There will never be another Dejan Damjanović, a foreign star who is synonymous with K League in the way that the former Montenegrin international has been for the best part of 15 years. Few, if any, will ever come close to achieving what Dejan has on these shores, let alone a player from overseas. In an exclusive interview, and the first in the K League Legends series, Paul Neat speaks to Dejan about his illustrious K League career.
Those who saw Dejan in his prime should count themselves extremely fortunate. FC Seoul fans in particular who watched him score well over 150 goals in all competitions during an eight-year association with the club. With three K League titles, one League Cup, an FA Cup winners medal, 189 goals and 45 assists to his name heading into 2020, and with spells at Incheon United, FC Seoul, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, and now Daegu FC, Dejan is the embodiment of a living legend and is a very fitting way to start this new series of K League Legends.
Do you remember how the move to Incheon United happened?
That was, really, totally accidentally. Random. At that time I was in Serbia, I was looking for a club because I was almost 26 and it was time to find a club abroad. My agent called me and he said, "would you like to try Korea? I have a club for you." Normally I would just say: "sure, when are we going?" He brought me to Guam, I didn't go to Incheon directly, I want to Guam for pre-season and it wasn't to sign a contract, it was a test. But, I did really well, played really good in the friendly games there and they signed me after one week.
When the season started, they started asking me many questions: "how are you adapting? Did you have any problems?" I said: "it's okay. I'm adapting step by step". Food was a little bit of a problem for me in the beginning. I didn't eat spicy food, I was eating only European food and then after six months I started trying Korean food. Adapting to the smell and taste of Asia kitchen everything else was more or less okay.
I had help from my players, Dragan Mladenović (Serbia) and Dženan Radončić (Montenegro). It is much easier when you have your language in the team and they were here before me so they help me a lot so everything was much easier. The most important year for foreigners in Korea is the first year and I had really a lot of help, a lot of luck and everything went really well. And now look, 2020 and I am still here.
Did you adapt faster than you thought you would? 14 goals in your first season...
At that time Incheon was not a bad team, we fought for playoffs. Now, when you ask me, I think I adapted very well but at the time I didn't think about this, just playing game by game. I didn't complain, they [the club] were happy, I was happy with everything in Incheon and in Korea. Now, when I look back on this time, I think I adapted pretty well. So I think that's more than okay for foreigners in the first year, six months if they can adapt, understand Korean life, football, culture, and then it's okay. If you can accept that you can stay here many years.
|Dejan in action for Seoul against Incheon in 2016, returning after two years in China.|
After one season at Incheon, FC Seoul came calling. Looking back, that was perhaps the best decision you made in your football career, but was it an easy decision?
Very easy. I was on holiday, Incheon sent us on holiday because the season had finished. Incheon called me in the December: "Dejan, come back here". I said: "how come I have to go back? I'm on holiday, I have a contract. Why are you calling me like this?"
I came back, they said "Dejan, we sold you to Seoul." During the season I was always speaking to Dragan [Mladenović] about FC Seoul and we watched the game against Manchester United and we were saying "this is the team for us!" Seeing unbelievable fans, stadium. And then they told me in December that they sold me, they fixed a transfer fee, "Dejan, go fix your conditions there".
"Gladly! Gladly." The next day I went there, negotiated about my conditions, they gave me a four-year contract and then history started there. I was ready totally to start a new life in FC Seoul. I think that's the best decision in my life, my professional life.
Did you feel the difference in the size of the two clubs?
Yeah, you can see that even when we played against them. I saw that they are much bigger but I didn't feel that until I started playing with them. Totally different games, when I was playing in Incheon I had a lot of space, everybody attacking us, we were a team who were always making counterattacks. When I was in Seoul, I saw how they are respected in K League. Everybody staying back, we need to attack. It's much harder to play in FC Seoul, much more responsibility, much more pressure. I needed a few months to understand that, to feel how FC Seoul play and what that means when they are playing for championships. And after maybe six months, I was starting to do well and after that automatically I was scoring goals and winning.
So, you had already envisioned that you would like to join FC Seoul or a big club like them, but I bet you never thought just how well it would go?
