situated – leaves one with the impression of an austere, remote place; a far cry from the colourful, animated streets of Rio de Janeiro, the bustling city in which Dejan would end up playing for the majority of his footballing career. It is a place that conforms entirely to the Serbian small-town template; here the main street bisecting the town, there the dawdling old duffer shuffling by, here the miniscule coffee-shops patronised by the same customers each day, there the patchy, dusty football pitch. Even Belgrade, hardly a pulsating metropolis during the Yugoslav-era in which Dejan grew up, must have seemed an intimidating proposition in comparison with his modest hometown.
So, how is it then, that a boy from Bor made the journey from the quietness of the Serbian hills to the shimmering beaches under the stony, inviting arms of Cristo redentor? It sounds an almost fantastical Odyssey, belonging more in the realm of dreams than reality. Yet, that is the path through life followed by our man Dejan.
With regard to the footballing side of things, Dejan’s promise was evident from an early age, as is the case with most talented footballers. Indeed, it wasn’t particularly long before the young buck bade farewell to the rolling, green crests of Bor, and, in his mid-teens, Dejan signed for a team from the south of Serbia, FK Radnički. The club is based in the regional centre of Niš, a historic city and the birthplace of Dejan’s father Dobrivoje. He was brought to the club by Ljubiša Rajković, a former Yugoslavian international defender and, at the time, a coach at Radnički. To this day, Dejan remains grateful for the impact Rajković had on his progression.
Petković enjoyed several successful seasons at Radnički, scoring plenty of goals for the club’s first team – thirty-four in fifty-three are the official stats – and winning a plethora of admirers across Yugoslavia. Clearly, bigger things were to come for Dejan and, in 1992, he made the move that would turn him from a local hero into a national star. Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) came calling, and Dejan heeded.
Even at this point, there was a striking parallel in relation to the career path of another diminutive Serbian playmaker – namely, Dragan Piksi Stojković. Born in Niš, Piksi also excelled on the pitch for Radnički before joining up with Crvena Zvezda, and would go on to achieve international renown with the Crveno-beli, in much the same vein as Petković, whom many saw as being Stojković’s great successor at the club. Both Piksi and Petković were part of the production-line of talent churned out by the ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s – ironically that country’s most pressing, disastrous, and ultimately, final, era – and occupied nigh-on identical roles for their various teams. It is a trick of fate that the two men, although separated in terms of age, were competing for the same spot in the national team during this period – a factor that many point to in reference to Petković’s essentially non-existent international record. Furthermore, the two men’s club record would continue to be eerily similar as time went by – both earned Big Time Moves Abroad from Zvezda (Piksi to Marseille, Dejan to Madrid) which ended in failure, both had year-long, miserable stints in northern Italy, and both abandoned the European continent for distant pastures, in the process of which they both became legends in their adopted homes.
For Dejan, playing for Zvezda was a childhood desire. Representing them on the pitch was something that he had previously thought would be the peak of his career, the summit of his ambition as a player and as a man. Little did he know that their stadium – Stadion Crvena Zvezda, affectionately known as the “Marakana” in homage to the great beast of Rio – would become such a wonderfully theatrical device in the Petković story, being the first of two “Maracanã” at which he would ply his trade. That Dejan would play football at what he now calls the “Beogradski Marakana” in the colours of the Stella Rossa, as well as at the Brazilian original, wearing the rubro-negro of Flamengo, is the stuff of football folklore – a gift to the esoteric and the cultophile, an unlikely and magnificent story. To add further fuel to the fire of the Petković cult, he also managed to score in his first game at both stadiums.
