Football Features

What happened next? Eight ex-Partizan wonderkids who joined super-clubs

By Ed Capstick

Former Partizan wonderkids who joined super clubs

Published: 9:30, 3 February 2022

Finally, we got there. The news this week that there will be no more ‘news’ about the never-likely prospect of Dušan Vlahović signing for Arsenal is good news indeed.

For all bar former Italian premier Matteo Renzi, the fact that this seemingly interminable saga has come to an end is life-enhancing in every sense.

Not least for those affiliated with his new club, Juventus. Because in “the Zlatan Ibrahimović of Belgrade”, as he apparently dubbed himself, the Old Lady have bagged themselves a real player. Possessing a sublime left foot, a footballing intelligence that belies his years, and the physique of a Greek god, the young Serb is a genuine, bona fide superstar in the making. In fact, with more league goals last calendar year across Europe’s big five leagues than anyone not called Lewandowski, and with 20 in 24 in all competitions this season, there is an argument to state that he is already there. That at just turned 22, Dušan Vlahović’s time is now.

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However, a note of circumspection. This path – from Partizan Belgrade wunderkind, via Europe’s middle class (usually Fiorentina), to a big-money, high-profile move – is a well-worn one. And from the forwards who have trodden it before Vlahovic comes a cautionary tale of hype and hiatus; careers stalled, knocked off course, and in certain cases, irrevocably broken.

Here are eight former wonderkids sold by Partizan Belgrade to teams from Europe’s top five leagues, and how they got on.

1. Savo Milošević

This is the only entry that stretches the definition of ‘super-club’. We promise.

The old grandee of this tradition, Milošević arrived at Aston Villa in 1995 with a big reputation. Having broken into the Partizan first team at 18 and finished as the league’s top scorer in his first two campaigns, Brian Little broke the club’s transfer record to bring him to Villa Park for £3.5m.

It didn’t quite work out as hoped. A total of 33 goals from 117 games across three seasons is hardly Torres-at-Chelsea disappointment, but this was a very decent Villa side and chances were forthcoming. And while he did score some belters – the opener in the 1996 Coca-Cola Cup final a thing of particular beauty and significance – an unfortunate tendency to miss sitters saw him uncharitably christened ‘Miss-a-lot-ević’ by the English press in the process.

Milošević scored the opener as Aston Villa won the League Cup nearly 30 years ago, their last major trophy.

There were extenuating circumstances here. With his homeland riven by civil war, and this being the pints-and-pies Premier League of the mid-90s where the closest thing to a player liaison officer was the kit man, it is little wonder that he struggled to settle.

“It was incredibly hard for him – we weren’t set up to deal with it then,” reflected Little on his former charge, and there remains a sense that in another era, things could have turned out differently. As it was, things turned out alright. He departed in 1998 for Zaragoza, where he averaged a goal every other game before winning the Golden Boot at Euro 2000 for the national side then known as FR Yugoslavia.

This earned Milošević a €25m move to a Parma side at the peak of their fraudulently-bankrolled, fantastically-decadent, wow-what-a-fun-squad-this-is period. After an iffy first season, they signed Hakan Şükür to partner Marco Di Vaio, and career-wise things just trundled on wearily, via some Spanish mid-tablers and a six-month sabbatical, to a fairly inglorious conclusion at Rubin Kazan.

In management, though, Milošević did end up winning the Serbian Cup during a one-year spell as Partizan head coach.

2. Mateja Kežman

Kežman’s is the ultimate tale of ultimate talent, ultimately unfulfilled. A boyhood Partizan fan who went the long way – via the likes of FK Loznica and Sartid Smederevo – to breaking through at his hometown club, Kežman got the inevitable move to Western Europe after a couple of blistering seasons.

From there, the only way was up. Twice a title-winner in four years at PSV, he netted 129 times for them, and as one half of the indomitable Batman and (Arjen) Robben duo, he averaged over a-goal-a-game in the league across his final two years. At 25 years old, and with such sustained productivity under his belt, Kežman was primed to hit the big time.

