Kuala Lumpur: A legend of Asian club football, Dejan Damjanovic's is the second-highest scorer in AFC Champions League history, with 36 goals, having starred for FC Seoul, Beijing FC and Suwon Samsung Bluewings over the years.
The Montenegrin’s first foray into the Asian game, however, came with a short stint in Saudi Arabia in 2006. But it is in East Asia where the now 38-year-old truly made his name and, after moving to Korea Republic’s K League in 2007, he has not looked back since.
Having found a home away from home on the other side of the world, and collected plenty of prizes along the way, Damjanovic tells the-AFC.com about his life and times in Asia and reflects on a move that has proved an unequivocal success both on and off the pitch.
See also :
Korea Republic legend Park rallies communities to #BreakTheChain together
Dream XI - Odil Akhmedov
Experienced ‘Starting XI’ to help drive Australian football forward
Korea Republic legend Park rallies communities to #BreakTheChain together
The early years
My childhood was really stressful. Everyone who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina from our generation had a difficult time with the war in the 90s. I was born in Mostar. I played football with my friends there when I was young, but nothing serious – training, playing in small goals, just for fun.
Then the war started and my family moved to Serbia, following my father to the places where he could work. We moved to Pančevo and I started taking football more seriously, and then Belgrade where I joined Sinđelić Beograd and got my first contract.
After that I joined Železnik in the top flight and my life totally changed. I was playing for money; I was a professional. Later I went to Bežanija. The coach there was Nebojša Vučković and, although we only worked together for half a season, he was like my father. He came back from the Middle East to coach Bežanija, but then after six months returned to the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia.
Journey to the unknown
There are many situations and things in my life and career that I didn’t plan for, they just happened. Vučković left and I didn’t speak to him about it or anything, but then 20 days later he contacted me and asked if I wanted to come to Saudi Arabia. I said: 'why not?'. The situation in Serbia wasn’t great financially so I told him to do whatever he had to and I would come. He spoke to my club and they agreed to loan me for six months to Al Ahli Saudi.
There was some scepticism as I was coming from the second division in Serbia but from day one he stood up for me and said lots of good things. I played well, scored 10 goals in 11 games. We lost in the cup final against Al Hilal, after beating Al Ittihad in the quarter-final. That was pretty much my six months.
Saudi Arabia was unbelievable. I came from minus five degrees in Serbia and in Saudi it was 25 degrees. The food was fine for me, but the problem was they ate too late at night! The team was good and the players were really nice guys. Everything around the club was good, and the fans? Unbelievable!
I enjoyed my time there. Even now I follow Al Ahli and keep tabs on how they get on. I am really happy to have been a part of a historic team in Saudi Arabia.
Return to Serbia, move to Korea
There were offers from other clubs, but the president of Bežanija asked me to come back and help the promotion push. So I returned to Serbia and we gained promotion. The next season we began the league in July but in October or November, our owner died. Our sponsorship was cancelled, and the club could only pay us until December.
In January, I got a call from an agent who worked with Incheon United. He asked me if I wanted to go to Korea Republic. I said: 'Take me wherever you want, just get me out of here!'. Two days later we were on a flight leaving Serbia. But we didn’t go to Korea, we went to Guam. Incheon were there on pre-season and I was on trial. I joined their training, played some matches against Japanese teams and, honestly, I did so well! Incheon offered me a contract and I signed it.
Everything went really smoothly. I had a contract, Incheon already had a few Serbian players, Dženan Radončić and Dragan Mladenović. Incheon is one of the teams in Korea who have a history of bringing in Yugoslav players. This really helped my introduction to Korea and my adaption period was so much easier than if I had been alone.
I didn’t eat Asian food at the beginning, but the two players helped cook for the first few months. Korean food is not all spicy, but they like spicy food. So, for the first few months I couldn’t eat the food, I didn’t even like the smell. But then I got bored of western food and told them I couldn’t eat this all my life, so step-by-step, I tried different types of Korean dishes. Now I eat everything, whatever you give me I eat it.
Actually, at first the bigger issue was the football. It was really hard. It was played at a much faster pace than in Serbia; there was a lot of pressing, not much space, so I had to change the style of my game quite a lot. Nevertheless, I had a really good first season.
The soul of Seoul
After a year at Incheon, I was signed by FC Seoul. There were no Serbian or Yugoslav players there, but there was the Brazilian, Adilson, who had played at Red Star Belgrade, so he knew a lot of Serbian words. The left-back Kim Chi-woo played at Partizan Belgrade and Mauricio Molina, who had played for Red Star, came later.
In the first year I realised how big the club was. The team at FC Seoul was unbelievable at the time; the Korean players were so good. I was a foreigner who needed to make the difference but, coming from a small team, it was totally different.
