Hong Kong: With 36 goals, Dejan Damjanovic is the second-highest scorer in the history of the AFC Champions League. But, as he embarks on another campaign in the competition with new club Kitchee, the veteran forward is hoping to finally write his name in the record books.
Dejan Damjanovic may have left the K League behind and made Hong Kong his new home, but one thing remains true: the Montenegrin still knows how to score goals.
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Two strikes on Sunday against Eastern Long Lions delivered the Hong Kong Premier League title to the 39-year-old’s new club Kitchee, taking his tally since moving to the territory to 17 goals and setting him up perfectly to fulfil his principal target for the season.
Because, while helping Kitchee retain a title that earns qualification for the AFC Champions League next year, the former FC Seoul, Jiangsu Suning, Beijing Guoan, Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Daegu FC forward has his eyes fixed on a place in the record books.
Damjanovic is just one goal shy of Lee Dong-gook’s AFC Champions League record of 37 goals and the desire to have another crack at leapfrogging his great friend and rival on the All-Time Scorers’ list is what motivates the most natural of scorers.
“When I was finishing in Daegu last year they told me they would go in another direction and bring in a younger player, and that’s understandable,” the striker tells the-AFC.com after his 15-season stint across two spells in the K League came to an end.
“I said thank you very much and when they heard I was free I probably could’ve found a team in Korea, and I was speaking with teams in Australia.
“But I want to play AFC Champions League. I qualified with Daegu and I was thinking we’d continue one more year, or six months more. I was already, in my head, playing in the AFC Champions League. So when they said no, I thought: I need to find something."
“I know I'm so close to the record and I don’t want to give up now! I’m not injured, doing well, not missing games or even one training. My body is still listening to the ideas from my head. So I don’t want to stop. I’m not late. I’m not waking up feeling some headaches or pain in my back. I’m feeling good and I’m running more than the kids here.
“I needed to find something and when Kitchee came, I said: I’m coming. If the federation says you’re in the group stage, then I’m coming. And when they said they were in, then we were going to make the deal.
“Money was not going to be an issue, we can find a solution. I’m not asking for half a million, we can’t find that kind of money in corona time. I wanted the chance to play in the AFC Champions League. I’m thankful that everything goes well between me and Kitchee and now I’m chasing this record. I cannot lie to you – I’m chasing this record.”
Damjanovic has settled well in Hong Kong, joining up with his teammates in late February after spending 21 days in quarantine with his family, where he kept fit with a treadmill in his room. His condition was such that it was not long before he was starting – and scoring – for Kitchee.
“I was expecting to do well because I know I’m in good shape and from the first day I was thinking about how to prepare myself after being in isolation, to be as fit as I can be in that moment and then everything will be OK,” he says.
“I know what I can do. But it’s been going perfect. From that day when I started playing games, I’m scoring goals, we are winning games. Everyone’s saying nice things about Kitchee, about me and the situation in the club so everything’s perfect.
“This short period of adaptation is behind me, I’m comfortable, I’ve met a lot of friends, my teammates have accepted me from day one so we have more friendly relationships after training, so I’m feeling really comfortable.”
Having endured the rigorous physical demands of the K League for so long, Damjanovic admits he knew little about the game in Hong Kong before completing his move. The standard has impressed him, and he believes Kitchee can make an impression in this year’s AFC Champions League.
“When I was coming here, I must be honest I knew only basic things about the Hong Kong league and Hong Kong teams,” he says. “I knew who was playing here because a couple of my Serbian friends were here, so I was following because of them. I knew it, but basic things.
“But I didn’t know the level of the football, I didn’t know the level of opponents, stadiums, facilities or organisation. I didn’t know anything, honestly. Now I’m living here I’ve seen many positive things. The grounds are difficult, they’re hard and the grass is different so it’s hard for me to adapt to these grounds, but the level of football is not bad.
“I thought when I came here it was going to be easier and everybody said when I came here I was going to score three goals every game. It looks now like I can do that, but it’s not easy. Now I'm feeling comfortable, we’re playing better and we look much better than we did in my first couple of games.”
Kitchee have been drawn in Group J of this year’s AFC Champions League, which sees them face two-time champions Guangzhou FC from China, Thai side Port FC and the winners of the playoff between Japan’s Cerezo Osaka and Melbourne City from Australia.
With time to adapt to his surroundings and assess the Kitchee squad, Damjanovic is confident the five-time Hong Kong Premier League champions can build on the positive impression they made when they last played in the group phase in 2018.
“I was more concerned before, now I’m feeling more comfortable that in the AFC Champions League we’re going to show that Hong Kong football is not at the low standard that people are saying and thinking about us,” he says.
“We have a lot of good foreigners and local foreigners, so they’re going to be surprised and one of the main points for us is to stay healthy. We can’t have three or four injured players.
"That’s something that’s true about our team, but if we can stay healthy and without injuries in the last couple of games then this squad is OK to play in the AFC Champions League and I’m sure we’re going to represent Hong Kong in a good light. Let’s see if I’m right.”
On a personal level, surpassing Lee will be driving Damjanovic on as he looks to finally leave his old rival in the rear view mirror now that the man known as the Lion King has finally hung up his boots.
“In Korea, I didn’t score 200 goals, I missed it by two goals,” he says. “Nobody scored even close to 200, but I was 198 and I’m the second best scorer in the K League and I’m second best scorer in the AFC Champions League, so I want one more chance.
“Lee Dong-gook scored 30 goals more than me in the K League, but there were two seasons when I was in China (PR) and he was there in Korea. If I was there then we’d never speak about this!
“I was thinking he would play one more year. He could do it, he could be a joker. He could do it well, but he probably wanted to go and do his coaching license and he’ll probably be a coach in the future."
“But I have huge respect for him and what he did in his career. I played against a million Korean players, but to stay at that level to be that competitive and to stay in a squad like Jeonbuk and perform every year like that: respect. I’m a foreigner and it’s different. He’s local and in his home he doesn’t need to push himself.
“He did it for 10 years at the highest level and he was my motivation when he was doing well. I was in Seoul and he was in Jeonbuk so we were always fighting. Sports fighting, nothing else. I have huge respect for him, but he’s given me a chance and I want to take this chance.”
With Damjanovic’s determination and eye for goal, Lee’s record will be under real threat when the group phase of the AFC Champions League returns in June.
Poll ends at 17:00 (UTC+8) on May 26.
Photos: Hong Kong Football Association, AFC
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