It was, perhaps, at Zvezda that Dejan came-of-age as a footballing playmaker. To call him a free-kick expert is to undersell him; he was a dead-ball master, a gifted technician whose ability to strike a ball with precision, combined with his visual perception, made him one of the most threatening set-piece specialists of his generation. Over the years, it was this skill that earned him his sporting celebrity; vital free-kick goals at vital times for clubs – especially in Brazil – won him the hearts of fans. Aside from that, he was a nippy, jinky dribbler. When at his feet, the ball seemed attached to his boot – an old cliché, sure, but watch him in action and see what I mean. Dejan would roll the ball around as he ran, like a puck at the stick of an ice-hockey player, using the inside of his foot. A flailing leg here, the ball dragged there, and he was past the defender. In tight situations, he would emerge from a crowd of players with the ball glued to his feet – often, his ability to keep the ball so close to his feet whilst dribbling is reminiscent of players like Nigeria’s Kanu, who also possessed that rolling, shuffling style, albeit with a far less lithe physicality. His passing was accurate, concise, and clean, perhaps lacking the vision of some of his contemporary number 10s, but it was his dribbling that made him the player he was. It is for that he will be remembered.
Perhaps, Dejan’s style is best described by one of his former coaches, Nenad Cvetković, who said of him:
“When dribbling, he chose the precise moment when to change the direction, the tempo. It was an impulsive move that changed from a sleepy, quiet stance, into an explosive cat-like series of moves, which made him uncatchable. He was extremely fast.”
Dejan continues to speak highly of Zvezda, amongst whose fans (Delije) he is a popular, intangible figure. The eyes of many in Belgrade and Serbia see Dejan as a talent lost to the country. A national team exile that spent most of his time abroad, he still manages to engender widespread passion and idolisation in the country of his birth, despite his long absence from its soil. He was not a member of the club’s golden generation – they of the European Cup and Intercontinental Cup double – but he still made up part of a decent group of players which included Ivan Adžić, Darko Kovačević, Goran Đorović, and an emerging Dejan Stanković. Significantly, many of his team-mates from this era speak of him as a leader, the prime stimulus on their side tactically, technically, physically, and psychologically.
The nineties were, as most are aware, a time of great strife and difficulty for what was left of Yugoslavia. Sanctions, hyper-inflation, and a growing criminal element crippled the country. Often, the level of inflation was such that the value of an employee’s pay-check would fall significantly in the short time that it took to reach the bank after work. The cost of an egg could triple within a day. A barter economy took hold, the struggling currency becoming more and more worthless each day. Many thousands departed, searching for a more stable life. Dejan, faced with the same problems and mode of existence, took the decision to be part of the exodus.
In 1995, he joined Real Madrid.
The move, unfortunately, was not a success. Dejan was marginalised almost immediately. After just a month at the club, he was sent out on loan to Sevilla by Madrid’s manager at the time, Jorge Valdano. Even at relegation-threatened Sevilla, he could not find a regular spot, although he did amass seven starts for the Andalusians. Upon returning to Réal, very little would change for the better for Dejan. Fabio Capello had replaced Valdano, but had no intention of giving the Serb a shot at the first team. Another loan followed, before an argument with Capello in the aftermath of a controversial press-conference effectively ended Petković’s career in the Spanish capital. The relationship between the two men was completely broken and Dejan, unhappy on the Iberian peninsula, began looking for another club.
Very few would have predicted where he ended up.
Salvador, in the North East of Brazil, is an enigmatic location. A prosperous, laid-back place, it is a city that is avowedly more African than European in terms of its approach to life. Its beautiful seafront populated by vividly-coloured houses of the Portuguese colonial era, its beaches lapped at by the blue-white of the waves that roll in from the Atlantic, its city-centre given height by its modern office-blocks, the principal city of Bahia could not contrast more with the soberness of Majdanpek. Yet this, improbable as it may seem, is the site of Dejan Petković’s footballing rebirth; the beginning of his Brazilian journey.
Teo Fonseca, former vice-president of EC Vitória, was the man responsible for bringing Petković to Salvador. Identifying Dejan as a potential replacement for club legend Bebeto, the man of the baby-cradling celebration, Fonseca travelled to Europe in order to convince the Serb to grace Bahian shores. At first, Dejan was doubtful, but after a bit of persuasion – and more than a bit of lying from Fonseca, who told Petković that Vitória were Brazilian champions, when in fact they were merely the holders of the Bahian state championship – he decided to give Salvador and Vitória a chance. Dejan came to Bahia with the assurance that he would be allowed to return to Europe if he was unsatisfied at the club.
