Red Star's jewell up front is said to be the Serbian Falcao and his play so far backs that up, says Charles Ducksbury...
The 60-second story
In a time when almost any young player in the Balkans is sold as soon as any decent fee is offered, it’s telling that Crvena Zvezda Beograd, or Red Star Belgrade, have so far resisted interest in Luka Jovic, with club director Zvezdan Terzic claiming: “Jovic will become the best striker in Europe.”
The young forward is Red Star's prized possession, and already a record breaker. He became the club’s youngest scorer on the final day of 2013/14 when he netted aged 16, five months and five days against Vojvodina, before becoming the youngest ever player to line up against Partizan Belgrade. Last season saw the youngster start slowly before eventually finding his feet; after failing to net a league goal until March, he finished with six goals from 22 games as Red Star finished seven points adrift of Partizan.
Why you need to know about him
- Date of birth: Dec 23, 1997 (17)
- Place of birth: Bijeljina
- Height: 5ft, 11
- Position: Striker
- Current club: Red Star Belgrade (25 apps, 7 goals)
- International: Serbia U19s (7 caps, 4 goals)
In an era where players are ‘brands’ and some even copyright their celebrations, Jovic still looks like what he is: a 17-year-old boy. His simple haircut (he cut his wild, bushy hair last season) and laid-back dress sense mean he could easily be mistaken for any other teenager walking Belgrade’s streets. That’s not to say his brief career isn’t without controversy, with unanswered questions about how much of the player Red Star actually own.
Towards the end of last season, part of the player was sold to agent Fali Ramadani and his Lian Sports agency in a deal rumoured to be worth around £1 million. Director Terzic - previously on the run from Serbian police for almost three years - has consistently refused to declare how much of the player Ramadani actually purchased, but with FIFA banning the practice of third-party ownership in May, the deal will have to end soon.
Jovic would have been part of Serbia’s victorious Under-20 World Cup side in New Zealand this summer but missed out due to a knee injury, though there have been accusations that his club put pressure on him to forgo the competition in order to be fit for pre-season training. He has indeed been part of new coach Miodrag Bozovic’s sessions, preparing for his side's Europa League qualifiers that will start in early July. Jovic himself lamented his long absence, telling HotSport: “This has been my longest break ever, especially with the knee injury keeping me out since last season. My knee still hurts, but I’m training normally.”
“We are looking at the Serbian Falcao,” claimed Terzic at the beginning of last season, though Marakana regulars prefer to compare him to Darko Pancev, goalscoring hero of Red Star’s European Cup-winning side of 1991. Jovic is certainly a more complete forward than a ‘poacher’, preferring to contribute in the build-up around the penalty area rather than wait for the ball. Any criticism of his lack of goals during the first half of last term was muted due to his impressive work around the final third, though last season’s coach Nenad Lalatovic often encouraged the youngster to move closer to the opposition’s goal to do more damage. His off-the-ball movements are those of a more experienced player, while his right-footed assist against Donji Srem hints at a player more than comfortable with his ‘weaker’ foot.
- Shooting 7
- Heading 7
- Passing 8
- Tackling 4
- Pace 7
- Dribbling 8
- Creativity 8
- Work-rate 9
It was probably too early in the campaign to call it season-defining, but his miss at Partizan Stadion was one that could possibly have altered Red Star’s year. After winning their first title in seven attempts in 2013/14, the first derby of last season saw both sides competing at the top. Partizan won the game 1-0, and never looked remotely close to relinquishing their lead over Red Star, but it could have been different had Jovic not fired over from six yards with the scores level. Criticising such a young player is perhaps unfair, but Jovic at this stage is not a natural finisher, which perhaps explains his lack of goals in the early part of the season. Though he improved late on, he still misses a fair amount of chances. Expect this to improve in time.
Before the start of the season, Terzic had to have a difficult conversation with another striker at Red Star. “I called [Ranko] Despotovic to explain why I took the No.9 shirt from him,” explained Terzic. “I said to him: 'You’re a good player but at this moment [Robin] van Persie could come to Red Star and the nine would still go to Jovic.' If we want to sell him for €8m then he must wear No.9, not 46.”
Did you know?
The pride of the Marakana could easily have become a Partizan player. Despite representing Serbia, the youngster was born in Bosnia and, after being spotted playing in a youth tournament, was invited to train with Red Star, who paid for his transport across the border each week. Partizan then convinced Jovic’s dad to allow the forward to briefly train with them, and offered him a contract immediately. Unfortunately for them, Jovic’s heart was set on Red Star and he turned down their terms.
What happens next?
We are looking at the Serbian Falcao
Red Star did reject a £2m bid from Atletico Madrid last summer, which raised eyebrows due to the Serbian side's perilous financial situation, with debts rumoured to be around £27m. Director Terzic explained why he rejected the bid, telling website B92: “Selling him now would ease our finances but I’m convinced, if developed properly, he can be worth four times this amount.”
There has been reported interest from Arsenal, and Gazzetta dello Sport claim Juventus are also in dialogue to bring the forward to Turin. Perhaps a more likely destination is Portugal, as Ramadani has helped move several Serbian players to Iberia, including Nemanja Matic, Lazar Markovic, Filip Djuricic and Stefan Mitrovic, all of whom have joined Benfica in recent years.