They were great years at FC Seoul when we did amazing things and broke all records. I had a really good relationship with the fans. I had a song from the fans. They like and support all their players, but they don’t make songs about everyone. They loved me so much!
And everyone knew how much I loved FC Seoul.
So when the decision was made to sell me following the 2013 season, my plan was to come back and finish my career there. They found a really good option in China PR with Jiangsu, got a good fee and I was happy with my contract. I was not angry, some things we need to accept as professionals.
At the beginning it was excellent at Jiangsu but later I had problems with the coach. He complained that I wasn’t playing like I did at FC Seoul, but the team was not even close to FC Seoul. I told my agent that if he could find another team I would go, so I moved to Beijing.
I wanted to prove myself in China. If I found a good team, I knew I could do well and luckily Beijing wanted me. That season I finished with 17 or 18 goals and, in just six months with Beijing, I was nominated for MVP. The city was unbelievable, club unbelievable, fans one of the best in the world. Beijing fans – incredible!
I enjoyed life, no stress and I brought my family there. After my contract finished, I told my agent that if they wanted to extend, I’d gladly stay. But they decided they wanted to change their foreigners, so I said I wanted to return to Korea.
There were other clubs interested. But Seoul is the best city in Korea and I was already in the best city in China, so for me it would have been really hard to go somewhere else.
‘Home’ is where the heart is
In the two years I was in China, FC Seoul changed their policy a lot, but they were still aiming to be one of the best teams in Korea. I spoke with the coach, Choi Yong-soo, and he said they wanted to do something great next year. He didn’t need to say too much as he knew I’d go back.
It was like coming home. It was an unbelievable feeling to re-sign and see the fans when I arrived. I realised I belonged there. All my teammates were texting me, saying: ‘Yeah, you’re coming back. Let’s go out!’. It felt like I never left.
We won the championship – my third one – and it was great because we beat Jeonbuk in Jeonju on the last day to win the title. I was really happy that everything went perfectly. People had been thinking: ‘He’s 35 now, can he still play at that level?’. Adriano had an unbelievable season, so me and him were like scoring machines. He scored 35 goals and I scored 25. I realised my decision was perfect!
On the move again
It’s already three years since I left, and everybody knows what happened in 2017. I had been involved in almost every good result of FC Seoul over the previous 10 years. But in 2017, I was really unhappy. I tried to give everything for the team, I fought and I even scored 22 goals.
When my contract ended, though, I was told they would not offer me a new one. Like I said, I had come back to Korea to finish my career so I didn’t want to move again. I felt I wanted to stay because I’d achieved so many good things, broken so many records. I was one of the legends here, so I felt I belonged here.
So I looked for a competitive team. I knew it would be a difficult, hard on the Internet [with the FC Seoul fans], but I couldn’t make a decision based on that. The fans needed to understand why I wasn’t at FC Seoul, not why I was now at [arch-rivals] Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
It was the right decision. We made the AFC Champions League semi-finals and I scored 27 goals, while FC Seoul were almost relegated. That would never happen if I was there, everybody knew that!
There were no mixed feelings, I watched FC Seoul like I was still there. But I’m professional and when I played against Seoul, I tried to score. I would score five against them if I could but, of course, I would not celebrate.
The last hurrah?
The following season Suwon changed the coach and wanted to promote youth. In the last few months of the season I didn’t play in the first team. I told my agent I wanted to finish my career on the pitch in a way I deserved to after everything I’d done in the K League.
I had known the Daegu President for many years and he asked if I wanted to join them. I liked the idea of Daegu and what they’d done over the past couple of years with good foreigners and good young players, so I thought this was good for me and signed for a year.
I told them that they would probably be the last team in my career, but let’s try and finish this year as best we can. I hope the coronavirus will pass, we can start the season and we’ll see who is right again. Maybe it will be an excellent season and I’ll want to play one more!
I cannot see myself being a coach. I told them at FC Seoul I wanted to be a sporting director, a scout or an agent, but that was before I left. My plan is 100 percent to work within Korean football, I’ve spent so long in Korea that if somebody can help in any way, it’s me.
But I also want to have time with my family – my kids are getting older and asking when I’m coming back – so I don’t want to be here all the time. My wife has a business in Serbia, I have a hotel in Montenegro and I want to spend time training kids in my country too.
Looking back, 95 percent of what I’ve done, I would do the same again as every choice I have made was from my heart. Coming to Asia was the best decision.
Some people are meant for Europe, some are meant for Asia; I felt after the first year I could stay here for many years and I was right.
Now I’m like one of the Asian guys. They even call me ‘Dejan Mingu – Dejan Korean’.
Recommended Stories :
Central Asia Domestic Wrap: Istiklol in control as league pauses, Ahal impress
ASEAN & East Asia Wrap: Recoveries, resumptions and remembrance
Jordan’s Al Taamari eager for more success with APOEL