Dragan Stojković on his philosophical similarities to Arsène Wenger, his lost years and Japan's development
Dragan Stojković was born on 3 March 1965, and is one of the finest players ever to emerge from the former Yugoslavia. Nicknamed "Piksi" after a cartoon character from his childhood, Stojković made his name with hometown team Radnički Niš before establishing himself as one of Europe's best creative midfielders with Crvena Zvezda of Belgrade in the late 1980s. He is one of five individuals to have been named Zvezdina Zvezda (a Star of the Star). A move to Bernard Tapie's Marseille followed a quarter-final appearance with Yugoslavia at the 1990 World Cup, but injuries hampered his time in France and he left four years later to join Nagoya Grampus Eight in the fledgling J. League. Stojković went on to become one of the greatest players the Japanese game has ever seen before retiring in 2001, and after stints as president of the Yugoslav football federation and Zvezda, he returned to Grampus as manager in 2008. In 2010, he led the club to its first J. League title in 2010. He still lives in the same apartment he did as a player.
How would you describe your philosophy as a manager?
My philosophy of football is to be very simple and easy, but at the same time it's not easy. If you want to be a good manager you have to be psychologically ready. If you look at the managers today at the head of the biggest teams in the world, they all have very strong charisma and personality but also knowledge. It's very important to have enjoyment. If you think that being a manager is your job, your work, it's not good. You have to find enjoyment because you teach the players for one reason, and that is to see improvement. Football has changed a lot in the last 10, 15 years. Today's football is completely different to the past, thanks to technology, thanks to other parameters. It's very important to understand that and, if you don't, you'll be in trouble.
What kind of football do you like your teams to play?
I like to see my teams play attractive football, football that people like to see. From the first day when I became manager of Nagoya I told my players one very clear thing. I said, "I don't know about the result, because I am not magic. What I know is that I want to see my team play beautiful football." This is the target and then we wait for the result. Beautiful football means being very attractive, offensive, giving enjoyment to the supporters, giving real football to the audience. We reached that target in the first year , when we played some very interesting football. Why is the Premier League said to be the best league in the world today? It's because all the teams play attractive football. Even Blackpool or Wigan, they play really interesting football. They never give up, they always have a strong mentality to win the game, and people love to see that. I want people to go home after the game and say, "Yes, Nagoya lost the game, but they played really well." That is the satisfaction.
As a player you often looked frustrated with teammates who weren't as good as you, and last year, after Grampus had lost a game, you said that your team needed a player who was intelligent like you. How do you get your message across?
This is the most difficult task. You have to understand one thing, and that is what kind of quality you have in your hands and how to manage that. How to get the maximum out of a player who is, let's say, limited. This is the job of a manager. For me the most important thing in football is football intelligence. How you are able to use a situation to make a profit for yourself and your team. When you compare two high-level players, you can see the difference because one of them is always able to do something incredible because he has football intelligence. Messi is physically nothing, but every time he can find the solution. He never dribbles just to dribble, he dribbles to get a result. Football intelligence is the most important technique. Players have to prove their intelligence on the pitch when the team is leading 1-0 or if it is a draw or if they are losing. In any situation. If you are playing in the last minute and you are leading 1-0, don't go too fast. In Europe you can see that always because the players are very intelligent, but in Japan it is not like that. They still don't know how to use this advantage. They start the game and finish the game with practically the same pace.
Your ideas about football have drawn a lot of comparisons with Arsène Wenger. What is your relationship with him?
It's perfect. I was very lucky to be under his control in 1995-96 when he was manager of Nagoya, and this experience for me was really good because for the first time I started to work with great pleasure and confidence. I started to understand tactical behaviour. I started to understand modern football. As a result of that, in 1995 he became J. League manager of the year even though we were only second, and I was player of the year. We stay in contact and even today our relationship is really great. I go to London to see games and meet him and talk.
You first worked with Wenger at Nagoya in 1995, but you were already 30 years old by then. What was it about him that made such a big impression?
I remember we had a training camp, and on the last day I asked him, "When do we start the camp?" Of course I was joking, but that camp from the physical point of view was very good for me. I worked hard, but at the same time I was very light. I was not tired. I was really ready to play, and that 1995 season was amazing. I liked his philosophy of football, I liked the exercises. All training was with the ball. I never had any training without the ball. You can find many coaches who work without the ball and this is absolutely unacceptable to me. The ball is the main thing for the players. From the physical point of view, you can also do it with the ball. It's not all about running and trying to kill the players. I don't like that. I don't like to see my player after training saying that he is dead tired. This is not my target.