As it turns out, Petković made hay. He tore up the league, widely impressing all at the club and, in two seasons, won two Bahian championships and the North-east Cup. Back playing every week, Dejan began rattling in the goals, becoming the club’s best player and one of the hottest commodities in the league.
On a personal level, Dejan had started to adapt to life in Brazil with the help of his team-mate Flavio Tanajura, who even went so far as to learn a few words of Serbian. It was Fonseca, however, who was the prime influence on Dejan during his time at Vitória. Dejan learned Portuguese, and the two became close; later, Fonseca would often travel to Rio to watch his younger friend playing for Flamengo.
Teo is an extravagant, colourful character; he gives the impression of being a kind, straight-forward extrovert, and is partial to wearing tight vests decorated loudly – some would say tackily – with printed images of tiger’s heads. Their relationship was such that, despite being owed a large portion of his wages, Dejan was willing to trust Teo that he would be remunerated upon completion of a potential transfer to Venezia – one million for Vitória, one million for Petković. That, however, is where the Vitória story ends for the man they called Rambo. Unable to keep a player of that quality at the club due to financial problems with their sponsors, Banco Excel, Vitória sold Dejan.
There was, thus, an initially anti-climactic outcome in relation to a transfer that was highly unusual and potentially ground-breaking. For a European to move to Brazil was, and still is, slightly incongruous. Fonseca himself had admitted as much, saying that Dejan had asked the pertinent question prior to the transfer: why would a European go to Brazil when it is usually the opposite situation? Brazilians go to Europe, not the other way round. Today, the scenario remains all but unchanged.
Dejan’s move went against the grain, and although he was on the plane back to Europe after two years at Vitória, he would not be “home” for long. He lasted just six months paddling the canals of Venice, and would quickly return to Brazil in order to write another chapter in one of the most endearing and enduring footballing stories of recent times. Subsequently, Dejan would state that the only reason he left Brazil was to be close to his family during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, which took place from March to June of 1999.
Whatever the reason, the transfer that cemented his place in Brazilian football history took place that very same year. Flamengo, the biggest club in Brazil, brought him to Rio, thus beginning a love affair between Dejan and the city that lasts to this day (Petković was later named an honorary citizen of Rio).
The circle was complete: From Marakana to Maracanã, an astonishing footballing voyage.
At Flamengo, he wore the number 10 jersey, following in the footsteps of his idol, Zico. Rechristened “Pet,” due to local difficulty with pronouncing his name, he became an icon there after two different spells in Rio. In time, Mario Zagalo, who managed Petković during the 2001 season, said of his playmaking Serbian:
“Pet is one thing, Flamengo without Pet is quite another. He influences the whole team, motivates them, empowers them. He provides the balance that the team needs. And, we all know perfectly well: Pet is Pet!”
Zagalo should know; Dejan played under him for a year and scored the free-kick that won Flamengo the 2001 Rio state championship. As the months and years passed, Pet (pronounced more like “Petch”) became indispensable to the Rubro-Negro. He scored free-kick after free-kick, even managing to curl in some goals from corner-kicks, which turned into a trademark for him. He was at the height of his powers, and the fans loved him, not least as a result of the aforementioned winning goal. He worked hard, played hard, and was by all accounts Flamengo’s best player during his first two seasons at the club.
However, O mais querido do Brasil began to struggle on the pitch and Dejan – as footballers tend to do in that situation – left for newer pastures. Controversially, he joined Vasco da Gama, Flamengo’s city rivals. The move would not lead to a dip in his form or a falling of his stock on the playing field. If anything, Dejan was as outstanding for Vasco as he was for Mengão. With the club, Dejan won the 2003 Rio state championship, his third and final Rio championship. Aged thirty, he scored eighteen goals and made eleven assists in 2004, and was officially acknowledged as the best midfielder in Brazil by winning the Bola de Prata. The fans of his new club came to appreciate him as much as those at his previous club. He even managed to fit in a brief spell playing in China.
