By Ryan Steele (follow Ryan on twitter @Steelinho)
It is December 1, the final day of the J. League season and the day we unveil the person at number one in our list of Top 10 Foreigners in Japanese Football.
And it’s a choice that is unlikely to be a surprise to followers of the Japanese game, a person that continues to have an influence to this day as one of the leading coaches in the J. League.
1. Dragan “Piksi” Stojković
Nationality: Yugoslavian Clubs: Nagoya Grampus (1994 – 2001; 2008 – present as manger) Games: 183 Goals: 57 Position: Attacking Midfielder
Honours: J. League MVP: 1995 J. League Best XI: 1995, 1996, 1999 J. League Manager of the Year: 2010
Considered a hero of Red Star Belgrade and former European great, the Serbian-born playmaker and FR Yugoslavia National Team number 10 arrived in the J. League to play at Nagoya Grampus Eight alongside Gary Lineker in his last season at the club.
Brought in by the later-replaced Gordon Milne, he was arguably the most creative in a fairly lacklustre side.
When Arsene Wenger, the now-Arsenal manager, arrived to coach Nagoya Grampus in the following season, he utilised “Piksi” (nicknamed after the character from the cartoon Pixie & Dixie & Mr. Jinks) as the focal point of a creative revolution.
Stojković’s abilities were the star attraction, however, and he would often take the ball in a deep area and run through the defence seemingly with ease, occasionally even juggling past his opponents.
Arriving in Japan as a 29-year-old, he managed to play eight seasons with Grampus Eight whilst simultaneously featuring with FR Yugoslavia in the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship.
Following his retirement after the 2001 J. League season, he returned to Yugoslavia to serve as President of the Football Association and later as president of the club at which he was worshipped, Red Star Belgrade, but this did not end his time in Japan.
Following his resignation as Red Star’s president, he turned to the coaching profession and returned immediately to Nagoya Grampus at the start of the 2008 season. A strong first season, where they finished 3rd in the league to earn an AFC Champions League (ACL) berth, they spent the 2009 season rebuilding the squad whilst managing to reach the semi-finals of the continental competition (hampered by a slightly disappointing 9th place league finish).
The rebuild was a successful one, bringing in the likes of Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Joshua Kennedy and former Red Star midfielder Igor Burzanović to claim the J. League title ten points ahead of second place.
With a “makes you feel small” gaze, an outspoken nature and a natural ability that has even been shown off in his managerial career with a famous volley scored from the technical area against Yokohama F. Marinos, Piksi has become a cult figure in the J. League and a favourite amongst many Japanese football fans, and it looks like his tenure in Japan is far from complete.
* Credit to Scott McIntyre (SBS), Ben Mabley (The Blizzard and Football Japan Minutecast), Alan Gibson (JSoccer Magazine), Sean Carrol (The Japan Times), Cesare Polenghi (Goal.com Asia), Dan Orlowitz (Goal.com Japan), Ben Maxwell (JTalk Podcast), Mario Kawata (@MarioUrawa) and Paul Williams (Asian Football Feast) for contributing to the compilation of this list.
This list only considers those who did not represent the national team, meaning the likes of Wagner Lopes and Ruy Ramos were not in contention.