A three time K-League top-scorer, twice K-League winner and thorn in the side of England during 2014 World Cup qualification, Dejan Damjanovic was quite a catch for Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Sainty in the winter transfer window.
Finishing his time in Korea on the losing side of the 2013 AFC Champions League final, prior to which he was named “Asia’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by Guangzhou Evergrande coach Marcello Lippi, perhaps there was a draw to the CSL for 32-year-old Damjanovic who clearly saw a challenge in last year’s underperformers from Nanjing.
On the back of being surprise runners-up in 2012, Sainty limped to a thirteenth place finish in 2013 but recruited impressively ahead of the current season with Damjanovic’s move the most eye-catching of the club’s activity.
Giving his time to Wild East Football in a short break between training sessions in Beijing, Damjanovic expressed his enthusiasm for his new challenge as he confronts his first season in China.
Dejan, I wanted to start with one of the high points of your career to date and something that caused me great personal pain, how was it scoring against England?
It was really one of the best moments of my professional career, as England are one of the top national teams. To play in these important games, looking to qualify for the World Cup, and have one of my goals decide the game; I am really satisfied with my performances against England.
I scored in a few really important games during qualifying, but when you have yellow cards plus injuries you have no chance when we already have a small squad. Montenegro has 600,000 people and there are more around this Beijing hotel right now, but no one can say we don’t have the quality. It’s just that we lack options, but that will get better in the coming years.
You came to the CSL from the K-League, which was very good to you in terms of goals. How would you sum up your time there?
It was the best and most important time in of my life—6 or 7 years—and I played at some big clubs. I made everything I want to be there and became a Champion. I’m not at Manchester United or big clubs like that, but in Asia I really made it; I did some really good things. Korea offered me a really nice life, it was perfect.
How would you describe your development as a player during that period of playing in Korea and for Montenegro internationally?
Many people say that, at a certain age, you really become a football player. At 28 and 29, you minimise your mistakes and it’s really unbelievable how it happens. It’s exactly right. From 2010, everything changed and six years in the same team helps, as you know them and they know you.
You arrived in China along with your countrymen Fatos Beqiraj (Changchun Yatai) and Radomir Djalovic (Shanghai Shenxin), was there any coincidence in those moves?
Beqiraj went to the same club as Serbian coach Svetozar Sapuric. There were so many Serbian players and coaches in China before, but then they just changed everybody and no one can explain that.
I’m really happy to see three Montenegrin players in China and I am sure Sapuric will come back, as he did a good job here. I really think the players in Montenegro are good and are still not too expensive because we didn’t qualify for a World Cup. They can get more of a chance, I think.
Moving on to Jiangsu, how do you think they are performing compared to last season?
Last year, I think they were not prepared well to play in the Champions League and CSL. I told [former player, Aleksander] Jevtic (now at Liaoning Whowin) and [Dragan] Okuka (now coach of Changchun Yatai) when they came to Seoul that they need to be prepared and ready because the ACL is very different to league football and the players are always at 100 percent.
When Jiangsu went back to the league they lost their power. Most of the players, especially the local ones, were playing two games a week for the first time in their lives. Travel is also an issue, so this year it’s a bigger advantage for us to not have so many games.
What are your thoughts on your own performances so far?
I’m not too happy because I missed some nice chances in games against Liaoning and Shandong, but now I am focusing on helping my team.
I didn’t come here to score 20-30 goals and say I did my job, I’m trying to help the team more than add to my goals and give my maximum by doing some of the dirtier jobs on the field. I think it will get better after these few games once the players around me understand me and I understand them. In the future, there will be better performances from everybody.
Jiangsu have quite a good new unit of people around the squad with yourself, Roda Antar and Gao Hongbo but you struggled a little in the beginning, why was that?
Before the season started against Guizhou Renhe we had five players on international duty. I came Friday morning and we played Saturday night. Some came on Thursday afternoon and the players were all tired.
We were under pressure because we didn’t win against Guizhou, then Harbin got a lucky goal and we just beat them. Then we had Guangzhou Evergrande; I have respect for them because they are truly a top team in China. We had a tight schedule at the start of the season and it had a big impact, but now we started to show what we can do with some really good performances.
Already there appears to be some gaps in the league and Evergrande look strong. But, do you feel there are gaps in quality within many of the sides?
Evergrande are a top team and have so many games. They had no holiday because of the Club World Cup and the Champions League, not forgetting they will pick up injuries. It’s good that they can balance that out and I think they will be champions; they show how a team can be champions.
Other teams didn’t show me much power until now, even Shandong. We killed them in that game. Harbin, being new to the league and having to adapt so much, must have been hard. If you give us seven away games to start with we wouldn’t do well. The league is on a very similar level and certain passes from some foreigners, or good Chinese players, can change a game. Many things can change this year, but it depends on July and August.
A lot is said about the role of a foreign player in China and you said yourself here it’s your role to help the team. Do you sense that is more important here than in the K-League for example? Do Chinese players need more guidance?
Generally, I cannot say there is much difference between Chinese and Korean players. At this age, I feel I made something in Korea and here I just need the team to play well. If we can make top four, that would be like me being a top scorer before. It’s nearly impossible because to finish thirteenth and nearly be relegated, then to finish top four would make a perfect season. Obviously if chances come and I try to score goals then I will, but I’m focusing on improving the team and the players, adding motivation and confidence.
You learn the basics when you are 12, 13 or 14 and now you cannot teach players how to shoot, for example. You can just improve their confidence so they try something new. When I was in Korea I though, if I go to China maybe that is my purpose. I proved I can score 20 goals, finishing fourth now would be something new to prove.
Are any Chinese players sticking out to you at the moment at Jiangsu or teams you have played against?
I must say Shandong Luneng’s Zhao Mingjian. He’s the kind of player we need. He played well against us and I’ve watched a few games with Roda as he came here from Shandong. [Zhao] showed something different from other Chinese players.
Also, Shandong’s Zhang Wenzhao played well against us. He’s just a small guy but was very good. I’m not going to comment on foreigners, they are there to be different and if they don’t play differently then they are out. The left winger from Guizhou Renhe, Yu Hai, also. Players like this have shown me something different in these first few games.
Finally, I read a piece about you by John Duerden profiling you as the first foreigner to really make a name for himself playing in Asia. What are your thoughts on that idea?
Well, firstly, playing in the national team helped me to show Asia in its best light. When I came from Korea to play for the national team and my first game was good, then the second was good and I got one or two goals, they started to check my performances online.
Montenegro started getting to know the Korean league because of me and they started to say the standard wasn’t bad. They wondered why players weren’t making it to Europe.
Asia gave me that chance and I’m going to finish my career here in China or Korea, I don’t want to finish my career in Europe. Marcello Lippi told me I am the Asian Ibrahimovic ahead of the Champions League final and, when someone like that says that about you, it really makes you think about what Asia has done for you.
Beijing-based Peter Davis has followed Chinese football since 2008 and is a regular contributor to Wild East Football. He can be found on Twitter and Weibo @peteydavis
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