Why You'll Like Him
Il Dragone (or Deki, if you prefer) captains a small country (Serbia) that will be playing in its first World Cup as an independent nation. He's got a thunderous right foot, but is willing to defer to younger, more dynamic national teammates. He's a proven winner. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. Seriously, though, what's not to like?
Why You'll Hate Him
If you're the jealous type, you'll notice Stankovic bears a striking resemblance to everyone's favorite Croatian ER doctor, Goran Visnjic. This creates the haunting image of successful actor Visnjic being noticed in bars and having well-meaning soccer fans buying him drinks. Worse it creates the likelihood that women are stopping Stankovic and having him pose for pictures without having any idea he's a world-class athlete. Look, congratulations on being a superstar football player, but you don't also get to be mistaken for a hunky actor.
Captains must often walk a thin line when dealing with teammates. Publicly criticize too much, and you risk turning off players you need to help you compete. Act too meek and no one respects you. The situation becomes even more volatile when the teammate you're dealing with has just ripped off his jersey, thrown it on the field and walked off the pitch instead of celebrating a huge win over Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal, all of it after directing nasty gestures toward HOME fans.
Deki handled this very situation with Internazionale teammate Mario Balotelli with about as much aplomb as one could hope for, especially considering Deki's not even the captain on his pro side. The 31-year-old father of three, picked up the jersey, said his teammate "acted like a child" and then tried to show some level of understanding for his young teammate's frustration, saying "I am confident he can redeem himself. It seems he has suffered since he was younger, but even I had problems with the fans a couple of years ago."
Instead of allowing an incident like that to cause a rift in the team, it turned into a mere bump in the road on the way to Inter becoming the first Italian team to win the treble (the Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League titles).
It is also the kind of leadership that could very well help Serbia become the Cinderella of the World Cup.
Club Teams: Red Star Belgrade (1994-1998), Lazio (1998-2004), Internazionale (2004-present)
National Team Debut: Debuted for the old Yugoslavia team April 22, 1998 against South Korea.
World Cup(s): Two (1998, 2006)
At just 16 years old, Deki made his professional debut with Red Star Belgrade. He made seven league appearances that year while playing for the league champion. By the time he was 19, he had become the team's youngest ever captain. For much of his stay there, Red Star had to be content with national titles as the country's teams were banned from international competition.
In 1998 Deki made his first steps toward international stardom when he transferred to Italian side Lazio. Despite competing for a spot within a team stocked with all-stars at nearly every position, he quickly earned starter's minutes and became a fan favorite because of his hard-pressing style and was bestowed the nickname Il Dragone.
After five-and-a-half seasons, Lazio's financial troubles eventually led to Deki signing with Italian rival Inter. Since then, he's played more than 200 games, earned a reputation for scoring goals in big games and won over the fans for yet another side (after a rough adjustment period).
In a sense, Serbia will be the third country (Yugoslavia in 1998, Serbia & Montenegro in 2006 and just plain Serbia in 2010) Deki has represented in the World Cup. (If you're really interested how that works, you should probably just read our Serbia preview.)
Like the names of the country for which he's played, Deki's game has also evolved. While once he was relied upon for his scoring, he is now more of a defensive midfielder (just two of his 13 international goals have come since the 2001-02 season).
With a team-high 86 caps, he's a stabilizing force, but not just for his veteran leadership. He's a key component in the team's ability to switch from defense to offense and is still capable of scoring the big goal.
What to Look For
More than any other player, Deki is the recognized face of his country's side. Not only is he the captain, but he was widely photographed draped in Serbian flag following Inter's Champions League victory.
Whether or not he will remain the face of his country's World Cup dreams remains to be seen. At 31, he's no longer the young buck who stormed onto the world stage. What he now brings has much more to do with veteran savvy and an ability to contribute in the less-noticed areas. Fresher faces such as midfield dynamo Milos Krasic and aggressive defenders such as Nemanja Vidić and Branislav Ivanović appear poised to become stars in their own rights.
Still, Deki is capable of scoring big goals when called upon and will certainly be a key figure in Serbia's ability to control the midfield. To add a World Cup trophy to his Treble would be something that would surely catapult him into another stratosphere of popularity. Despite his age, he's still a world-class player and quite deserving of the captain's armband.
Don't be shocked to see him blasting in a goal from the outer reaches of the penalty area or making a deft pass to spring a teammate. Although it's quite a longshot, don't discount the possibility of seeing him hoist the quadruple.
Jeremiah Oshan discounts no possibilities when covering the Seattle Sounders at Sounder at Heart. He will be contributing to SB Nation Soccer throughout World Cup 2010.
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