The early years of the J. League saw many world-class stars arrive in Japan, but few, if any, gave as good service as Dragan Stojkovic.
The Serbian spent seven of his best years as playmaker-in-chief for Nagoya Grampus Eight, while captaining his country at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, as others wound down their careers with one final payday in front of a new and eager audience.
The big names came and went, but the affection the Nagoya public held for “Pixy” stayed with Stojkovic long after he departed to take up the post of Yugoslav FA president in 2001.
A similar position at another former club, Red Star Belgrade, followed, but the call of his spiritual home proved too strong to ignore.
After a protracted saga over coaching qualifications, Stojkovic finally made his return to the J. League in January with his unveiling as new head coach of Grampus.
“I spent seven beautiful years (in Nagoya) as a player, and really Nagoya is like my home town,” he said last week.
“I knew that one day I would come back, but I didn’t know when. Now I am here again, but in a different position as head coach.
“Personally I am very happy to be back in Japan again, and it will be a challenging year not just for me but for Grampus as well.”
Stojkovic has much to do if he is to turn one of Japan’s biggest clubs from perennial underachievers into a side capable of challenging for honors.
Grampus has won just two titles, the Emperor’s Cup in 1995 and 1999, a miserable record for a big-city club backed by the muscle of automotive giant Toyota.
On the face of it, the outlook for the new season is not much better.
Stojkovic inherits a team that finished 11th in last year’s J. League, and was only spared a relegation dogfight by virtue of the early points it racked up from a good start to the season.
Star midfielder Keisuke Honda has left to play in the Netherlands, and Stojkovic is under no illusions as to the task that faces him in his first coaching job.
“It is a challenge, but I am not afraid,” he said.
“It is completely different to how it is as a player. Now I am thinking about football around the clock. As a player I played 90 minutes and that was all. Now I have more responsibility and it takes more concentration, but I think I am ready.
“I am ready for good and bad moments. The aim is to explain my philosophy to the players, how I see my team and how I want them to play. Then the results will either come or they won’t come, but you have to know which road you are going to take. You have to be organized.”
Stojkovic’s dream return was almost over before it had begun, when a lack of appropriate coaching qualifications threatened to derail his appointment.
The Serbian has worked hard to satisfy requirements, but claims he was always confident the situation would be resolved.
“I didn’t know about any license at first,” he said. “And no one asked me about it.
“It was a little problem, but I was already in school and I knew that I would finish the course by January. It was hard work, but I am very satisfied at how it went, and very grateful to the people who helped me.”
Another who has helped him is former Nagoya manager Arsene Wenger.
The Frenchman has since gone on to achieve legendary status as one the most successful managers in English history at Arsenal, and Stojkovic did not hesitate to turn to his former boss for advice.
“I spent a week in London with Arsene at Christmas,” he said, “and we were together every day.
“The message and advice from him was to just believe in your work. That is all. And I strongly believe in my work.”
Editor’s note: Look for preview stories of the 2008 J. League season in the sports section all week. Coming Wednesday: A preview of JEF United.