In Montenegro, Dejan Damjanovic is a man who needs no introduction. On target in high-profile 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers against Ukraine, England and Poland – among others – he was the key performer in the Hrabri Sokoli's (Brave Falcons) campaign to reach Brazil. Although their bid ended with a third-place finish in Group H, Damjanovic's exploits at least forced Europe to finally take note of his talent, the 32-year-old enjoying genuine star status beyond the Old Continent.
It was all very different at the start of his career, of course, the Mostar native flitting from one Serbian club to another after making his professional debut in 1998. A forward with all-round ability and measuring 1.86m tall, Damjanovic had been forced to move to the country during the conflict that scarred the region during the 1990s, but in 2006 he was offered the chance to discover new horizons. Suddenly, Asia – and stardom – beckoned.
"No two players have the same career trajectory," he explained to FIFA.com. "Some find success in America, others break through in Europe. A little by chance, my career took me to Asia, and I would have a hard time regretting it. I wasn't unhappy in Serbia as you get to play high-quality football there, but I was looking for a place where I could fully blossom, and I found it."
The K-League has no reason to be envious of certain European championships. I'd say it's the equivalent of the Belgian or Dutch top flights, leaving aside perhaps PSV Eindhoven or Ajax.
Damjanovic did not have to wait long to make his mark, scoring seven goals in eight games for his first Asian side, Saudi Arabian outfit Al Ahli. That served as his calling card on the continent and convinced Incheon United to bring him on board, whereupon he rattled in another 14 strikes in 26 matches. With his stock high in Korea Republic as a result, Damjanovic was then lured to Seoul, and five years on from that switch he is considered a local legend.
"Of course, it wasn't all as idyllic as it seems," he said. "The first few weeks were tough. You need a certain amount of time to settle in, but thanks to the quality of life here you end up adapting very quickly. I feel at home now and I think that that's the most important thing." The most prolific foreign player in the history of the league, he has no intention of leaving either. "I've had several chances to return to Europe, but I prefer to turn them down. It would seem like I was starting a new professional career, with all the difficulties that would bring. I'm happy and relaxed here, and very attached to my club, Seoul."
Unsurprisingly, the feeling is mutual. Damjanovic is a feted figure in the capital of Korea Republic, thanks largely to his 113 goals in 189 appearances, but also due to the fact he is funny, intelligent and amiable. "It's not exactly revolutionary, but the better you play, the more people love you," he said. "And maybe people accept me more readily because I'm someone who's relaxed. The fact that I've shown respect for the club by staying here a long time surely counts for something as well." The only downside is the language barrier. "I get teased a lot but I just can't manage it. It's impossible for me to speak Korean."
Morocco instead of Brazil
Instead, Damjanovic does his talking on the pitch, and he is enjoying the South Korean game. "In terms of the football, the play here is really good," he explained. "It's quick, technical and physical. The K-League has no reason to be envious of certain European championships. I'd say it's the equivalent of the Belgian or Dutch top flights, leaving aside perhaps PSV Eindhoven or Ajax. In any case, it's one of the best in Asia judging by the good results of its clubs in the continental tournaments."
Damjanovic ought to know. Having helped Seoul win the K-League in 2012 with a haul of 31 goals, he is now gearing up to face Guangzhou Evergrande in the AFC Champions League final. "They're a great team," he said. "For me, they're the favourites, especially as they'll be playing the second leg at home. But I'm still confident we can spring an upset, not least since Guangzhou always find it difficult every time they play a South Korean side. We'll do everything we can to bring the trophy home, which would be a historic achievement for my club."
Victory would also propel Seoul into the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013, a superb consolation prize for Damjanovic, who "dreamed above all of leading my country to Brazil". And that would be the ideal occasion for the rest of the world to learn once and for all about the prolific goalscorer making a name for himself far from home.