Historical Football returns with a look at one of the most complete left wingers in history…
In the 60s, league football was strong in so many countries that there are an incredible number of players that are forgotten about when the discussion arises about who would make it into the greatest XI of all time. One such player is perhaps the most complete left winger of all time but a man is often overlooked because he played in Yugoslavia – Dragan Dzajic.
Born in 1946 in the small town of Ub, just 50 or so miles from the Yugoslav captial Belgrade, Dzajic joined the Red Star Belgrade youth set up in 1961 and two years later was making his first team debut at left back in the final week of the 1962-63 season.
Dzajic wouldn’t stay at left back for long as his abilities further up the pitch became very obvious. Dzajic was an outstanding dribbler of the ball and had a blistering turn of pace while being able deliver a deadly final ball to the strikers as well. He renowned too for his goalscoring abilities and being remarkably proficient with his “weaker” right foot as well as set pieces (scoring from free kicks and corners was a speciality). Dzajic had no real weakness to his game and he was incredibly consistent. He holds the record for both appearances and goals for Red Star (370 goals in 615 games) and led the team to 5 Yugoslav titles, 4 Yugoslav Cups, the Mitropa Cup (see #5) and numerous other small tournaments. Even his two year spell in France was a success as he scored 31 goals in nearly 60 games for Bastia in the mid 70s. Dzajic retired in 1978 at the age of just 32, a young age for such a talented player.
It’s of no doubt that Dragan Dzajic is most well known for his performances for the Yugoslav national side. He made his debut for them in 1964, at the age of just 18 and was a regular right up until his retirement 14 years later, earning a record 85 caps and scoring 23 times. His big break on the international stage came at Euro 1968. Dzajic led the Yugoslavs to a semi final place against England where he tore the then world champions to shreds before scoring a wonderful lob over Gordon Banks late on to give Yugoslavia the 1-0 win. The English papers dubbed him “the magic Dragan”. Yugoslavia were unsuccessful in the final against Italy after a replay despite Dzajic scoring in the first game but the winger was named top scorer, best player and in the team of the tournament. He starred for the Yugoslavs at the 1974 World Cup and Euro 1976 (where he was named in the team of the tournament again) but not to the levels of 1968.
Dzajic was recognised for his individual talents on many occasions. He won the Golden Badge for being the best athlete in Yugoslavia in 1969, the sportsman at SD Crvena Zvezda (the sports association that Red Star fall under) five years in a row between 1966 and 1970 as well as coming third in the Ballon d’Or in 1968. He is also on of only five individuals to be named a “Star of Red Star” for his contributions to the club and in 2003 was named by the Serbian FA as their Golden Player for being the best player in the last 50 years as well as being widely regarded as the best Yugoslav player of all time.
It’s not just the footballing authorities that have great things to say about Dzajic. Franz Beckenbauer remarked that Dzajic should have won the Ballon d’Or in 1968 ahead of George Best and Bobby Charlton. Pele was even more complimentary:
“Dzajic is the Balkan miracle – a real wizard. I’m just sorry he’s not Brazilian because I’ve never seen such a natural footballer.”
Sadly, Dzajic never did reach the dizzying heights he should have. Staying in the obscurity of the Yugoslav league never really helped him after Euro 1968. He was regarded as a world class winger, one of the best at the time but nobody could see him behind the Iron Curtain. Indeed, he did lead Red Star to the semis of the 1971 European Cup and tore Panathinaikos to shreds in Belgrade before they lost on away goals in some rather questionable circumstances. After 1971, nobody really paid much attention to Dzajic and he was rather forgotten about which is a real shame for such a talented player.
His post retirement years have been spent working behind the scenes at Red Star, first as technical director then president, a position he holds today. Dzajic was taken to court on fraud charges stemming from player sales while in charge at Red Star but nothing came of it as he was given an exempt by the Serbian president in 2012.
Dzajic was one of the most complete wingers ever but never gets the adulation or praise he deserves because of his decision to stay in the obscurity of the Yugoslav league. If he was a Spaniard, Brazilian or Argentinean he would be placed on a pedestal and hailed as one of the greats. Instead, we have to be content with looking back at his career in video form and wonder what could have been if he played elsewhere.
Extra reading on Dragan Dzajic