Dejan Stankovic: Serial Winner

In the summer of 2013, Serbian midfielder Dejan Stankovic hung up his boots, calling time on a trophy laden 18 year career. During these years, he won titles at his three clubs, Red Star Belgrade, Lazio and Inter Milan, as well as raking up over 103 international appearances. Stankovic also holds the unique record of being the only man to represent three separate nations at three World Cups (Yugoslavia, 1998, Serbia and Montenegro,
2006, and Serbia 2010).

The attacking midfielder was more than capable of playing on either wing, as a number 10, and even in a more central role in his later years. Stankovic had a hammer of a right foot which saw him score some truly memorable goals throughout his career. Who could forget his near-halfway line volley over a young Manuel Neuer against Schalke in the Champions League? Not just was he able to blast a ball, he was a master at timing. Dejan could sense
the exact right time to unleash his volleys, when to dink the ball beyond the keeper, when to put his head on the ball to send to goal bound. To have such a natural sense of the goal is necessary for a forward, but it is a remarkable trait to possess as a midfielder.

Stankovic made his professional debut for Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia (now Serbia) in 1995, raking up seven appearances that season. He may have been far from a first team regular at only 16 years of age, yet he did contribute a goal as Red Star won the league title, the first of many accolades won by the Serb.

Dejan Stankovic spent four seasons in Yugoslavia, amassing 96 appearances over all competitions, scoring 35 goals. During this time, the player won the Yugoslav Cup three years on the trot, as well as playing a part in Red Star Belgrades first European appearance since their UN sanctioned ban in the early 1990s. Stankovic became a key component of that Belgrade side, earning himself the club captaincy at the age of just 19.

Stankovic was proving to be an exceptional talent, and, after scoring his first international game in April ’98 against South Korea, he was called up to Yugoslavia’s World Cup 1998 squad. Yugoslavia progressed through the groups in second place. They won 1-0 against Iran in the opening game, with Stankovic coming off the bench just five minutes after half time. He evidently impressed, earning a start in their second game against Germany. His effect
was obviously great. He was subbed off on minute 66, with Yugoslavia 2-0 up. The game finished 2-2. Disappointing, having been 2 goals up, but a good point regardless. Stankovic started their final group game against the USA. The team won 1-0, although he was subbed off just shy of the hour mark. 7 points from three games was a good haul from the Eastern Europeans, and saw them face the Netherlands in the round of 16. Dejan Stankovic didn’t play a minute of the knockout tie as the Yugoslavians lost to a talent-laden Dutch team.

Four seasons of stellar football for Red Star Belgrade, and an impressive World Cup for Yugoslavia saw young Dejan Stankovic earn himself a transfer to Serie A side Lazio. He was bought for £7.5 million and scored on his debut against the now disbanded Piacenze Calcio. He was regarded as a bright young talent, but it wasn’t until he joined the Serie A outfit that his reputation really soared. He had been at the club for less than a month before winning
his first trophy, a Supercoppa Italia against Juventus. Stankovic came off the bench and ended up playing over an hour, due to the game going to extra time.

Stankovic either possessed incredible foresight, or incredible luck, as he joined Lazio at a time when they were about to experience arguably the greatest period of their history. They had been building a star-studded squad who were intent on winning everything they could. They won the Cup Winners Cup that same season, then won the UEFA Super Cup the following August, beating Manchester United months after their famous Champions League
win.

Lazio were managed by Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. Throughout that season, classy defenders such as captain Alessandro Nesta and Sinisa Mihajilovic were an imposing wall, built to guard their goalkeeper, Luca Marchegiani. They had an all-star midfield of Pavel Nedved, Diego Simone, Juan Sebastian Veron and Matias Almeyda, and an array of attacking talent including Roberto Mancini and Simone Inzaghi, brother of Milan legend Filippo.

Having Dejan Stankovic added to this cauldron of talent made Lazio an even more intimidating prospect. In 1999-2000, the Biancocelesti won a famous double. They finished with 72 points, only one more than Juventus, losing only four games all season. They also beat Inter 2-1 over two legs in the Coppa Italia final. Stankovic was an influential squad member who not only starred, but whose very presence in training day-in day-out would
have raised the calibre of his teammates, thus potentially giving Lazio the push needed to get over the finish line.

That famous double was the last silverware Stankovic would win at Lazio. The team declined somewhat, and financial trouble ensued. They were forced to sell their star players to keep the club afloat, and Dejan Stankovic signed for title rivals Inter Milan in winter transfer window of the 2003-04 season. Inter signed him for a cut-price of £4 million, which included forward Goran Pandev going the other way.

Stankovic was a consistent performer for Inter, pitching in a number of goals and assists for a team who were desperate to win a Serie A title for the first time in over a decade. Former teammate and coach Roberto Mancini was brought in during the summer of 2004 to help push Inter Milan in the right direction, a shrewd move from owner Massimo Moratti.

Inter finished third in Mancini’s first season, yet the trophies began to flow. Coppa Italia’s and Supercoppa Italiana’s came, seeing Stankovic’s medal haul grow. The next year, Inter Milan technically won the league, though it was in dodgy circumstances due to Juventus being stripped of the title. There were allegations of match fixing which saw Juventus relegated. While the players accepted the relegation, they argued that they had no clue about the intricate match fixing scandal, claiming that they won the title on the pitch. Regardless, the history books show Inter Milan won the league.

