June 30, 1990. It is very hot in Florence, and the temperature is even more unbearable at ground level. Two of the most talented teams of the 1990 Coppa del Mondo face off. Maradona’s Argentina is the reigning champions and Yugoslavia has perhaps the best generation in its history. It’s the quarter-finals, it’s 0-0, and it’s time for a penalty shootout. Where, cruel fate, misses exactly the most important people: Maradona, respectively Stojkovic. Finally, the South Americans move on. Yugoslavia ends its last major tournament in the state formation that will collapse in 1991. Years later, coach Ivica Osim sighed: the charismatic coach said that if Yugoslavia won the title then, national unity would be recreated that would have avoided the tragedies of the following years.
Piksi, the symbol of a generation
“What if?” but it is a question that football has the same effectiveness as counterfactual history. Dragan Stojkovic, the symbol of a formidable generation, had to live through the drama of penalty kicks in 1991. He played at Olympique Marseille and in the final of the European Champions Cup, against the very team where he gained recognition and where he became one of the “five stars” at Red Star Belgrade, a distinction conferred only on the great legends of the “Marakana”.
However, his undeniable talent was not quantified in great performances in the last decade of the 20th century. He was plagued by injuries but was a real idol in Japan, where he ended his career.
And in order for penalty kicks to be really a curse for Stojkovic, his exit from the world stage was in 1998 when, in the “last 16” in France, in the last minutes, at 1-1, Mijatovic wasted a penalty against the Netherlands. The Batavians then scored decisively in extra time…
From grass to offices and back
The career of the one who got his nickname from the animated movie “Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks”, which he watched avidly as a child, changed abruptly in 2001. Then he became the president of the federation, and in the summer of 2005 he took over the leadership Red Star.
His two-year activity at “Crvena Zvezda” meant a paradigm shift in terms of transfer policy. Under his command, significant amounts were brought into the accounts by attracting sponsors and selling players brought in for smaller amounts both from Serbia and abroad. However, an important part of the supporters vehemently contested his management, which they say harmful, from the leadership of “Zvezdei”. Not only through banners or protests but also by kicking Stojkovic out of one of the cafes in the Belgrade “Marakana”!
Japan, the perfect refuge
If in the 90s, Stojkovic went to Japan to end his career, he also started his activity as a technician in the “Land of the Rising Sun”. Despite being viewed with caution by fans due to his lack of experience, the Serbian managed to win the national title with Nagoya Grampus Eight in 2010, the first championship won by that club in history. And the performance was no accident if we think that after this moment, Arsene Wenger said in 2011 that Stojkovic, with whom he had collaborated when the Serbian was playing in Nagoya, would be the perfect person to follow his work at Arsenal: “I would like him to be my successor. There are hundreds of reasons for saying this. We have identical ideas and yearn for the perfect football. I knew that the teams coached by him would play offensive football, with a lot of passes”.
Stojkovic had another term in China, in Guangzhou, then came home, where he found an environment that suits him perfectly. The national team of Serbia, now has a generation full of talent and wonderful footballers from an offensive point of view.
Fall 2020 forecast
The last decades have always shown a strange side of the Serbian national team. Although they always had sensational players, the Serbians stumbled just when they loved the world the most. In 2010, they got past Germany but were knocked out by Ghana. In 2020, they missed out on the Euros after failing against Scotland in the penalty shootout.
Immediately after that fiasco in front of the “bagpipe players”, Stojkovic gave a short answer to the question about taking over the national team: “For sure I would qualify the national team for the World Cup, because I know what I’m doing. I would get the most out of these players!”
It wasn’t bravado at all. Appointed to the position of coach in the spring of 2021, just around the anniversary, Stojkovic kept his word.
”Objective: the last 16”
On November 14, 2021, Mitrovic made it dark in the “Stadium of Light” in Lisbon, when he scored 2-1 against Portugal. Serbia was going straight to Qatar, and Stojkovic was exorcising a national team haunted by the ghosts of the big failures of previous years.
“Piksi”‘s bet for offensive football was won. He brought progress in a team with stars like Tadic, Kostic, Jovic or the latest sensation of European football, Vlahovic.
“We want to practice good, modern, fast, offensive football. That’s what the fans who come to the stadium want!”, said the coach who, however, has enough challenges before the debut in Qatar. The recent turmoil at the level of the federation’s leadership has taken away some of the focus on the football feast that is knocking at the door.
But if he has brought added value to this talented national team, Stojkovic has the ability to detach his formation from the recent internal controversies. “Our goal is to qualify for the last 16”, said “Piksi”, ahead of the duels in a complicated group with Brazil, Switzerland and Cameroon. But everyone knows that Serbia can do more. He showed that with Piksi at the helm.