Making it big in the land of soccer

 

If and when Ireland meet Yugoslavia in their European Championship Group Eight match, keep an eye out for midfielder Dejan Petkovic. At 26, Petkovic has turned the normal course of footballing commerce on its head in that, as a Serb, he has become a huge star in Brazilian soccer.

For decades now, we have been accustomed to Brazilian soccer exporting its most prolific talents to Europe. From Zico to Falcao and from Romario to Ronaldo, nearly all the best Brazilians of recent times (and many that were a lot less brilliant) have made the transatlantic journey ending up not only in the prestigious leagues of England, Germany, Italy and Spain but also in unlikely places such as Finland and Macedonia. When Spartak Moscow lined out against Inter Milan in a Champions League tie at the San Siro last week, it was a Brazilian by the very non-Brazilian name of Robson who led the attack.

Yet, in world soccer, the changing times are reflected in the fact that players such as Japan's Kazu Miura (Coritiba), Italian Marco Osio (Palmeiras), USA international Des Armstrong (Santos) as well as a host of Paraguayan and Colombian internationals now play their club soccer in Brazil, often referred to as the greatest nursery of soccer talent on the planet. None of the "foreigners", however, appears to have done as well as Petkovic at Vitoria Di Bahia.

The Petkovic story makes interesting reading. By the age of 20, he had made it to the supreme academy of Yugoslav soccer, Red Star Belgrade. Like many of his generation, however, his career was negatively influenced by the social upheaval prompted by the breakup of the former Yugoslav republic and by the subsequent war in Bosnia.

He arrived at Red Star in 1992, just when United Nations-imposed sanctions had led, among other things, to Yugoslavia's last minute expulsion from the Euro '92 finals in Sweden. Like many of his footballing compatriots, Petkovic was keen to get away from his homeland, partly to get back into the footballing "big time" but also, inevitably, to seize the chance to make the sort of money he could only dream of in cash-strapped Yugoslavia.

After three brilliant seasons in the much-reduced Serbian championship, Petkovic got his chance when Real Madrid offered $4.5 million for him in 1995. However, things did not go smoothly at Real where he was kept out of the side by players such as Croat Davor Sukor, Yugoslav Pedrag Mijatovic and Raul in attack and by Argentine Fernando Redondo, Dutchman Clarence Seedorf and Jose Amavisca in midfield.

Little used two seasons ago by Real's Italian coach Fabio Capello, Petkovic jumped at the chance of being loaned out to Seville. Here, however, the fates went against him when he broke his right foot early on and spent nearly a year out of competitive soccer, a year when only second division side Santander showed an interest in him.

Just when it looked as if Petkovic was heading towards the land of forgotten idols, he received an unexpected invitation to go to Vitoria Di Bahia on trial as a possible replacement for none other than national idol, Bebeto, a member, of course, of both Brazil's 1994 and 1998 World Cup sides.

One year and 30 goals later, Petkovic is a star of Brazilian soccer. On a salary of about $1.3 million, Petkovic lives in an upmarket residential area where his 24 hour per day bodyguards and full time personal chauffeur are nothing unusual.

His refound form has helped win back his place in the Yugoslavian national side. Chased from the team in 1995 when he had reacted to a substitution during a Central American tour by verbally abusing coach Slobodan Santrac, Petkovic has been welcomed back into the fold by new coach Milan Zivadinovic, the man who replaced Santrac after France '98.

As luck would have it, the new era under Zivadinovic started with a September friendly against Brazil in Maranhao, a game that ended in a 1-1 draw and which marked the return of Petkovic to the side. Zivadinovic, who coached Petkovic during his days at Red Star, makes no secret of wanting to use the Brazil-based player when and if possible during Euro '2000 qualifiers.

In the meantime, however, Petkovic's contractual position at Vitoria di Bahia has yet to be resolved since Real Madrid now want a $4.5 million payment for a player who was originally sent to Brazil on loan.