Normally, the only K League team I watched on TV when I was playing in Incheon was FC Seoul. Güneş, at that time the coach at Seoul, Şenol Güneş, he was that guy who told the club that Dejan must come to FC Seoul, he's the guy who made the decision that I am going to FC Seoul, he needed me. And then, when I came there, I was so happy. Everything went perfect for me, normally I was without injuries, the players accepted me well, results from almost the beginning...in 2008 we were playing in the K League Final so that first year I was nominated for MVP. We lost the final, because of me, honestly. I missed some chances but from the first year I understood what it means to always be the best. So, from that feeling when I was watching them on TV, everything was even better when I was at FC Seoul.
You won three K League titles with Seoul, which one was the best?
2012 was the best one because we really killed them, everyone in this K League 2012. But, 2016 you can say that was really sweet, a sweet title when you win against Jeonbuk in the last game. They needed just a draw, we won there in the last game of the season and we celebrated in their stadium. For sure, no one expected that and Jeonbuk probably already planned their championship ceremony, we took that title from them so every title has some special meaning. 2010, that was my first title, we won in two games and double crown (K League Cup), and every season had something special so I can say that those times are really nice memories.
You left to the China but you always knew that you would come back to K League, didn't you?
My plan was, from the beginning, always I was saying that I want to finish football in FC Seoul and retire there and try to stay after football with FC Seoul. When my contract in China finished, I had a lot of offers to change clubs, not to stay in Beijing, but I said that I don't want to. Luckily, that deal was done and I came back in 2016, and everybody knows that I left a lot of money and a better contract in China for the next maybe two or three years just to come back and finish football in FC Seoul.
|Dejan in his final appearance for FC Seoul, a 3-2 home win over Jeju United 19th November 2017.|
Everything went really well, 2016 K League champions and 2017 I played really good but then this happened with our ex-coach [Hwang Sun-hong] and everything changed direction. I am sorry that these kinds of things happened. Every time I speak about this [leaving FC Seoul] I am a bit disappointed but life goes on. I am sorry with everything that happened but my plan was to finish with FC Seoul but it was finished when in December 2017 they said they will let me go.
It's not just FC Seoul that means a lot to you, it's K League and more than just football. Whatever happens after this season, whether you stay involved in Korean football, K League will always be part of you life and, likewise, you will always be part of K League...
Yeah, for sure, even when I finished at FC Seoul I was saying to my agency that I want to stay in Korea, I don't want to go anywhere else. I feel that Korea is my home, it has given me so many nice things and a nice life and my family like it always. K League is always going to be with me and I am always going to be with K League. Even now, I am in Daegu and I told them, I am just a Daegu boy, I am just thinking about Daegu and I am going to see how this season goes and then we are going to see for next year but, for sure, only K League.
You must be looking forward to playing at DGB Daegu Bank Park for the first time as a Daegu player?
For sure, Daegu will be full - I can promise you this. I can feel now when we are in the city, sometimes when we go to have some coffee and everybody recognises us, everybody likes football in Daegu. Daegu will have a full stadium every game, especially in the beginning it is going to be a crazy atmosphere, so let's see how this goes when I am playing for them.
The squad looks really strong, it is shaping up quite nicely. What do you think this Daegu team can achieve this year?
I hope we can do good things. From what I have seen now, we have everything from the physicality, to a lot of running, a lot of quality, we have young players, experience. When I came, I saw that they are totally different, a different team - believe me. They have a lot of young players, national team players who are playing, not only training, but in the first XI, a lot of confidence, physically unbelievable.
|Dejan, Edgar, Cesinha, and Tsubasa make up Daegu FC's foreign quota for 2020.|
Now I see why Daegu was running like this last year and were an unbelievable team. Plus, they have Cesinha, Edgar, Tsubasa came back from injury, now I am here so you have everything: experience, quality and talent in the same place so I think with our fans this team can do really good things. I don't know if that's going to be enough to make some unbelievable season but top four is for sure the plan for everyone and try to qualify for ACL.
There's a new coach, Lee Beung-keun, who you know from Suwon, what's he like to work with, what's his philosophy?
He's in his third year here now, he knows the system, he knows how the team works in Daegu and he has a good relationship with the players, I could see that from day one. I think he's understanding, he gives a lot of freedom to young players and not too critical, always supports them and they are doing well. Let's see when the official games start and we will see when there is pressure on everyone, from us, to coach, we need to win, everyone is playing to win. But in training I can see that he understands the team, the team believes and trusts him so I think that's a good sign for the season.
Have you spoken with the club about what your role is expected to be within the squad, within the team?
