Kitchee’s Dejan Damjanović needs no introduction. One of the most feted names in Asian football has adapted into Hong Kong football in a short period of time. The acclaimed striker has scored crucial goals, with 15 goals under his name, as Kitchee aim to secure a second league title in a row. The hugely experienced Montenegrin striker has a wealth of experience across the Asia-Pacific, including time in the K-League and Chinese Super League and can boast goals against England in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
At a time when Hong Kong football needs a real boost to draw back interest and fans, Damjanović is seen as the perfect remedy for the ailing local league and his goals and enthusiasm are a testament to this. Dejan has enjoyed his time in Hong Kong football so far, and the feeling is mutual as HK fans definitely enjoy the positive impact he has made. This adoration was reflected in Damjanović winning the HKPL player of the month award for February and March.
Importantly, he wants to add to his tally in the Asian Champions League as another goal will make him equal to Lee Dong Guk’s total (37) in the Continental competition while another will make him the official record holder.
Damjanović has been in Asian Football for a long time yet he expressed that he never ever dreamed he would live in the Asia Pacific for so long. Tearing up defences in the K-League and Chinese Super League has been Damjanović’s calling card yet as a youngster, he wanted to play for either Red Star Belgrade or Partizan Belgrade.
Red Star or Partizan …or Both!
“Never did I expect to be in Asia and we must be honest and not lie about these things. When I was born in Mostar (In the former Yugoslavia) and later, when I was living in Serbia, like every kid, I was just dreaming to play for Partizan Belgrade or Red Star Belgrade. When you were young, you watched the biggest derby match in Serbia and you are dreaming of one day playing for them and wearing either the Partizan or Red Star Uniform.”
Like all football fans when they are young, Damjanović would see how the ‘Wind Would Blow’ in terms of which team to support.
Red Star. They Are My Boyhood Club!
“Let’s say now I’m a Partizan fan but I never prefer one team and they (Red Star and Partizan Belgrade) are always joking with me now because I had some chances to play for both of them. Yeah, but they (Red Star and Partizan never selected me back then), they selected other players or had another combination (of players) and they told me ‘We need to sell this guy and then we’re going to bring you in’ like a classic transfer story. I didn’t dislike them but I knew at that time that I deserved to play. They called me but they never signed me. When I was younger I preferred Partizan and later I was like, yeah, I like Red Star as they started doing well and then now, let’s say Partizan are like literally everybody’s favourite team.”
Damjanović started off his career in Serbia with FK Sinđelić Beograd and he realised, as his career progressed, that he needed to think ahead in terms of extending his career and then he got his fortunate break in 2007 as he signed for Incheon United. The move opened up his Asian adventure which still has not ended and he realises how great this opportunity was.
“Like every kid, I was dreaming of playing at one of the big clubs. I was playing in Serbia until I was 26 and when you are 26, you are not young anymore in footballing terms. The situation in Serbia and football is not that bad but there is no money so you are basically trying to find some playing solution for the last 15 years of your career. Luckily, Asia came up and this was really really without any real plan and any idea that I could finish in Asia and stay so long here. Yeah, this was pure luck, but I think the best decision in my life was when I signed for Incheon United.”
Damjanović now says Asia is his spiritual home as it has been part of his and his family’s life for so long though he stressed that though, many people like it, some may find it hard to adapt immediately.
“Someone asked me about this before and I was saying, Asian culture is totally different from European, South American and African culture. When you arrive in Asia, the first impression of your first couple of weeks or months is very important as you adapt or you don’t don’t adapt; you like it or you don’t like it.”
Even the best players and coaches who have a fine pedigree have found it hard to adapt to Asian football though some thrive and excel and adapt their league’s country as their new home.
“I have been here in Asia for so long and I can see from my point of view as I now have a lot of experience from seeing how people adapt. For example, there are many good players, even better than me; well they came but they couldn’t stay as they didn’t like it. They could not adapt at all. From the first day that I came, I felt it was nice. I like the food and I like the communication with the people across different countries.”
Photo: Arirang Korea
Damjanović has no regrets about moving to Asia and now even considers himself as ‘Half-Asian.’
“Now when I look back and I know that moving to Asia was the best decision and this is like now part of my life and I have adopted an Asian lifestyle even when I’m in Europe. I dine in Asian restaurants a lot and I am always trying to keep an Asian lifestyle regardless of where I am in the world; in terms of what I am going to eat. I’m ‘half Asian’ even though I’m an European guy! I really feel that I changed my life and I feel I am like 50% Asian, really!”
