Over here and overlooked – Darko Kovacevic

Apparent misfits in the Premiership, more than a few imports have gone on to have perplexingly good careers elsewhere. We tracked down three of them, Gabriele Marcotti looking at Darko Kovacevic

If he hadn’t been run out of town after making just eight starts for Sheffield Wednesday, perhaps Darko Kovacevic might have earned himself a funky nick­name in Yorkshire. Certainly, English fans tend to be a little more imaginative than their Spanish coun­ter­parts (“Golacevic”was the best Real Sociedad sup­porters could come up with). Perhaps he might have entered Sheffield lore as the “Darko Destroyer” – after all, he was Nigel Benn’s contemporary.

Kovacevic won’t be too bothered, however. The Serb­ian striker managed to trade Yorkshire pudding for cartloads of pesetas, not to mention a chance to com-­pete for real silverware at Juventus and Lazio. In the summer of 1996, Wednesday were all too glad to sell him on to Sociedad, where he starred for three seasons, netting 16 goals in 30 appearances in his final year.

All of a sudden, Europe’s major clubs began to take notice, because serviceable big men who can mix it up in the six-yard box, not embarrass themselves with their first touch (or lack thereof) and, most importantly, hit the back of the net, are the rarest of commodities in the modern game. Juventus won the Kovacevic sweepstake, beating Inter, Borussia Dort­mund and Real Madrid and signing the 6ft  5in striker for £14 million in 1999. Sheffield Wednesday fans may have been surprised to find out that their former big man’s valuation had risen sevenfold in just three seasons.

The Italian international and Kovacevic’s Juventus team-mate Ciro Ferrara put it best when he said: “He’s huge, he wins headers. He runs into people, he scares opponents. And if the ball is in front of him, he can kick it very, very hard.” That’s why Kovacevic was an instant hit in his first season at Juve. He scored 20 goals in all competitions (including ten in the UEFA Cup) and developed a reputation as  a supersub.

He started just three matches, but made another 23 appearances off the bench, making a huge contribution and notching an average of one goal every 128 minutes, which, over a season, would have made him a 25-goal-a-year striker. Except Kovacevic’s magic only seemed to really work when he came on as a sub. That season, Juve’s frontline was skilful, if lightweight: Alessandro Del Piero and Pippo Inzaghi.

After spending most of the match chasing Del Piero’s dummies and Inzaghi’s dives, adjusting to the Golem-like Kovacevic was no easy feat for most defenders. It was the old “change-of-pace” routine and it work­ed a charm in his first season. The trouble was, op­­­posing teams eventually figured out that Kov­acevic could only do so many things. The next summer Juventus bought David Trezeguet, a guy who is as big and strong as Kovacevic, but can also play some football.

It became obvious that the Yugo­slav’s days were numbered and he was moved on to Lazio in part-ex­change for Marcelo Salas in the summer. He’s had very little impact in Rome, largely be­cause Lazio already have a target man (arg­uably the world’s best) in Hernan Crespo, which means Kov-acevic is buried deeper and deeper at the end of the bench.

The odds are he won’t stick around long, as Lazio’s bloated wage bill needs cutting. “I have fond mem­ories of everywhere I have played,” he says. “I did not stay in Sheffield very long, but I enjoyed myself and I hope people remember me as a good man. The same applies to my other clubs, but I think I probably per­formed best at Real Sociedad.”

Kovacevic, like Savo Milosevic, is one of the east Europeans who passes through the English game al­most unnoticed, only to gain fame and fortune else­where. Was David Pleat hasty in dispatching him? Or did he figure out that his stud was a dud, some­thing Serie A is only now realising? Probably a bit of both.

Kovacevic won’t be mistaken for Marco van Basten anytime soon. But he’s a serious professional who’s durable, tough and scores the odd goal. And he’s very tall. Which means he’ll always be a £10 million player.

From WSC 179 January 2002. What was happening this month