After a quarter of century, J. League has established itself as one of the most known leagues over the world, certainly the best in Asia, which might be capable to reach also audiences from all over the world in the future. This rise, though, happened thanks to a lot of factors and one of them has been the presence of foreign players. Many of them came, some of them left a solid mark, few of them opted to stay after their Japanese experience.
Their coming to Japan raises the same old question: marquee players or true icons? Just a way to pump attendances up or memories that stay with fans forever? This is why this column is here. We wanted to homage the footballing movements who shaped the history of Japanese football and the J. League.
We picked six nations and we’re featuring someone for every episode to help us understanding why that particular player represents so clearly the contribute that country gave to Japan. The fourth episode concerns a huge footballing empire, now dissolved: Yugoslavia saw many of their footballing figures influencing Japanese football. And this happened not only on the pitch (where results have been contrasting), but mostly outside.
How many foreign coaches can you remember from J. League? How many of them has been masters coming from that zone of the world, shaping Japan’s growth in this sport? Two former well-know players from Yugoslavia in the 60s and 70s – now-Bosnian Ivica Osim and Vahid Halilhodžić – even coached Japan national team. Other managers – like Mihailo Petrović – wrote a solid page of history throughout the last years.
But if you were to elect the greatest son from their last dance, throughout 90s? Many might debate, but a solid pick would be Dragan Stojković, known as well as “Piksi” and mostly remember because of his stints with Red Star Belgrade and Nagoya Grampus. His European passage with Olympique Marseille always left many regrets, since Stojković was believed to have the potential to compete at the highest level.
Debated, but immense
To talk about such a complex figure – both for his legacy on and off the pitch –, one guest didn’t seem enough. Just like his career testified, there has been a Piksi in Europe and one in Japan. To talk about the first, we’ve invited Damiano Benzoni (you can follow him on Twitter @DinamoBabel), an Italian journalist who works for Onefootball and deeply in love with football from Eastern Europe, mostly Romania and Yugoslavia.
Stojković was a prodigy from the start: he went pro with Radnički Niš in 1981, even gaining the chance of playing for the national team at the 1984 UEFA Euro. Two years after that tournament, he joined Red Star Belgrade, where he left his mark, earning the title of “5th Star of Red Star”, as part of a tight circle of players who had a huge impact on the history of the club. But if he wants to frame him a little in his image, Damiano chooses another moment to start:
“On the sideline, there’s a man unwilling to take a penalty. He was one of the brightest purchases of Olympique Marseille in the previous summer, but injuries have kept him aside. And now, in the most important game of the season – the 1990-91 UEFA European Champions’ Cup –, he came in just eight minutes ago and he doesn’t want to take that penalty. This is because the opponents are his beloved team, Red Star Belgrade”.
This is already a first crossroads-moment for this strange career. After four mesmerizing seasons in Belgrade, his star was as high as ever, but Yugoslavia was going otherwise. The fortunes of the country were directing towards a civil war and two final recitals were going to take place. The first was in Italy, where Yugoslavia played amazingly and went so close to eliminate Maradona’s Argentina, who won after PKs in the quarter-finals.
After that tournament, Stojković signed for Olympique Marseille, who were ready to take over the world. Beckenbauer as a head coach (then he left mid-season), important signings and a star like Piksi in their roster. Unfortunately for him, injuries kept him aside and then the final straw was again in Italy. Stojković refused to take that penalty and OM lost the final in Bari against Red Star Belgrade. Still Damiano to give some depth about Piksi:
“Stojković was probably the real deal of that stellar team; already from his time in Belgrade, you could have imagined him doing great things. They called him Piksi because of his resemblance to one of the mice in the Hanna & Barbera cartoon “Pixie and Dixie”. In the 1990 World Cup, he shone with some spectacular plays against Spain. He missed a crucial PK against Argentina, closing so the last great exhibition of that Yugoslavia”.
But despite being a negative protagonist in those episodes, his star never faded completely. Given what happened in that final, Stojković got sold to Hellas Verona and then came back to Marseille, actually winning the UEFA Champions League with OM after the final against AC Milan in 1993. Despite injuries limited his potential, he left a solid mark in the history of the club, even being inducted into the Best XI ever.
Damiano recalls his role, even in tough times: “He was the captain of that Yugoslavia and, in that capacity, he said to his team-mates that the national team had been banned from 1992 UEFA Euro due to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 757. That act sealed the end of the Yugoslavian football. Stojković will be the captain of a team called “FR Yugoslavia” for years to come, but it’s not the Yugoslavia we used to know: only Serbia and Montenegro defend the colors of the Plavi”.
And with this context, you can maybe understand why Piksi left Europe in 1994. There was a wave of players trying something new, something who was just born: maybe in a time where everything meaningful was disappearing, Stojković felt the need to participate to a new reality, blossoming throughout time. When he signed for Nagoya Grampus in Spring 1994, little did he know how much that reality would have been significant for him.
