Pixie thrills on return to his palace
© AFP

Bebeto, Careca, Michael Laudrup, Gary Lineker, Pierre Littbarski, Salvatore Schillaci, Hristo Stoichkov and Zico are among an assortment of foreign luminaries to have graced the J.League. But in terms of longevity, performance and popularity at the club they served, none of the aforementioned greats can rival Dragan Stojkovic, arguably Japanese football's top all-time import.

The Serbian arrived there in 1994, having been part of Marseille's European Cup-winning squad the year previous, and over the next seven-and-a-quarter years his name was to become emblematic to - and immortalised at - Nagoya Grampus Eight. 'Pixie', as he was affectionately known, inspired Grampus to the only major honours in their history - two Emperor's Cup crowns - was thrice named in the J.League Team of the Season, and pocketed the prestigious MVP award in 1995.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you very, very much and I will never forget you for the rest of my life
Dragan Stojkovic to the Grampus fans after his final J.League appearance in 2001

Stojkovic made his final J.League appearance in July 2001, delighting a sell-out audience with a magical display for Grampus, highlighted by one typically outrageous showboat - a back-heel that set up a goal in a 3-0 win over Tokyo Verdy. "I've always had strong support from our supporters," he said post-match. " ."

And while Stojkovic returned to his homeland thereafter, his legacy lived on in Nagoya. Why, then, when the Grampus hot-seat recently became available, did the one-time Red Star Belgrade No10 elect to risk the magnitude of his popularity to assume his first coaching post?

"Because it's my home, I love the city and the club," Stojkovic upon his appointment earlier this year. "I spent seven beautiful years here as a player. I knew that one day I would come back and now I'm very happy. It will be a challenging year not just for me but for Grampus as well."

Many believed that challenge would be to avoid relegation. Grampus had slid to an 11th-placed finish in the 18-team division in 2007, and had since lost their star player, Keisuke Honda. "Don't expect miracles," warned Stojkovic, keen to quell the euphoric optimism created by his return.

Coach turns to former tutor
To prepare for the task in hand, Stojkovic sought the advice of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who held the reins when Grampus enjoyed their best-ever year in 1995. "I spent a week in London with Arsene and we were together every day," said Stojkovic. "The message and advice from him was to just to have complete belief in my work. And I strongly believe in my work."

Six games into the new campaign and Stojkovic's work has exuded confidence. Having taken 16 points from a possible 18 - an opening-day draw at home to Kyoto Sanga preceding five straight victories - Nagoya Grampus Eight top the J.League standings, one point clear of holders Kashima Antlers and four ahead of reigning Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds, at whom the 43-year-old collected his first victory in his new role.

This game will stay in my mind for all of my life
Dragan Stojkovic after his first victory as Grampus coach, an unexpected reverse of Urawa Red Diamonds

"I'm very, very happy because it's my first win as a coach, so it's a little bit of a special game," enthused Stojkovic after his side's 2-0 success. "Especially against Urawa, who are one of the strongest teams in Japan and also in Asia. ."

Central to Grampus' flying start has been the Stojkovic's ability to extract the best from his charges. Brazilian creator Magnum has been unlocking defences at will, with Keiji Tamada and the Norwegian Frode Johnsen forming an arresting alliance in attack. Yoshizumi Ogawa's box-to-box patrol has also caught the eye, and the cries for goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki to unseat Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi as first choice for Japan have never been more vociferous.

Following a 2-0 win over Vissel Kobe midweek, one which sent Grampus to the Group A summit in the Nabisco Cup, the team will now welcome JEF United to the Mizuho Athletic Stadium, where three points would keep them in pole position in the J.League.

Based in a large, football-impassioned city and backed by the financial muscle of automotive heavyweights Toyota, Grampus are potential giants of Japanese football. They have, nevertheless, curiously underachieved since the 1993 inception of the J.League.

With Nagoya's favourite son back in his palace, Grampus may be en route to finally realising their ambitions.