By Sean Carroll
Japanese football fans were treated to something of a reunion earlier this month, as Dragan Stojković returned to the country as manager of the Serbia national team for a friendly against Japan’s Samurai Blue.
The 56-year-old is of course a legend of the J.League, having spent eight years with Nagoya Grampus (then Nagoya Grampus Eight) as a player and then a further six in the dugout as their manager. As well as offering up countless memories on the pitch during his playing career, the man known as ‘Piksi’ also helped deliver Nagoya’s sole piece of league silverware in 2010 when he guided the club to the J1 title.
Stojković’s J.League career started with a bang on August 10th 1994, when he was sent off in the first half of his debut against Sanfrecce Hiroshima after picking up yellow cards in the 16th and 18th minutes. Things got better the following month though, as he scored his first goal for Nagoya with a free-kick in the 74th minute of a 3-1 win against JEF United Ichihara (now JEF United Ichihara Chiba) - the game in which he also performed the famous juggling dribble as he attempted to launch an attack on a waterlogged pitch.
He achieved new heights playing under Arsene Wenger in 1995, finding the net 15 times and being named as Player of the Year, as well as making it into the J.League Best XI. This was something he achieved in 1996 and 1999 as well, while he was also the only foreign player to be voted into the 20th anniversary team selected in 2013.
Stojković hung his playing boots up in the summer of 2001 - signing off in suitably dramatic style by scoring a 96th minute V-Goal penalty against Sanfrecce Hiroshima on his last home appearance in July - and then returned to Nagoya as manager seven years later.
Before delivering the J.League shield in the 2010 campaign, Stojkovic also made global headlines the previous season after another sending off incident went viral.
On October 17th, 2009, Nagoya were away to Yokohama F·Marinos at Nissan Stadium, and with the game level at 1-1, a Marinos player needed to be treated for an injury. The home goalkeeper Tetsuya Enomoto kicked the ball out into touch, and Stojkovic read the flight of it perfectly as it entered his technical area, emerging from the bench to catch it sweetly on the volley and send it looping directly back into the goal without taking a bounce - all this despite the fact that he was dressed in his suit and patent leather shoes. The finish unsurprisingly drew cheers and applause from the crowd, which Stojkovic warmly received, but the referees weren’t quite so impressed and instead gave him a red card.
Just to make things even worse, Nagoya then went on to concede again in the 89th minute to lose 2-1, so Piksi was probably not in the best of moods on the bullet train home that evening.
The following year, though, would offer plenty of celebratory moments for Stojković and Nagoya. After finishing third and ninth in his first two seasons, he steered the club to glory in 2010, finishing 10 points ahead of second-place Gamba Osaka and adding a Manager of the Year trophy to the plentiful accolades he had claimed as a player.