The Slavic Emperor
While leaving Europe, the Yugoslavian fantasista opened himself to a new opportunity. And to tell that side of the story, we thought of talking to Alan Gibson (you can follow him @JSoccerMagazine), well-known in the J. League-sphere for his contribute to the Japanese football narration. He’s in charge for JSoccer magazine and jsoccer.com, he’s been working for Vissel Kobe and Gamba Osaka, but most of all he has been in Japan for more than three decades.
Alan wasn’t so sure about Stojković and his tale in Europe, but he’s been crucial to recall the stint of Piksi in Nagoya: “While being here, I had very little interest in overseas football, but he was certainly instrumental in making Grampus (Eight) a force, both as a player and a manager”. And as reminded by Alan himself, he was his first draft pick in the recent Best XI competition with Cesare Polenghi in a special episode of J-Talk Pod (subscribe to their Patreon, it’ll be worth it).
In Summer ’94, Stojković signed for a team which would have then feature Arsène Wenger on the bench and saw Gary Lineker on the pitch. The two super-stars didn’t have to co-exist so much time, but Stojković seemed finally at the peak of his health. On the other hand, Lineker in Nagoya was affected by injuries, but once he retired – in September of that year –, the Yugoslavian took the no. 10 and the reins of the club.
Still Alan on the beginning of that era: “I remember him featuring on a waterlogged pitch (sadly not unusual in J. League) and playing keepy-up with the ball as he moved forward, to make sure it stayed off the ground. I have no idea if Grampus won the game or if he played well, so it’s a strange thing to remember… but that piece of skill, when everyone else was playing long balls and losing control of the ball!”.
The club was clearly struggling when Stojković got there, but the presence of the no. 10 changed the trajectory. From eleventh in ’94, Wenger and his boys reached third place the successive season, also counting on the great scoring form of Takafumi Ogura, who came back to Japan from a solid stint in Netherlands. Most of all, Grampus lifted their first trophy in that year, winning the Emperor’s Cup final 3-0 against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
The streak of successes continued under the French manager, winning also the 1996 Japanese Super Cup, coming second in the championship and then clinching the Suntory Championship at the end of the year. The roster was improved by recruiting promising players – like Go Oiwa, Shigeyoshi Mochizuki, Kenji Fukuda, but most of all Seigo Narazaki and Ueslei –, but it wasn’t enough to keep the pace with title contenders.
After Wenger left Japan and built a magical story with Arsenal, Nagoya Grampus Eight changed six managers throughout the period Stojković stayed there. Unfortunately, almost no one matched the skills of the French manager and then the no. 10 of Nagoya could only lift another trophy: the 1999 Emperor’s Cup under head coach João Carlos, won (again) at the expenses of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, with Stojković scoring the final goal.
A love story which lasted seven years, with the no. 10 also thinking of his motherland. Piksi indeed featured in both 1998 FIFA World Cup and 2000 UEFA Euro, scoring in the former against Germany in the Group Stage. July 2001 was a key-month for Stojković’s career, since he felt ready to say goodbye to his two realities. On July 4th, he played his last match for the Yugoslavian national team against Japan for the Kirin Cup.
Only ten days later, he featured for the last time in front of his adoring fans. He actually met again the team of his destiny, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, defeated in overtime by a penalty kick taken by the no. 10. But the last recital came in Tokyo, where Verdy hosted Grampus for Matchday 15: Nagoya won 3-0 and Stojković played the full match, only to salute football once for all, at 36 years old.
When he left Japan, many thought Stojković would have then faced a promising path in Yugoslavian football. And he did indeed, since he firstly became the FA president in 2001, enduring a four years-stint and overseeing the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualification. Then he took another four years-job, this time with his beloved Red Star Belgrade, being the heir of Dragan Džajić as president.
Taking Džajić’s place wasn’t easy, because he was one of the most influential figures in Red Star’s history, being first a technical advisor and then the club’s no. 1. In fact, Stojković obtained some successes, but his approach of player trading wasn’t liked; that and a series of feuds within the club brought him to resign in October 2007. This meant only one thing: Piksi was free. Maybe to coach?
He was into the idea and when his Japanese ties made the offer – Stojković kept the connection through Toyota being the sponsor for Red Star under his presidency, among other things –, the now Serbian manager was ready to take his chance. He said it himself while leaving the no. 1 spot at the Red Star: “It’s the right time to end this and start something new”.
In the end, the ties between Stojković and Japan never ceased. Actually, the ties between Nagoya and the former no. 10 were set in stone: a gate in Toyota Stadium was renamed to Piksi, he had been the technical advisor for the club years before and even Japan named him as a sort of ambassador to Serbia, in order to strengthen the relationship between the two nations. So why not coming back to Nagoya and begin a new career?