Are there any areas where your philosophies differ?
I don't know his situation with goalkeepers. But he continues to believe. I told him last time that the problem for Arsenal was goalkeepers. He could find a good goalkeeper. It's a big problem for Arsenal, but he still believes that he is right. He also needs a real striker, who is expensive of course. Van Persie is not a real striker, Arshavin is not a real striker. Adebayor was a real striker but they decided to sell him for a lot of money. Arsenal get a lot of benefits from his coaching from a financial point of view.
Who else has influenced you in football?
Today I have a very good relationship with Ancelotti. He also has a very similar philosophy with training, systems, everything.
You also played under Ivica Osim for Yugoslavia at the 1990 World Cup. What did you learn from him?
At that time we had a very good generation and we were very close to making a historical result, even to play in the final. I respect him a lot and he was a coach who had a very good relationship with the players. He joked a lot and tried to relax the players and get the maximum out of them. We had quality of course, and the relationship between us was very successful.
How close do you think you came to winning the World Cup?
We were very close because we won against Spain, who were heavily favoured and had great players. We lost to Argentina, who were the world champions. We played with 10 men [after Refik Šabanadzović had been sent off in the 30th minute] and we created several chances to score. They were lucky to get 0-0. If you can play like that with 10 men against Argentina, of course you are able to do more. Unfortunately we lost on penalties but that's football, and we finished practically as the fifth-best team at the World Cup. That was already a good result but we had a chance to do something more.
That World Cup came as things were getting very tense in Yugoslavia. Did that tension have any effect on the players?
I don't think so. We had our preparation in Zagreb and we played against Holland in a friendly. The home supporters started to sing songs against us, and for Holland. It was very strange to see and hear, and the Holland coach Leo Beenhakker in the press conference said he didn't know that Holland had so many supporters there. Afterwards someone explained to him that it was against us. At that point we saw that something would happen, but on the team there were no problems. We had Prosinečki from Croatia, Pančev from Macedonia, Sušić from Bosnia, Katanec from Slovenia, me from Serbia, Savićević from Montenegro. We never had these kinds of problems and we never discussed or joked about it.
The World Cup came only one month after a riot in a match between Dinamo Zagreb and Crvena Zvezda. How did it feel to be caught up in that?
We were first in the table and Dinamo Zagreb were second, and we were almost champions. I was Zvezda's captain and during the warm-up I saw that the stand behind our goal just collapsed and the people started to run onto the pitch. I called the players and said let's go back to the dressing room, because nobody can stop that kind of stampede. We ran to the dressing room and stayed there for five or six hours. After we saw what had happened and that Boban had kicked a policeman. He became a hero for Croatian people but he was suspended for a year and he missed the World Cup. At about nine or ten we went home with the police. It was a terrible time.
How do you think the war has affected Serbian football? Not just in terms of money and infrastructure, but in terms of the way the game is played?
We lost everything. We were a strong team, but a team is like a puzzle. You need pieces to put it together, but it was destroyed. From that point we lost a lot. But that was the price of the situation in Yugoslavia. That region has a lot of talent, from many sports. Tennis was not so interesting for us in the past but now we have great players. Basketball, water polo, volleyball — we are very talented. Now we continue to play good football but it's difficult because after the Bosman rule started it became very hard to keep talented players. The clubs need money. They have no choice but to sell the players.
Serbian and Yugoslavian football has a history of drama and highs and lows. Do you think this reflects the Serbian psyche, and do you think this is true of you?
We always pay a high price for bad organisation. I mean organisation from the outer structure. As a team there was no problem, but it was what was happening all around. Who protects you? Who leads you? This is the main problem, even today. Many people don't want to accept responsibility. This is something in our mentality and we have to show more improvement. Who is on the plane, who is in the hotel? There is no feeling of responsibility and no professional mindset. People don't do their jobs, they want to do something different. They don't know how to do it, but they put their noses in the wrong place. This is the problem of that region. The president of the FA doesn't qualify for the World Cup — the players qualify for the World Cup. They want to put themselves on the front page. I am for the front page, you are not. When you find your picture behind, this is your victory. If you don't understand, it's a problem. Organisation, preparation is the main problem. It's not like Japan.
How do you feel having lost the prime years of your international career because of the ban on the Yugoslavia team? What do you think you could have achieved at Euro 92, the 1994 World Cup and Euro 96?
