Following a match between Brazil and Yugoslavia in his early playing days, Pelé expressed his high regard for the high technical qualities of his opponents and described Yugoslavian footballers as the Brazilians of Europe.
A shared ability to produce players of rare gifts and export them to foreign football leagues around the world aside, the two nations have rarely come into much contact with each other which made the enormous success that the former Yugoslav midfielder Dejan Petković enjoyed in Brazilian club football such an incredible story.
His tale starts modestly in his home city of Nis where he debuted for local club Radnicki in 1988 at the age of 16 – then the youngest-ever Yugoslav First League player. Playing with a maturity beyond his years, he settled into the first-team quickly and by 1992 had caught the attention of Red Star Belgrade who were looking to replace the many players from their European Cup-winning side who had departed to the west.
His midfield playmaking skills were right at home at Red Star and he developed into the creative fulcrum of the team. Scouts from beyond Serbian borders began to turn up to watch him leading to a glamorous move to Real Madrid in 1995. So began an incredible foreign adventure that would take Petković to five countries, but bring satisfaction and appreciation in just one of them – Brazil.
The Spanish experience was nothing like the midfielder might have hoped for. Real Madrid was suffering another self-inflicted crisis under coach Jorge Valdano and Petković was given few opportunities to prove himself. Farmed out on loan in successive seasons to Sevilla and Racing Santander brought little joy and little first-team football either.
What would become the defining moment that redirected his career came in the unlikely setting of a friendly tournament in 1997, playing back with Real Madrid. Representatives of a Brazilian participant, Vitória, were impressed by him and flush with cash from a bank sponsor made a move to bring him to Brazil along with fellow Spanish-based players Bebeto and Tulio Costa.
Adapting to a vastly different football league and culture proved no obstacle for Petković whose high technical abilities, regular goals and assists and set-piece mastery quickly won over the Brazilian fans who were initially sceptical about this exotic alien in their midst.
Between 1997 and 2011 he played with distinction for no fewer than seven Brazilian clubs, interspersed with brief and unsuccessful stints abroad in Italy, China and Saudi Arabia. Undoubtedly his best years came with Rio giants Flamengo where he played twice, a decade apart. The first highlight came in the 2001 Rio State Final when his brilliant 89th-minute free-kick defeated Vasco. As if that brilliant swipe of the ball hadn’t already conferred legendary status on him, his return during the 2009 season at the age of 36 turned around Flamengo’s fortunes and inspired them to an unlikely title success.
So vital were the veteran’s contribution to Fla’s victory that he was awarded 2009’s Bola de Prata prize for the best midfielder of the championship – an award he knew all too well having already been a recipient twice before. An induction into the Brazilian Hall of Fame followed and the former Yugoslav international became just the fifth non-Brazilian to receive that accolade.
Dejan Petković’s career finally came to an end in June 2011 and he set out to build a coaching career in his adopted homeland. He’s currently in charge of Vitória, the very club he joined as a player two decades ago to set in motion his astonishing Brazilian adventure.