At the same time, Grampus were just cruising. Nothing to report or celebrate, despite the managers throughout the years between Stojković’s first departure and his return were just four (less than the ones between September ’96 and 2001). When Dutch head coach Sef Vergoossen left the club, Grampus didn’t have any doubt on who should have been hired to be his successor.
Stojković came back and immediately changed the route for Nagoya, who came third with him on the bench in his debut season. Despite coming only ninth in ’09, Grampus reached the final of the Emperor’s Cup, losing it. It was the appetizer before 2010, the perfect season in Nagoya’s history. Alan again remembers the manager’s figure and the impact he had even from the bench:
“The other moment to remember was as a manager, and also an insignificant event when it comes to game results, but an incredible piece of skill. There was an injury and the goalkeeper cleared the ball to stop the game. Piksi was not happy the game was being stopped and – as the ball approached the half way line touchline – he ran forward and taking the ball on the volley in his normal dress shoes (not even trainers or football boots). He sent the ball back into the goal from about 60 yards away. There was a huge cheer and he took the applause before also taking a red card!”.
A unique character, but also a unique skill in putting teams together. The years of management as a club’s president in Belgrade came handy for 2010 campaign: Nagoya acquired Mu Kanazaki from Oita Trinita, Danilson Córdoba from Consadole Sapporo and most of all Marcos Tulio Tanaka from Urawa Red Diamonds. All of them were missing pieces for Grampus, who were set to start a magical campaign.
Helped by the goals of Joshua Kennedy, guided by the steady hand on the pitch of Seigo Narazaki, pushed by their strong fans, Grampus actually steamrolled their way to the title: Stojković and his players had the chance of celebrating their first title-ever in J1 League with three games to play, after an away win against Shonan. But it wasn’t over, because 2011 would have gifted the Japanese Super Cup and another run at the title.
After four years of feats, the momentum was swinging the wrong way for Stojković, since his version of Nagoya Grampus started to fade away from the spotlight. After a disappointing 2013, with still some games to go, the club itself announced the manager and Grampus were going to part way at the end of the season: the worst campaign of those six years – Nagoya ended 11th – closed the second stint of a wonderful love story.
Despite these circumstances, the love was tangible for Stojković. In a meaningless home game against Ventforet Kofu ended 0-0, almost 30,000 people came to the Toyota Stadium to salute Nagoya’s adopted son. An era was ending, just like the successive experiences on the bench would have then confirmed a bumpy ride for Grampus (Nishino, Ogura, Gjurovski and Kazama).
A Piksi-esque story
We could also add another chapter to the story of Dragan Stojković, since the Serbian manager sat out of the game for one season and then signed for Guangzhou R&F in the Chinese Super League. He didn’t repeat the same successes seen in Nagoya (but try to achieve something when you share the city with Evergrande). Despite this, he held his position as head coach for four seasons and he recently stepped down.
Even without that Chinese chapter, though, it’s really hard to put down Stojković in a few words. At the age of 55, the Serbian already represents one of the most influential figures ever impacting Japanese football. He’s a unique case: he played and coached in Japan for a grand total of 13 years; he has been both the MVP (in 1995) and Manager of the Year (2010), being the only non-Brazilian or Japanese player to win the MVP Award.
He has been chosen three times to feature in the Best XI (’95, ’96 and ’99), putting Yugoslavia on the map of Japanese football history. He was picked to coach the “J. League Team” in the match played after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011; last but not least, he was picked as the only foreign player to appear in the “J. League 20thAnniversary Team”. The only one.
I don’t know you, but we would call “history shaping-figure”. Even “developing father” of J. League and Japanese football. Alan doesn’t go very far from there: “As a player, he took a small team from mid-Japan to lift the Emperor’s Cup and won the 1995 MVP Award. He showed all of us – including the owners and whoever manages all the J. League teams – that the RIGHT foreign player could make the difference”.
Actually, Piksi did even more than simply achieving something on and off the pitch. He fully accepted the Japanese way of living, appearing in so many commercials that I can’t even remember (even helping Nagoya’s public transportation business). More than that, he enjoyed the culture of Japan, with someone telling Stojković even considered taking Japanese citizenship, although he didn’t go through with it.
Former fellow teammate and head coach for Kagoshima United FC, Tetsuya Asano, almost named his son “Dragan” because of Piksi. Last but not least, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarded Stojković with the Order of the Rising Sun in 2015 for promoting the improvement of relations between Japan and Serbia.
In the end, Dragan Stojković represented the best foreigner possible for Japanese football: he came at the right time, in the right city and then he returned to empower his legacy even off the pitch, although his contributions between ’94 and 2001 would have been already enough to give him a spot in the pantheon of J. League. There won’t be another Piksi, so… Хвала, Dragan.