Donning his biker jacket and shades in Belgrade this week, Dragan Stojkovic is calmness personified amid the chaotic world that is Serbian football.
Ireland’s opening opponents in the World Cup qualifying campaign on Wednesday fortnight are best known for producing a continuous flow of quality players without the cohesion to fuse into a successful team.
Local hero Stojkovic, the fulcrum of Yugoslavia’s famous 1990 World Cup team, this week became Serbia’s 10th manager in a decade, assigned a clear demand of reaching next year’s World Cup and Euro 2024 within the lifetime of his contract.
While the standing of Serbia’s players is evidently higher at club level – 13 representatives in this season’s Champions League compared to Ireland’s one in Caoimhín Kelleher – the nations share an identical return of three tournament appearances in the past 20 years. Serbia’s last qualification, reaching the 2018 World Cup, came at Ireland’s expense.
Not for the first time, Stojkovic’s homecoming is being welcomed as a new dawn.
Revered as the player, especially for refusing to take a penalty for Marseille against his former club Red Star Belgrade in the 1991 European Cup final, his coaching career has been steady rather than spectacular.
Stojkovic never hid his political beliefs and opted to turn his back on what he perceived as US-allies Italy, France and Spain to join Arsene Wenger’s Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1994.
Japan’s football authorities banned protests, yet Wenger didn’t condemn his diminutive midfielder for celebrating a goal by flashing an undershirt bearing the English-language message “NATO Stop Air Strikes”.
The relationship between manager and player prospered and endured, culminating in Stojkovic returning to the far-east in 2008 on Wenger’s recommendation to manage his former club. The Arsenal boss went further, namechecking his protégé as the ideal successor for when he ended his 22-year stint in London.
“Dragan’s football philosophy is almost identical to mine as we both strive for perfect football,” the Frenchman said in 2011. “He has won the league in Japan, something I didn’t achieve despite having Dragan, the best player in the league, in my team. He has a great future.”
That roadmap brought him to Chinese club Guangzhou R&F in 2015. An offer to manage in the Premier League did materialise – from Swansea City rather than Arsenal – but he remained loyal.
Guangzhou’s budget was one of the lowest in the Super League, Israeli striker Eran Zahavi at €4m becoming Stojkovic’s most expensive signing, yet the earning appeal for managers was attractive.
The Serb cut his ties to the club, not his €8m annual salary, a year ago and it took until this week for him to relinquish the hefty wages accruing under his contract in order to assume his dream job.
Patriotism alone didn’t entice the 56-year-old to answer his country’s call. Should Stojkovic steer Serbia to next year’s Qatar showpiece either directly, or through the play-off, then a €1m bonus will top up his €600,000-per-year wage.
“I wouldn’t have accepted this job unless I believed we can qualify for the World Cup,” he beamed earlier this week. “Players just need to listen to my message.”
Serbia welcome their two main rivals in the pool, Ireland and European champions Portugal, to an empty Red Star Stadium on March 24 and 28. Stojkovic will be almost halfway through his eight-game campaign by the time they complete the window away to Azerbaijan on March 30.
Today’s squad announcement illustrated his single-mindedness. Luka Milivojevic (Crystal Palace), Adem Ljajic (Besiktas) and Nikola Maksimovic (Napoli), each only 29, were culled from the squad that lost their Euro play-off final to Scotland on penalties in November.
Veteran Aleksandar Kolarov was deliberating over his future, only to discover his new manager has made the call for him by axing the captain. Ex-Southampton attacker Dusan Tadic, now at Ajax, has been handed the armband and lead the new era.
Stojkovic will soon learn whether the glow from his appointment extends beyond a honeymoon.