Former Red Star Belgrade player Predrag Stanković was famous in Serbia for overshadowing Ronaldo at a time when the Brazilian forward was approaching the peak of his mighty powers. A decade and a half later Stanković was making headlines for a wholly different reason, this time as a prominent international drug dealer. Our Belgrade-based regular Bojan Babic picks up the story.
Just over twenty years have passed since that night in Santiago de Compostela when Barcelona’s young and prodigiously talented striker Ronaldo picked up the ball around the halfway line, then powered past half-a-dozen Compostela players on his way to score one of the most staggering goals in La Liga history. The date was the 12th October 1996 and the world was entranced by the dazzling pace and skill of this new superstar Brazilian.
Just 19 days later the very same Ronaldo was virtually invisible on his European competition debut for Barça, this in the second round return leg of their 1996/97 Cup Winners’ Cup fixture against Red Star Belgrade. Although a one-sided fixture had looked in prospect, Red Star offered up the stiffest of challenges to a Barcelona dream team also featuring world-class talent like Figo, Stoichkov, Prosinečki and Guardiola in its ranks.
Ronaldo had missed the first leg at the Camp Nou due to an irrelevant Brazil friendly game against Lithuania, so everyone – including thousands of Red Star fans and the many Serbian journalists in attendance – expected him to compensate for that absence in the Belgrade leg. Everyone except Red Star defender Predrag Stanković, his little-known opponent that night.
This 185 cm tall, left-footed sweeper had arrived at the club two and a half years earlier from local club FK Zemun after Red Star’s entire European Cup winning team had been sold on. Sanctions imposed by the United Nations prevented him and other Serbians playing on the international stage for several seasons, thus he hadn’t had the exposure to foreign scouts that would have typically earned him a chance to move abroad in normal times. So there was a real motivation to prove himself against a big-name opponent like Barcelona (and Ronaldo).
Instead of another night of magic by Ronaldo, a packed stadium in Belgrade witnessed an outstanding performance by the lesser-known of Red Star’s two Stankovićs (the very young Dejan Stanković had already established himself as a rising star). Red Star’s number ‘5’ spent 90 minutes breathing down Ronaldo’s neck and allowing him not a sniff at goal, apart from one single threatening header towards the end of the game. Not only had he neutralised the world’s most lethal striker, Stanković even threatened Vitor Baia in the Barcelona goal from long distance when his free-kick flew narrowly wide of the left post.
After the final whistle Barça’s coach Bobby Robson cheerfully shook hands with his counterpart, former Arsenal player Vladimir Petrović Pižon, and walked off to the dressing room. The Catalans did eventually prevail 4-2 on aggregate, despite having trailed in both legs, then went on to win the trophy outright by defeating Paris St.Germain in the Final. Meanwhile their brilliant Brazilian marksman finished that 1996/97 campaign with an impressive tally of 47 (forty seven!) goals in total.
That distinguished 90 minute performance earned Stanković a contract in La Liga with Hercules and he stayed there for three years before retiring in 2000 at the age of 32. And that’s the point when his story starts to take a most unexpected turn.
The Serbian defender started working as a player agent and became involved in various business ventures with a couple of other retired Spanish players. Everything seemed to be going well for him until shocking news broke in Serbia seven years ago – Predrag Stanković had been arrested in Madrid and charged in connection with the smuggling of 950kg of cocaine from Argentina. In 2014 he was sentenced to nine years in prison with his appeal against the conviction unsuccessful.
Predrag Stanković’s footballing legacy as a disciplined, hard-working professional who always gave of his best and, on one memorable occasion mastered the world’s greatest forward, has sadly been forever tainted by his nefarious post-football activities.