Damjanović is synonymous with the K-League and South Korea is a large part of his professional and personal life.
“Everything I like in South Korea, because that’s why I stayed when I signed contracts to stay a little bit longer. My first experience was in Korea and I like it. So that’s something that is very important. Some people cannot adapt to Korea and Asia but I could.”
Photo by Christie Leung
Life in the Asia-Pacific
Damjanović’s children have moved around with him as his career progressed and they have adopted a ‘third culture’ kid type of lifestyle; moving around the world and soaking up different cultures and life lessons as they have moved around.
“My son was born in Seoul but my daughter was born in Belgrade, Serbia. She is older and that was in 2010 and that was my fourth year in South Korea. We were like ‘Let’s have the first kid be born in Serbia as our family’s there and everybody’s there so it’s really a little bit more as comfortable.’ But in 2014, we decided that my son was to be born in Seoul.”
How comfortable are his children in Asia as they have spent the majority of their life in the Asia Pacific?
“Let’s see my daughter is more comfortable because she has stayed longer in Asia. My son was born in 2014 and I was moving teams. He was a baby and he cannot remember anything from back then. In 2014 to 2015, my family was in China and then in 2016, we came back to South Korea so they had already had like five to six years in Asia.
My daughter feels more Asian than my son though generally they like Asia and my son always is saying ‘I’m Korean. I was born in Seoul so I am Korean’ but I said, ‘You don’t have a passport yet so don’t say this! You need five years to stay there and then you can apply for a passport me in Korea.’
Photo by Christie Leung
Hello Hong Kong!
Damjanović first experience of Hong Kong was quarantine though he knew some facts about Hong Kong football before he arrived.
“I knew a couple of Hong Kong teams like Eastern and Lee Man and before there were teams like South China but now they are basically amateurs yet before they were the biggest team. This is one of the biggest problems in Hong Kong football as you need to have some steady and stable teams. The biggest professional league teams must get sponsors though this is not for me to say as I have only been here one month (at the time of the interview). I did not know too much about Hong Kong football but what I needed to know I asked Nikola Komazec and my intermediary at Kitchee, Anthony. They gave some basic information and sent me some links about Hong Kong football and about life in Hong Kong and about the lifestyle in Hong Kong and the culture and everything so I had a couple of weeks to check everything before I came to Hong Kong.”
Damjanović knew he could quickly adapt to HK due to all of his previous experiences.
“I have been in Asia so long so it cannot be that hard to adapt. I was in China and I was in South Korea and I was even in Saudi Arabia and now, I am used to sub-tropical weather.”
Hong Kong is notorious for its hot and humid weather though Damjanović loves this climate and says it suits him well and his nickname is a testament to this.
“I was in South Korea for so many years and I was always called ‘Summer boy’. When I was in the K League, during the first couple of games, I was always a slow starter. I don’t like cold weather and in South Korea, you start playing in the last week of February and it’s still cold and it carries over to March. I’m always like ‘I don’t like this cold weather’ so I cannot play and then from April and starting in spring, I am doing better so they always call me, even in Korea, ‘Slow starter’ and ‘Summer boy’ because I hate cold weather. So, this weather is perfect, even if it is so hot, it is still perfect! I like to be dressed casually always with slippers and shorts. You don’t have to check for items like gloves. Yeah, I don’t like cold weather. I’m Summer boy!”
It is official….he scores more goals in the hot weather!
“The K-League officials checked when my biggest percentage of goals was and it was from May to August. I like this weather as it’s easy to play; that’s my biggest advantage over other opponents as in summer, everybody’s slower than usual and you need to think fast. This is what I use better than other players and I’m taking my (goal) chances as some of my opponents are faster than me.”
Video: Scoring Against England in a World Cup Qualifier
Age is Just a Number
Damjanovic is in his late 30’s and intends to play as long as he can and can take inspiration from Kazuyoshi Miura who is still playing into his fifties.
“I know Kazuyoshi Miura personally and he is an impressive person. I met him in 2016. I met him in Guam, an unbelievable Island for tropical weather. We were going there for preseason when I was in Seoul and I met him and he was doing pre-season with his individual coach for his preseason with the team so that was a preseason for preseason!”