And then came that year under José Mourinho. Arguably the originator of the god-level-striker-flopping-hard-at-Chelsea paradigm that a certain Belgian is in danger of keeping alive, Kežman endured a torrid season and could barely buy a goal. Leaving for Atlético Madrid after a solitary seven-goal season for the same £5.3m fee he arrived for was not exactly the step up that he had hoped for.

Of his failure, he was in no doubt whose fault it was. “I learned a lot of things in a tactical way but I don’t like him as a person,” Kežman said of José, describing him as “a very difficult person to work with”. While the majority of the footballing world was still charmed by the Special One spiel, Kežman was ahead of the curve. Given how his elite career was effectively over before 30, as he journeyed ever deeper into obscurity, through Fenerbahçe and pre-petrodollar Paris Saint-Germain, to Russia and then China, you could say that he was a little early in most things.

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3. Stevan Jovetić

Partizan – Fiorentina – Intergalactic Cash-Splashing Super Club. Sounds familiar, no? Like Vlahović, who at 16 years old is the youngest player ever to have appeared in the eternal derby (Red Star vs Partizan), Jovetić exploded onto the scene with record-breaking teenaged exploits. Scorer of a first-team hat-trick and made club captain before his 18th birthday, the skilful Montenegrin was one of Europe’s hottest properties back in the late 00s. For a not-inconsiderable €10m, La Viola brought him to the big leagues, and from there he went from strength to strength.

Eye-catching performances in the Champions League against Liverpool and Bayern Munich and some consistently excellent Serie A returns were enough to convince Manchester City of his quality, and in 2013 he was brought to Eastlands for €26m.

It is hard to tell exactly where the wheels came off. When he played, he did well, averaging a pretty whopping 0.94 goal involvements per 90 minutes in the Premier League. But there was the problem. Signed ostensibly by the newly-appointed Manuel Pellegrini, this always seemed like more of a Roberto Mancini acquisition, a suspicion supported by the fact it was the Italian who rescued Jovetić by taking him on loan to Inter two years into his joyless City spell. And while Jovetić did enough to make the move permanent, he underwhelmed after that.

There was a loan at Sevilla and some injury-hit years at Monaco, and he now finds himself at Hertha Berlin, where, to be fair, he is currently doing alright. Still, at only 32, and having been absent from the conversation for such a long time, he is yet another Partizan product who amounted to less than he was meant to.

4. Adem Ljajić

Yet another to transit through La Viola en route to nowhere in particular, but in this case one who was actually never meant to be there in the first place.

Having been earmarked for the best part of a year to join Manchester United alongside Zoran Tošić, it took unforeseen work permit complications, the cancellation of a deal long in the making, and some prime opportunism from then Fiorentina boss and owner of the sweetest left foot in history, Sinisa Mihajlović, to make it happen.

And it didn’t go disastrously. His final season of four in Florence was very good, in fact, as he bagged 11 goals and eight assists in Serie A and earned himself a move to Roma. And in any case, his total of 4,036 league minutes played is 252 times what Tošić managed in what can only be described as an ill-fated spell at Old Trafford. Bullet dodged, you feel.

Still, it didn’t quite happen at Roma, or at Inter, and at the age of thirty, Ljajić is now turning out for Beşikta​​ş. And, regardless of the resurrection that Mario Balotelli appears to have undergone, we know what the move to the Turkish Süper Lig means for most top-level careers. If unsure, just ask Mateja Kežman.

5. Stefan Savić

As far as longevity goes, Stefan Savić is arguably the most successful Partizan export on this list, albeit one who nearly joined Arsenal instead after breaking through at Belgrade-based BSK Borča.

But Savić’s career in a major European league also threatened to be the most short-lived. Costly mistakes in games against ‘Big Six’ rivals Liverpool and Spurs resulted in a swift loss of Mancini’s faith. Taking out the manager in training probably didn’t help, even if former club captain Joe Hart’s gleeful account suggests there were no hard feelings: “It was brilliant. Stefan properly did the gaffer. The gaffer took it well. If he wants to get involved in training he should realise he will get the treatment off the players.”