The Nerazzurri went on one of the most successful periods of their history, winning five consecutive Serie A titles between 2005 and 2010. Stankovic played a huge part of this success, he scored 42 goals for Inter Milan, and made numerous assists on top of this.

Stankovic went to the World Cup in 2006 in good form. Now representing Serbia and Montenegro, after the separation of Yugoslavia, they were drawn in Group C, with Argentina, the Netherlands, and Ivory Coast. Stankovic started every game, even captaining S&M in their final group game against the West Africans, yet they didn’t pick up even one point. They lost 1-0 to the Netherlands, courtesy of an Arjen Robben free kick. They then suffered a humiliating 6-0 defeat to Argentina – Mateja Kezmen was shown a red card after an hour, and Inter teammate Esteban Cambiasso scored one of the greatest team goals football has ever witnessed. Serbia and Montenegro at least scored in the final group game against Ivory Coast, although they still fell to a 3-2 loss. The squad, who arrived in Germany on such hot form, left pointless.

Stankovic evidently got over his poor summer quickly enough and went back to Inter ready to win more titles. Admittedly, they benefited greatly due to Juventus being relegated and Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio all being docked points prior to the season starting. They benefited also by bringing in superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the sullied Juventus. Over a five year period, Stankovic stared in Inter’s domination of Italian football, but arguably his greatest moment was his Champions League win in 2010.

This was particularly well celebrated due to the fact that he very nearly left Inter. He was seen as surplus to requirements when legendary coach Jose Mourinho took over at the San Siro. He claimed that Dejan was “not the same player he was at Lazio” and attempted to sell the midfielder to Juventus. Due to Stankovic’s jubilant celebrations and mocking of Juve’s demise meant that he was not welcome at Juventus, and so the Serb chose to stay and fight for his spot. His knack was scoring remarkable goals and easing past players ten years his junior saw him turn around the mind of Mourinho, and by the time the Champions League final came around, Stankovic was an integral part of the team once again.

Inter finished second in their Champions’ League group in 2009-10, finishing behind Barcelona. They drew 0-0 at home, and lost 2-0 to the Spaniards at the Camp Nou. Mourinho then faced Chelsea in the round of 16, putting his old team out 3-1 on aggregate, Stankovic starting the first leg, but being rested for the return leg in London. The Italians then eased past CSKA Moscow 2-0 on aggregate in the quarter finals. They may have gotten an easier
tie here, but the draw for the semi finals saw them up against it. They faced Barcelona, who had the psychological edge after the group encounters.

Despite going a goal down early on, Inter fought back to win 3-1. Stankovic came off the bench in the second half, but got booked with less than ten minutes to go, meaning he was out for the all important second leg in Spain. A pathetic, cowardly dive from the deplorable Sergio Busquets saw Thiago Motta shown red after only half an hour. Playing Messi and co is a hard enough prospect with 11 men, to play an hour with 10 men was surely a mountain
too high to climb. They defended with everything they had, and held tight until minute 84, when Gerard Pique put Barca 1-0. The pressure was truly on now, Barcelona had momentum and Inter were tiring. They knew that another Barcelona goal would see them through on away goals. Still, even without their tenacious attacker Stankovic, Inter held on to see out a 1-0 loss, progressing to the final. Jose Mourinho claimed it was “the best loss of my career”.

It was well documented that Dejan Stankovic was not overly liked by Mourinho, and after his suspension for the all important semi final against Barcelona, Stankovic found himself on the bench for the final against Bayern Munich. Of course, Stankovic would have wanted to play, and certainly may have felt aggrieved to have not started, but he still played over 25 minutes and was a prominent part of the title party. That Champions League final capped off a
historic treble for Inter Milan, and perhaps in hindsight, Stankovic may wish he had called it quits after such a glorious season.

He went to his third World Cup with his third nation, hoping to exit it feeling more like he did in ’98 rather than ’06. Again, the Serbs, like 2006 when part of Serbia and Montenegro, arrived to the tournament on red hot form, finishing ahead of France in their qualifying group. Dejan Stankovic started all three group games, captaining them in every match. It was an up and down summer for the Serbs, who finished bottom of the group. They lost in
disappointing fashion to Ghana and Australia, yet triumphed over Germany.

Inter have not won a league title since that 2009-10 treble winning season. His goals dried up, his age slowly crept up on him and he found himself playing less and less. In his final season, 2012-13, he found himself only featuring three times all season long. He played internationally up until the end of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, in which Serbia failed to qualify. He was given a testimonial against Japan which pushed him over the line to become Serbia’s most capped player ever.

It was a disappointing end to a trophy laden career for Dejan Stankovic. Undoubtedly, he should have bowed out of the game after winning that treble, or certainly after the World Cup. Even going back to Belgrade, where it all began, may have been a more dignified end than his career slowly petering out at Inter. This shows his sheer determination though, he was a fighter, and chose to fight for his place. He was happy to coach younger players during his sunset years, which perhaps explains his stint coaching Inter as part of Roberto Mancini’s coaching set up in 2015. The Serbian has spent the best part of 20 years dazzling us with his tremendous goals and captivating dribbling. While he has been retired for four years, he was a player of the highest calibre, who was involved in some truly memorable teams and will forever be etched in the memories of Red Star Belgrade, Lazio and Inter Milan fans for
decades to come.