It’s unbelievable what kind of professional he was. That time was like five years ago now. Yeah, he was 49 and it was amazing how professional he was. I respect him even more after that so I met him to speak and he could speak English perfectly! He is an unbelievable guy. Kazu is a brand and the best marketing for J-League and his team Yokohama FC so I respect that.”
The Food Factor
To keep playing at the top level, takes discipline in terms of diet and exercise and Damjanovic does keep an eye on the food and drinks that he consumes.
“Now at my age, I’m trying just to do some basic things. Yeah, you must be careful in terms of what you are eating. Yeah, a lot of fluid, no more sugar and no more juices. No more chocolates and no more bread; I have not eaten bread for the last seven or eight years minimum. So you must be careful about your food so you must be more professional than usual.”
Beers and Brates!
Damjanovic does admit that he likes to relax with a beer or two after games as he feels it is his way to unwind and relax. He is also thankful that he has never had a serious injury or had to undergo any operation.
“Probably, I could even be in better shape if I have a strict diet. All my life, I was like this, professional, but not totally professional! Even after a game, I like to have a couple of beers. I like this routine and I never changed it.
Now I’m 39 and thank god I have never been seriously injured! Never seriously injured and never missed more than two games in the season and never had any operations. So, I like this time of my life. I’m professional but I like to loosen up. Some days, I celebrate more than usual and have a couple of beers so I’m not really on a strict diet but I’m really trying to keep track of what I’m eating before games.”
The Pressure of Playing
Damjanovic acknowledges the perks of being a professional footballer though he does also give voice to the stresses and pressures that it can bring. Fans expect results and goals and this expectation can weigh heavily.
“Generally for football players and professional sports people, even if people think we are enjoying life like now, doing interviews, etc, we have a lot of stress and a lot of responsibility. For example, yesterday (at the time of the interview) we played a game against Resources Capital and it was a lot of pressure on us as we cannot miss this chance to win the game. If we win then everything is normal but if you draw or something then things collapse. It is a big issue and people ask ‘Why did we not win?’ You know, who will be seen as the biggest problem? The foreign players.”
Some footballers do have large salaries, though a playing career is so fleeting and remaining at the top is always a challenge as there are always new players on the rise.
“Yeah, so even if it looks like we are enjoying life; players still have a lot of stress. This pressure is what we need to handle along with the responsibility because teams are paying you for this. Teams don’t pay me because I’m cute and I speak nice stories because I’m doing well on the pitch. Teams are gonna pay me until I’m not achieving targets like that. So, when you have these kinds of stress….. though what is stress? Stress is when you don’t have something to eat, but for us in this professional life, teams give you money and they expect a lot from you. Yeah, sometimes even when you have little bit more pressure on yourself, you must do something you must do well; you must score a goal or make something as they are paying you for this. And then when I finish these aims then I’m happy.”
Not So Easy At The Top
Damjanovic does seem to thrive on the pressure cooker of being a top scorer and has had the tough mental outlook to overcome all obstacles since he was young.
“All my life, there has been pressure, ‘Dejan scoring goals’ and ‘Dejan will finish the game.’ All my life, even when I was in Serbia, I was scoring goals. When I was in Saudi, I scored 10 goals in 11 games; even in Korea, all my life ‘Dejan will score goals’ so I get used to it, man. ‘I understand you (teams) give me money and teams pay me what I want. And then don’t, don’t worry, I know I will be guilty for everything if we don’t win. But don’t worry, and I get used to it but even after every game, I’m professional and I’m still having this patience in football to win.”
Damjanovic will give his all as a player and professional and then switch off and enjoy life as everyone else would.
“So when I give all my best and we win a game, I like to go home and speak to my friends and have a couple of beers and watch games. Yes, it is my time, I will never change that. Yeah, maybe this lifestyle is perfect for me. Yeah, I’m a professional, I’m doing the best on the pitch and outside of the pitch, I have one day for myself. Tomorrow again, I will give my all in training to prepare for the next game. I could even be in better shape with a strict diet though that doesn’t mean that I will stay healthy like this, maybe I will get some injury.”
Damjanovic is an extraordinary person who in some ways is quite ordinary. He loves his football and likes a beer or two to relax.
Many HK fans will raise a glass to him for raising the profile of HK football and for his immediate impact. Where Dejan goes, goals follow.