Dragons are forever: The legend that is Dejan Stanković

Paolo Bruno

Dejan Stankovic, a born winner, may have retired this summer, but he left his mark on European football both as one of the best midfielders of his generation and one of the biggest names in Serbian football.

Rare are the players that are considered to be legends by the fans. Even rarer are the players considered legends at three different clubs. Dejan Stankovic is one of football's rarities. Ever since his youth days at Red Star, it was obvious that he was destined for great things, and great things he did achieve. The love that Inter Milan's tifosi have for him was shown about a month ago when he officially said goodbye to the club after eight years. And what's more sad for every football fan - he said goodbye to playing career as well.

In 1994, Stankovic made his debut for Yugoslav side Red Star, playing against crosstown rivals OFK Beograd. At age 16, Stankovic was, at the time, the youngest player ever to play for the former European Champions. In 1995 he scored his first goal, against Budućnost, becoming the youngest ever goalscorer for Red Star while overtaking the legendary Dragan Džajić. In 1997 he became captain -- of course, the youngest captain in the club's history.

Stankovic immediately showed himself to be in possession of talent that belied his young age, despite playing just seven games in his first season, when Red Star won both the Yugoslav title and the national cup. In 1995/1996 he became a regular first team player, scoring seven goals in 24 matches. The Cup Winners Cup duel with Kaiserslauternm, perhaps Stankovic's best performance with Red Star, put him on the radar of every big club in Europe. Red Star won 4-0 in extra time and Deki performed like he had hundreds of important European matches behind him, scoring two goals in the process, two goals that he still considers the most important of his career.

Stanković' has said his biggest regret is that he won only one national championship with his beloved Red Star, the one in his first season, before he became a regular in the side. After performing well in three matches played at the 1998 World Cup in France, everyone realized that goodbye was inevitable. Big European clubs were set to fight among themselves for one of the brightest talents on the continent. In the end ultra-rich Lazio, owned by Sergio Cragnotti, bought Stankovic for 24 million deutchmarks. He joined other stars that Lazio signed in the summer of 1998, including Christian Vieri, Marcelo Salas, Sergio Conceicao, and Fernando Couto.

Some were skeptical about whether Deki will be able to find enough space among the stars playing in biancocelesti. He quickly squashed their doubts, scoring a spectacular strike on his debut in Serie A against Piacenza. He played 41 games that season, scoring 9 goals. That season Lazio secured the last Cup Winners Cup, beating Mallorca, giving Stankovic his first international trophy. The only disappointment that season was not securing the scudetto, which went to AC Milan after the last round of play.

Grazia Neri / Getty Images

Stankovic did manage to win the scudetto with Lazio the next season, the first title for the club after 26 years. Despite fierce competition in midfield, with the likes of Pavel Nedved, Matias Almeyda, Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Simeone all fighting for spots, Deki, or Il Drago (dragon) as the Lazio fans nicknamed him, fought his way into the squad and was an integral part of the scudetto winning side that will forever be remembered in the history of the sky-blue part of Eternal City -- particularly since Lazio have yet to take another title.

Lazio, and Sergio Cragnotti, were hit by financial crisis following the 1999-2000 scudetto success, which meant no more big spending, no more big  names. Sven Goran Eriksson left the team to take over England, and his replacement, Dino Zoff, didn't consider Il Drago part of his plans. Stankovic was, at one point, very close to signing for Fiorentina, but the viola's own financial problems ruled out the move. Instead, Deki remained at Lazio, returning to his old form under Alberto Zaccheroni and Roberto Mancini.

While at Lazio, Stankovic wasn't loved just by their faithful, he managed to find the way to become even more popular with Red Star fans. In 1999, as Lazio were on their way to lifting the trophy, he scored against Red Star rivals Partizan in the Cup Winners Cup. Legend says he wore the Red Star shirt under his Lazio kit. Three years later, Lazio drew Stanković's Zvezda in the UEFA Cup. Rumors circulated about Deki telling Mancini and the club that he would not play against his beloved Red Star, no matter what the consequences. Stankovic didn't play, but the reason why is a little less romantic: Mancini knew that Stanković, and fellow former Red Star man Siniša Mihajlović, would find it hard to play against their former side and left them on the bench.

In January 2004, Lazio had to face facts: the financial situation at the club was getting worse and worse, and even the best players had to be sold. One of those was Deki, and it was Juventus that was most interested. The media implied the move was inevitable. However, Stankovic chose to move to Inter Milan, even taking a pay cut to join the nerazzurri. According to the player, choosing Inter over Juve was the best decision he made in his football career. He found a familiar face there in former Lazio boss Zaccheroni, but it may have been the rumors of Mancini moving to Inter in January that were most compelling. When Mancini did come, he also brought along Stankovic's old friend Mihajlovic.

Just like at Red Star, the Yugoslavian national team and Lazio, Stankovic's his impact was almost immediate. His magnificent goal directly from a corner kick that brought Inter a derby victory over rivals AC Milan. It was enough to create a new idol for Inter supporters -- and Deki retained their love for the eight seasons he spent with the nerazzurri.

With the arrival of Roberto Mancini, Inter began their rise to the top of European football. Stankovic was there both for Inter's rise and their fall, despite often being linked with other clubs, including Real Madrid, Juventus and West Ham. When Mancini left Internazionale and José Mourinho arrived, many were sure Deki was on his way out, as Mourinho had supposedly decided to offload all Mancini's favorite players and friends. Juventus were interested once again, but, as Dejan later explained, it took just one conversation with Mourinho to make him want to stay. Mourinho left such an impression that Stankovic said he would have done anything for the Portuguese tactician. There was also an issue of Juve fans not wanting Stankovic to join the Old Lady, for which he says he is thankful, as otherwise he might not have stayed to help Inter lift the Champions League trophy in 2010.

In total, Stankovic won 15 trophies with the nerazzurri: 5 national championships, 4 national cups, 4 supercups, that Champions League trophy, and the FIFA Club World Cup. He scored 29 goals in 231 league matches for Inter, including some spectacular shots from over 40 meters out. Stankovic is considered a legend for Inter, left an indelible mark at both Lazio and Red Star, and earned 102 caps for the national team -- a rich career, indeed.

Despite holding the record for joint-most appearances with the Serbian national team, alongside Savo Milošević, Stankovic was often criticized for his play for his country. Fans, often with visions of unrealistic results dancing in their heads, accused him of not giving his all for his country. But whether that country was Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro, or an independent Serbia, Deki was one of the best players throughout his thirteen years of international football.

With Stankovic's career at Inter coming to a close, again there were rumors of his transfer to Fiorentina, but he reportedly told Vincenzo Montella that he didn't have it in him to play another season at the top level for a team with such high ambitions. There were offers from the Middle East and some interest from MLS clubs, but Stankovic payed little attention. And unfortunately for Red Star fans, their dream of seeing him at least once more in a red-white shirt wasn't realized. Instead, Deki retired from football entirely.

What's next for Dejan Stanković? Will he be Inter's scout for the Balkans? The president of Red Star? For now, he just wants to rest and spend more time with his family. All of his three sons play football at Inter's academy. So who knows, maybe we will have another Stankovic or two scoring goals from 40 meters away in a decade.

Stanković always gave his best performances in the most important games. He won't be there to help his former teammates on Saturday, as the nerazzurri face Juventus in the season's first Derby d'Italia. But although he won't be on the pitch, in Deki Inter have one of their loudest supporters and an excellent example how to fight for their team.

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