For sure, they didn't bring me just to take photos with the fans. I think everyone is expecting that I can help the team in many ways, normally on the pitch and also outside of the pitch. We didn't speak about specific things. Many games in this pre-season I started, some I was in the second half so if the season starts from April maybe it is going to be a really tough season with a lot of games, Wednesday games, so probably I will have a lot of games to help the team.
I didn't speak about whether I will play 90 minutes, or 45, or 10. I am just preparing for the season, everyone will have their chance and I know that if needed I can jump in and help. If some games I need to start from the beginning I am ready for that. I adapted really well in the team, I have a good relationship with everyone so let's see how and when he is going to use me but I am here to play, not take photos.
Is Daegu FC the final chapter in your playing career?
Yes, probably. I will not say "never", I will not say "100%" but this is my last professional football team. I think that's some realistic story. I always had that dream that I could go back and have one more year with FC Seoul and finish there now but now I am in Daegu and I will try to do the best I can.
|In 2018 Dejan scored 27 goals in all competitions with Suwon Bluewings, reaching the ACL semi-final.|
Does it make you more determined to score goals and contribute when people talk about retirement?
I know that people will always expect from me that I score goals and do well because they got used to this. Even at this age they are expecting me to score goals and I understand this. That's normal, I like that because I was doing this for the last 15 years. But I don't want to finish football like last year [at Suwon Samsung Bluewings]. Honestly, that's my priority. I am really determined to prove that I can still play but not to everyone else, just to myself. I want to retire in a normal way. I don't expect to play every game but just to be in the squad and to retire in a normal way how I think I deserve.
Does talk of retirement bother you?
I know it's hard, even for me, I feel good but to say I am going to retire that's realistic. I am coming up to being 39 and for sure it is going to be hard when I decide 100% that that's it, I am going to retire but I am preparing for this. Life goes on and I'm am going to be with my family more and do something else in football with K League. For sure, the best time is when you play on the pitch but I am just mentally preparing for this situation and I think I am going to handle it well. This is how life goes, you are coming to this age and new players, new kids come and you can not follow this anymore so it's time to step back and watch them grow and do something else.
If not football, I will stay in K League in some way. We will see at the end of the year how this will go and what the plan from the team, from K League association, but I am sure we can find some solution for me that I can stay in K League even after football if I decide to retire. I will live in Serbia but every year I will be here for a few months, that's my life. My plan to retire in FC Seoul didn't happen but, for sure, I will stay in K League and I am going to do something with K League in the future.
When you do retire you will be able to do so without any regrets. You have won nearly everything that there is to win here and can look back on a great career.
Yes, I can be more than happy with my achievements and what I did here in Korea and when I look back. When I was in Serbia and came here in 2007 I didn't think that I would stay here so long and do these kinds of things. Almost all records are mine, foreigner records all mine, in all points I am only behind Lee Dong-gook and probably I would have done even better if I didn't go to China and stay here two years more in my almost peak. I did unbelievable things, I won almost everything. This ACL will haunt me all my life, how I didn't win that so it is something that I will always regret just a little bit but everything else I did and I enjoyed my life here and will enjoy it even after football.
If you could press a button that takes you back to the very beginning of your K League career and relive it exactly the way it was, would you do it?
Sure. Let's say 2007, when I came in Incheon, how many decisions that you must make? Say 50 decisions I made in my K League career, 49 I would do the same. Maybe one decision I will do differently, I'm not sure when but I am sure that some decision maybe I could have done better. But everything else, I will do automatically the same because I enjoyed my life, I enjoyed on the pitch, my family did too so I don't need to change anything.
Honours & Statistics
2007 Incheon United
26 apps, 14 goals (40, 20 in all competitions)
2008 - 2013 FC Seoul
K League 1 (2010, 2012)
League Cup (2010)
AFC Champions League Runner Up (2013)
181 apps, 116 goals (236, 143)
2016 - 2017 FC Seoul
K League 1 (2016)
Korean FA Cup Runner Up (2016)
73 apps, 32 goals (94, 41)
2018 - 2019 Suwon Samsung Bluewings
Korean FA Cup (2019)
54 apps, 16 goals (74, 30)
K League Players' Player of the Year 2010
Korean League Cup Top Scorer 2010
K League 1 Best XI 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013
K League 1 Top Scorer 2011, 2012, 2013
K League 1 MVP 2012
K League FANtastic Player 2012
AFC Champions League Dream Team 2013