Nobody can give me that time back. This is destiny. We couldn't change it and we just wanted to play football, but the United Nations sanctions against Yugoslavia reflected on our team also. We were kicked out from 1992, 1994 and 1996, so three huge competitions for one player is too much. We were a very talented generation and we had very good players. In 1992 Denmark replaced us and became champions. It's very difficult to give any predictions of what might have happened. Maybe we would have been champions and maybe not. But we would have played a very important role. After one week of preparation in Sweden we received a fax that we would have to go home. It was a terrible time. Some players cried or had stomach problems.
How did you feel leaving Yugoslavia to join Marseille?
Of course we are professionals and my contract with Zvezda was finishing. I was looking for a new challenge and many top clubs in Europe wanted me. Finally I decided to go to Marseille because I saw a very strong team and a very ambitious president who wanted to win the European Cup. That for me was very important because Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus were not so strong. When I signed a pre-contract with Marseille, AC Milan phoned me to ask if it was true. They called Marseille to try to cancel it, but Marseille said no. Unfortunately I injured my knee and after that it was very difficult for me. Of course I was the best player there. Definitely. I respected all the players, but I felt superior. Of course I missed my friends, my city and my country, but I was very focused on a new challenge, a new life and a Western style of life. Everything was new for me, but I was really motivated.
When Zvezda finally won the European Cup in 1991, you were on the losing team. What emotions went through your head that night?
I couldn't believe it. On my last day at Zvezda we had cocktails at the club because I was a legend, I was the captain, etc, and they said good luck. My last words were thank you very much for everything, I wish you all the best and I'll see you in the final. They laughed. We played the semi-final first leg in Moscow [against Spartak] and we won 3-1. We arrived at the airport and I asked someone what happened in Munich between Bayern and Zvezda. The guy told me 2-1. I said OK, it's a good result. Then he said, "2-1, but Zvezda won." I said, "What? 2-1 for Zvezda in Munich?" I realised that Marseille and Zvezda really would play in the final. Emotionally, first of all you don't believe that you are going to be on a different side to your friends and former teammates. But this is life. It was very hard for me to accept, but finally I was on the bench and I played only seven or eight minutes of extra time. I didn't want to take a penalty [in the shoot-out, after the game had finished 0-0]. I said to Raymond Goethals when he chose me to take one that I didn't want to take this responsibility against Zvezda. Other players have to take responsibility. It was the first European Cup for a team from our country, but at the same time I was sad because Marseille lost the final. I lost as a member of Marseille, but on the other hand I was happy to see Zvezda win. Two years later we beat AC Milan in Munich and we became champions, so sometimes in your life things happen that you could never imagine. But I think it was a mistake that I didn't play in Bari. The Zvezda players were scared of me.
Are you satisfied with what you achieved at Marseille?
It was a difficult time. Mostly I was in the gym or the hospital, but this is life. It wasn't a mistake for me to choose Marseille because I knew they had the best players. Cantona, Chris Waddle, Papin, Abédi Pelé, Boli, Casoni, Di Meco, Amoros, Carlos Mozer. An amazing team. But six months ago the Marseille supporters voted for the best team in 100 years of Olympique Marseille. I am there. It's unbelievable. I played maybe 40-45 games in four years and they choose me. How can you explain that? They voted position by position and I was the number 10.
What was it like to play for Bernard Tapie?
He was very controversial, but I knew him as being crazy for football, crazy for success, crazy to create the best team in the world. As the boss of the club, definitely he was very good and nobody can say anything against him. From other points I don't know what happened, but for the players and the team he did something very important and historic for Marseille and for French football. I like him very much. He's a very interesting person, very clever and very charming. In Munich against AC Milan in the final he said we would win. He said, "Do you know why? Because I am looking better than Berlusconi." And we won 1-0. He was a real boss. One on hand a very nice person, clever and intelligent, on the other hand a bandit. Two different faces.
As a player, how did it feel to have Marseille's achievements taken away after the match-fixing scandal?
It was a difficult time again, of course. At the beginning I didn't really know what happened because I wasn't there. The problem was a game against Valenciennes, they had an investigation and they found something. It was a very bad time for the club and for us also. We were penalised to play in the second division for two years, out of the European cups and we didn't play in the Intercontinental Cup. We knew that playing in the second division wasn't good for the players and that a lot of players would leave. I received an offer from Nagoya and I was a little bit surprised. All I knew about Nagoya was that Gary Lineker played here. I said, "OK let's go and see what it is," because I didn't want to play in the second division. I came to Japan and after that it's history..
What were your expectations of the J. League when you first signed for Grampus?
