Forgotten stars of the Eastern Bloc: Dragoslav Šekularac

Few European nations in the post-war era proved so adept at producing wonderfully gifted attack-minded players as Yugoslavia. Emerging in the first wave during the late 1940s and early 1950s were innate talents like Rajko Mitić, Stjepna Bobek and Bernard Vukas, but just as their careers were winding down the Yugoslav game welcome a new star inside-forward, one who would develop into a figure considered even better than those who went before him: that player was Dragoslav Šekularac.

His prodigious talent was recognised at a young age and he started training with the Red Star Belgrade youth ranks from the age of just nine. As he developed his effortless ball control and bewildering feints became a source of some irritation with the coaching staff. As technically impressive as his skills were, he would repeatedly be threatened with expulsion because whenever he had possession he would never pass the ball to teammates.

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His talent was so rare that these foibles were tolerated through gritted teeth and he made his first-team debut in 1955 at the age of 17. By his second season he was fully established as a regular and catching the eye the length and breadth of the Yugoslav federation with his precocious skills. An early national team call-up followed and he represented his country at the 1956 Olympics.

Goals and trophies flowed for the young Šekularac until 1960 which proved to be a difficult year for the forward. His skills made him a constant target for bad fouls from brutal defenders ready to stop him at all cost and he was not a player who reacted to such treatment with equanimity. During a league game that year, the latest in a long line of defenders to repeatedly foul him was a provocation too far. Šekularac kicked him in retaliation and broke his leg, invoking a lengthy 18-month ban for his actions.

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His importance to club and country was demonstrated during his suspension when he played for Red Star’s ice hockey team instead. Attendances rocketed and soon exceeded those of the football team, persuasion enough to lift his ban early and allow him to play at the 1962 World Cup.

By this stage he had matured into a player no longer simply a free spirit who liked to express himself, unconcerned about winning and losing. Never a keen trainer, the physical demands of playing three games in the space of a week at the World Cup focused his mind on the need to be in better physical shape. As a result he travelled to the tournament sharper and keener than at any stage of his career to date.

Šekularac enjoyed a fine tournament in Chile and brilliant performances against the Soviet Union and Uruguay showed his devastating talent on a bigger stage. The offers flooded in from the west: Barcelona and several Italian clubs attempted negotiations; a couple of years later Juventus were willing to make him the most expensive player in the world. As was customary in that era his federation refused to consider sanctioning any move for a player at the peak of his game.

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SEE ALSO: The Yugoslav-French Connection

That voluminous temper was never far from the surface. Still basking in the glow of his fine World Cup performances, a month later he was sent off in a league game at Radnicki Nis and refused to leave the field. When the referee pressed the point the forward hit him and another lengthy ban took a year out of his career, time he spent undertaking his national service.

By 1967 and with his star now on the wane, Dragoslav Šekularac was permitted the transfer abroad that had previously been denied to him. He signed with unfashionable German club Karlsruher and a disappointing season suggested a player not attuned for living and playing abroad. Which couldn’t have been more different from how things worked out.

A year back in Belgrade with OFK was followed by an unlikely sojourn in Colombia where he played with three different clubs between 1972 and 1975. And just as Dragoslav Šekularac had shifted the reputation of Yugoslav football forward from the previous generation, so by the time he retired the next generation in Dragan Džajić was doing the very same thing.