Fiorentina, on this occasion more safety net than stepping stone, gave Savić a chance to course-correct when they traded this article’s next entry for him, plus around £12.5m from City. They got over 100 appearances, two fourth-place finishes and a Coppa Italia runners-up medal out of the Montenegro international before selling him to Atlético Madrid in 2015.

Under Diego Simeone, he has become a trusted regular in one of Europe’s best defences, having helped deliver the Europa League, La Liga and the bittersweet achievement of a Champions League silver medal (not that Atlético needed another of those).

6. Matija Nastasić

Surely, not another one. What is it with Fiorentina and their ability to improve Partizan youth products to the exact extent whereby they get their big-money move before stalling? A question to pontificate another time, perhaps. All we have are the facts, and they tell yet another tale of nearly, but not quite.

It must be said, however, that there was nowhere near as much hype about the young Nastasić as the others on this list. Regarded as a decent prospect at Partizan, he never made a first-team appearance for the club; it was out on loan at affiliate club Teleoptik that he caught Fiorentina’s eye, and persuaded Pantaleo Corvino to splurge €4 million for his services. A year later, and his services were in such demand that the splurge needed to secure them was many times that figure. Up step Manchester City, who paid €24 million (plus Savić) for the tall, elegant centre-back.

Yet, as Savić had found out to his cost, and Jovetić was about to, nailing down a starting berth at City is fiendishly difficult. And while it started well for Nastasić, displacing Joleon Lescott in the first XI and winning the club’s Young Player of the Year award the season he joined, injury ensured this was about as good as it got. Then followed a creditable spell at Schalke 04 – provided you discount last season’s historic relegation to Bundesliga 2 – and a move back home. Not home home. More a home from home for these Partizan lads. Nastasić is now back at Fiorentina.

7. Lazar Marković

Still only 27, it feels like an age since Marković burst onto the scene and won Partizan’s Player of the Year in his first season as a professional. An age during which, in both figurative and literal terms, he hasn’t really gone anywhere. Because he is now back where he started, having re-signed for Partizan from Fulham (nope, me neither) in 2019, a fact that, at least, he does seem pretty pleased about.

“I’m Grobar,” he said as news of the move broke. “I’m returning to my house.”

Yet, for all that he is now skipper of his boyhood club, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. These peak years were meant to be spent at the pinnacle. It really did look as though they would. The reported subject of some pretty bizarre courtship from Chelsea as a 19-year-old, he eventually signed for Benfica, where in his one season he was a penalty shootout away from winning a historic treble. And then it went wrong. A £20m move to Liverpool followed, where he spent five miserable years, played only 19 league games, and was loaned out to a series of clubs, one of whom was Hull City and somehow none of them was Fiorentina. Sheesh. No wonder he’s pleased to be back in Belgrade.

8. Aleksandar Mitrović

The same age as Marković, but in some sense retaining something of an upward trajectory, Mitrović is currently enjoying a hell of a season. Yes, it is in the Championship, and yes, it is very much on-brand with the too good for the Championship, too bad for the Premier League reputation he has earned for himself. But he has never been this good before.

With 28 goals in 26 games at present, he is on course to bag 49 if he keeps it up. Bearing in mind that only four men have reached 30 since the Premier League breakaway in 1992, that would be quite some haul. But until he does it in the Premier League, where his 24 goals across three seasons for Fulham and Newcastle have come at 0.31 per 90 minutes, there will always be the same sense of what might have been that hangs over his compatriots.

And really, when you take into consideration what he has done this season, the fact that he is Serbia/Yugoslavia’s record goalscorer (44 in 69 games), and the fact that he has already commanded transfer fees totalling £40m, Mitrović’s failure to do it at the highest echelons might just rank as the most perplexing of the lot.

An unplayable brute of a centre-forward on his day – not dissimilar to Juve’s new acquisition — he really does look custom-made to play Premier League football. With Fulham surely as good as promoted, he should get one more chance to do so.