It was completely new for me. My first contact was Gary Lineker, who tried to explain about Japanese football and about Japan. What I saw was tactically not good, they played with a high pace and it was not possible to play like that. You have to be calm, to save your energy for the rest of the game. I was a little bit disappointed at the beginning. I couldn't communicate with the players. If I played a back pass they couldn't understand it. I tried to explain that when I have a ball, everything is possible. Don't be surprised. Run and the ball will come. Don't watch me. Month by month we improved, and six months later Wenger came and our teamwork improved. People in Europe said Stojković is a good player but he is injured. It was hard to prove to people that I was OK. I wanted to forget my injury and restart my football life, and I found that in Japan.
A lot of famous players moved to the J. League in the 90s, but most came at the end of their careers and left after one or two years. Why did you stay for so long?
I feel good here, first of all. My wife and children feel good and I find the people very respectful. This is not the case in Europe. I found stability and space to do everything. For that reason I decided to stay, and in football I saw improvement. I like the behaviour of the supporters, and of course my challenge was always to show my technical quality to everybody. I was never satisfied to say it's enough and now I can relax. I always wanted to teach the players and help them improve. There were many reasons why I stayed here.
How has Japanese football grown over the last 20 years?
When you see football you have to see technique and you have to see tactics. The physical point of view is not something you need to talk about. If you want to play football then physically you have to be ready. But from the technical and tactical point of view you can see the improvement. If you see the result of the national teams, the Japanese players who play abroad, it becomes very interesting. It's amazing for a country like Japan to have representatives around the world. The teams have become stronger, well organised. Today in the J. League you can't say that only two teams can play for the title. In Spain, yes, in Italy also, but in the J. League there are many teams who can win the title. I don't know if it's good or not, but it's a fact. It means that all the teams have a level of organisation and quality. Improvement is there, definitely. It's not the same football as 10 years ago.
Japan is known for taking elements of other cultures and piecing them together, and this is also true of Japanese football. Do you think Japanese football now has its own identity?
It was very necessary in the beginning to bring big names from around the world to show to the public, and also to bring in managers. Today I think, little by little, the Japanese have started to find their identity. It's almost 20 years since the professional league started, and after 20 years you have to see some results. I think Japan has a football identity, but they shouldn't be satisfied with the result and they need to continue to improve. Of course it's very nice to see one of the best managers in the world, Zaccheroni, to see how he manages the team. Football is an international sport. It's a mix of culture, language, skin colour. It would be a big mistake to copy somebody. You have to be yourself. Of course you have to see which style of football you like. Before it was a South American style under Zico and now it's a European style under Zaccheroni, so it's a very good experience for the Japanese national team. But they have to be what they are and I think that they are. It's important to understand the Japanese mentality. If you don't understand that it's better to take your bag and go back home.
What do you think are the strong and weak points of Japanese football?
The discipline is one of the main characteristics of the Japanese players. They follow the directions of the coach. They do everything they are told in the dressing room. They never disappoint you, and there is a huge level of respect. The weak point is from the physical point of view. They're not so strong. If you see a team like Blackpool, all the players' physical engagement is incredible, but the Japanese players don't have this. But this is the nation. The people are like that. The physical point is very important today looking at international level, and they need more physical power to resist the opponent and be more determined in the box. People say they don't have a striker and maybe that's true. But Barcelona don't have a striker. Japan is definitely a team that plays technical football. This is the main point for them.
Do you feel you have a responsibility to Japanese football?
I try always to do my best, as a player and today as a coach. I always try to be a good example. Of course I am not the person who is the most responsible, but I feel I have a responsibility. I think this is good. Without responsibility it is difficult to exist. If the people respect my work and my message, this is a big pleasure for me. I know when I am alone in my house, I know I am doing something good for people. When I look in the mirror I know that. I don't need somebody to say, "Hey Piksi, thank you for doing this." I know exactly what I am doing.
What are your ambitions for the future?
In football many things change very quickly. In one night everything can change. But at this moment I am very focused on my job in Nagoya. We achieved a nice result last year and my consideration is now to see what we can do this season. People ask me when will I go back to Europe, but I'm here. I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but I'm still here and I will show my loyalty to the club until the end. I feel comfortable, I feel good and I feel that I have space to teach the players, to build the team and build the club. One day maybe to become national team coach, yes. If they think that I can help, if they think I can deliver something more to Japanese football, yes, I am ready. It would be a very big honour for me to lead the national team. For me it's important that I have spent 10, 11 years in Japan and I understand the mentality and the people here. I know them and this is a big advantage.