Again, it was not long before Pet was on the move once more. The club he chose, Fluminense, were another Rio team. Flu’s coach, Abel Braga, originally stated that he didn’t want Pet:
“There’s space for him at the swimming pool. Plenty of space for him to play tennis, or swim in the pool.”
Nevertheless, Dejan pitched up his tent in the Fluzão camp, despite the mistrust of both the fans and manager. Soon, he was back winning friends through his on-pitch performances. He scored the club’s 1000th goal in the Brazilian Championship, and once more made himself the idol of the fans. One particular season was of note: with Flu in position to challenge for the Brazilian Championship, Dejan got injured. Sure enough, Flu lost the next five games in a row, thus ending their title hopes. After all this time, the Brazilian Championship was the one Brazilian trophy that evaded Dejan. At this stage, it appeared unlikely he would ever hold it in his hands as a victor.
Having ingratiated himself into the hearts of another set of fans at Fluminense, Pet set out on a journeyman’s quest over the following few years, taking in brief spells at Goiás, Santos, and Atlético Mineiro. His form had dipped as he had aged. By the time he left Mineiro, the club from Belo Horizonte, Dejan’s horizon was not looking so beautiful; he was 36, going on 37, and without a club.
Incredibly, it was that year, 2009, that would turn out to be possibly the most memorable of his career. Against all probability, he was signed by Flamengo, more than nine years after he had first joined the team from the Maracanã. Unsurprisingly, there were many who spoke out in the immediate aftermath of the transfer. He was past it, washed-up, a has-been.
Equally, there were those amongst the Rubro-Negro who welcomed him back with open arms. A gigantic Serbian-flag banner was eventually created in his honour. Despite this, there seemed scant possibility that Dejan could have any impact whatsoever on the footballing fortunes of the team.
2009 was to be the crowning glory of Dejan Petković. When he returned to the Flamengo setup, the team were languishing in 14th place, hopelessly rudderless. At first, Pet had to be content with a place on the bench. However, as time went by, he found his way to a starting berth.
Suddenly, Flamengo started to perform.
They began to win. Then, they continued winning.
“W” after “W” appeared beside their name in the results columns. The reason behind this change in form? Many put it down to the influence of one man: Dejan Petković. Pet was simply outstanding. Nay, he was inspired, notching up eight goals in the season, and providing the drive the team needed to move up the table. The players called him “Dad,” and with Adriano, he formed an efficient partnership, Pet’s prompting exquisitely complementing the power and thrust of the former Internazionale striker. Dejan particularly enjoyed combining with the big man, laying on chance after chance for Adriano.
Gradually, Flamengo hit the summit. And stayed there.
On the final day of the season, four teams had a chance of taking the Brasileirão. Inevitably, Pet supplied the corner from which Flamengo scored the winning goal against Grêmio, after a comeback from 2-1 down. Flamengo were champions, and Dejan Petković was the man who had done more than anyone to win them the title – their sixth, and the first since 1992.
It was an incredible, unexpected return to prominence for Dejan, whose career had seemed to be over. He passed from the realm of normality to that of legend. He reinforced his place as part of Rio football legend, as an idol at Flamengo, and as the darling of their millions of fans. By the time of his retirement in 2011, he had scored 167 goals in Brazil, won numerous individual awards, and had been inducted into the Brazilian football hall of fame.
His career did not follow the typical route. The journey from Majdanpek to the Maracanã, via Madrid, was most definitely the path less travelled. In truth, it is a story we may not see the like of for quite some time. Dejan was brave enough to seek success in an environment not normally reserved for players such as he, and was talented enough to achieve that success. The name of Dejan Petković may not go down as being one of the greatest of all time, but to fans of football in Majdanpek, Niš, Belgrade, Salvador, and Rio de Janeiro, he will remain a hero, to be placed amongst the pantheon of special players to have graced the pitches of those wildly varied and diverse towns and cities.