He may not make as many headlines as some of the other star names packing the Inter Milan dressing room, but there is no doubting Dejan Stankovic's vital contribution to the Nerazzurri's run of success in recent years.
The marauding midfielder's career began in the colours of Belgrade giants Crvena Zvezda (formerly Red Star), where he became the club's youngest-ever captain at the age of just 18. Between 1994 and 1998, Stankovic picked up a league winners' medal as well as playing his part in three domestic cup triumphs, all of which helped earn him a move to Serie A side Lazio.
His impressive performances in Serie A soon earned him the nickname Il Dragone, while Stankovic's first goal in Italian football against Piacenza was just one of many that won him a special place in the hearts of the Lazio tifosi. After adding a scudetto, an Italian Cup and two Italian Super Cup winners' medals to his collection, as well as the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1999 and the same year's UEFA Super Cup, Stankovic was signed by Milanese giants Inter midway through the 2003/04 campaign.
Brought to the San Siro at the insistence of then coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who had previously worked with the versatile midfield man in Rome, Stankovic has since won three Serie A titles, two Italian Cups and three Italian Super Cups in the famous blue-and-black stripes.
However, his success at club level has not yet been matched on the international scene. The latest setback for the Serbian international came with his country's failure to reach UEFA EURO 2008, though Stankovic has accumulated no fewer than 76 caps since 1998, scoring 13 goals, as well as appearing at the FIFA World Cup™ finals in 1998 and 2006.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, held at Inter's training ground in Appiano Gentile, the 30-year-old outlined his burning ambitions for the remainder of his playing career. Chief among them is victory in the UEFA Champions League, as well as appearing at a third edition of the global showpiece in South Africa in 2010.
Dejan, you were appointed Crvena Zvezda captain at just 18
years of age. How did you handle the pressure and what did you learn from that
Dejan Stankovic: I was brought into the first-team squad at 16 and made my league debut six months later. I was already well established at the club having come all the way up through the youth ranks there. So at 18 I already felt mature and wearing the captain's armband never weighed me down. On the contrary, I was fulfilling a childhood dream. I couldn't help but become more mature, those kinds of responsibilities make you grow up faster. Being captain didn't have that many perks but it remains an unforgettable experience.
the more senior players react to your appointment?
There wasn't any jealousy, and that's normal because I had come through the Red Star youth system. It's a tradition at the heart of the club that home-grown youngsters go on to become captain sooner or later. Of course, I used to take decisions only after consulting with the players, notably by asking for advice from the senior pros. But they never judged me for it.
Nowadays at Inter, you yourself are part
of the core of more experienced players. How would you rate the progress you
have made since the start of your career?
I've never stopped improving. The results speak for themselves; I've won a lot of titles over the last five years. But I don't intend to stop there. There's a very important trophy that I haven't won during my time at Inter: the Champions League.
What have you learned from the
various coaches you have had at Inter?
I've had the opportunity to train under Alberto Zaccheroni and Roberto Mancini, both of whom I'd already worked with at Lazio. I never had any problems, I always respected them and I never ceased to learn from them. Nowadays I've got the good fortune to be working with Jose Mourinho. He's a winner, a coach who is behind many of the innovations in the modern game.
experienced both the Rome derby with
Lazio and the Milan derby with Inter. How do the two matches differ?
You can't compare them. In Milan, it is a real spectacle. Playing in the San Siro, in front of 85,000 supporters, is a truly fantastic occasion. The Rome derby is a tenser affair. The entire city catches derby fever, even up to ten days beforehand.
discuss the Serbian national team. Do you regret missing out on UEFA EURO 2008?
Very much so. But we've only got ourselves to blame. We got off to a good start, putting in four good opening performances. Then we were unlucky with injuries and suspensions and were never able to field our strongest side. We later lost in both Kazakhstan and Belgium, two unacceptable defeats. They lost us our hold on top spot as well as some vital points. The 0-0 draw against Armenia [on 13 October 2007] shattered all our hopes.
Were those results indicative of
Serbia's dip in form or are national teams in Europe becoming more evenly
The weaker teams are continually improving and the gap is getting smaller. The financial resources available in these nations are growing. Even the smallest nations can often call on foreign coaches who revolutionize their football, particularly in tactical terms. The Faroe Islands exemplify this change. A few years ago they'd concede at least five goals a game but that's no longer the case. We only beat them 2-0. Nowadays, you must respect everybody.
changed for Serbia in recent years?
First and foremost the coach! Radomir Antic was appointed a week before qualifying started for the next World Cup. He's very well respected in Serbia and his experience will be useful for us, particularly for the younger players. Besides which, since he arrived we've got off to a good start with three wins and just one defeat, and that was against France.
What do Serbia need to find in order
to compete with the very top sides?
Consistency. We often start well and quickly become complacent. I hope that Antic manages to change that mentality, keeping us focused throughout without ever taking our feet off the pedal. For example, we mustn't lose points against the smaller nations as it could be disastrous.
How do you see the qualifying stage
We've only played four matches so far, that's why we must stay focused. In contrast to qualifying for the European Championship, which with eight teams involved seemed more like a league championship, our group [for South Africa 2010] only has six nations in it. It's more direct. Above all else we must win all our home matches. We'll also have to beat Romania and France, our two most dangerous opponents.
subject of France, do you and Inter team-mate Patrick Vieira share a bit of
banter each time your two nations meet?
We've not had the chance as yet. I only played 50 seconds of the away match because of an injury, but I'm ready and waiting for him to come to Belgrade!