Throughout the last few months, it appeared that Manchester United were getting close to signing Filip Stevanovic, the highly promising Partizan Belgrade starlet.
It even made symbolic sense, because the 18-year-old striker was born in Uzice, the hometown of the great Old Trafford legend – Nemanja Vidic.
Now, out of the blue (or light blue if you like), it turns out that Stevanovic is on his way to Manchester City. A 4.5-year contract has been agreed from the beginning of 2021, and the forward will remain at Partizan until the end of the season. The fee is estimated at €8million, which would appear to be a major coup if the player manages to fulfil his potential.
The promise is obvious for all to see. Ever since making his top division debut almost two years ago, in December 2018, Stevanovic caught the imagination of everyone who witnessed him in action. Light-footed, imaginative, blessed with exquisite dribbling skills, he showed audacity and maturity even at the age of 16. Stevanovic is quite versatile too – he prefers to be positioned on the left wing, but is capable of equally impressive performances on the right and through the middle.
Savo Milosevic, himself a Partizan legend as a young striker who went on to have a decent career abroad including a spell at Aston Villa, took over as coach soon afterwards and didn’t hesitate to give the prodigy a lot of opportunities as a starter. Stevanovic flourished under his guidance last season, scoring nine goals in all competitions, but most importantly he wasn't afraid to ask for the ball and at times lead by example.
"Stevanovic is one of the most talented players I've seen in my life", Milosevic said in an interview to Scouted Football, "His right foot is deadly from any range. His football intelligence is extremely high. If I have to compare him to someone, I would say Eden Hazard. They have similar weight, height and technique. Both are strong on the ball when they turn and face the goal.”
Stevanovic is one of the most talented players I've seen in my life.Savo Milosevic
The local media were actually even more ecstatic, and some dubbed Stevanovic as the "Serbian Cristiano Ronaldo". The winger himself, though, admires Ronaldinho, even though he is too young to remember the very best years of the Brazilian superstar for Barcelona and the national team. Indeed, he was born in September 2002, three months after Ronaldinho famously caught David Seaman standing off his line in the World Cup quarter-finals. And yet, he watched a lot of videos, because Ronaldinho is definitely his favourite role model.
"Ronaldinho was just special. He had magical power. Thanks to his incredible ball control, he did things nobody else could. Nobody even could dare to think of them", Stevanovic says. He has a soft spot for Barca, even though the Catalans were not specifically mentioned in the long list of potential suitors that included – alongside both Manchester clubs – the likes of Liverpool, Real Madrid, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund.
Scouts always prefer to watch players against serious opposition, and thus the Eternal Derby fixtures versus Red Star Belgrade were especially important in order to evaluate Stevanovic's progress. Manchester City must have been delighted, therefore, that Filip found the net in the 1-1 draw against his side’s bitter city rivals a week ago – such a strike should boost his already impressive self confidence. In fact, Partizan are unbeaten against Red Star with Stevanovic on the pitch. Last season, he was a starter in the 2-0 home win, and replaced Lazar Markovic at half-time in the goalless draw away.
Lazar Markovic… The name sounds familiar, right? In the beginning of the decade, he was the brightest talent at the Partizan academy, he was seemingly destined for greatness. Light-footed, imaginative, blessed with exquisite dribbling skills, he was a pure delight to watch. In retrospect, Markovic was quite similar to Stevanovic, or maybe it would be more logical to mention them vice versa.
The story of Markovic is a sad one. He was sold to Benfica in 2013, Liverpool acquired him for £20million in 2014, and that is where his rise ended very abruptly. After unsuccessful loan spells at Fenerbahce, Sporting Lisbon, Hull City and Anderlecht, and a disastrous adventure at Fulham, he is now back at Partizan – and even there frequently as a bench warmer. At the age of 26, his career at the very top level is almost over. The world has lost this delightful prospect who sank without trace.
Markovic is not alone. Andrija Zivkovic was extremely highly rated as a young winger at Partizan, but was incapable of performing after signing a huge five-year contract at Benfica in 2016. The Eagles eventually stopped using him and tried to ship him off to no avail for four years, as Zivkovic just enjoyed receiving his hefty salary.
Eventually, the Portuguese giants managed to pay him in order to terminate his contract – and Zivkovic signed for PAOK only to gun Benfica down in the Champions League qualifiers a week later, but that hilarious story should be told separately. The bottom line is that Serbian youngsters often struggle to develop after making big moves, and Luka Jovic's struggles at Real Madrid highlight that phenomenon perfectly.
A top Serbian journalist, who chose to remain anonymous, explains: "It is difficult to expect Serbian players to reach top level, mainly because of mentality issues. Many talented players don't really care about football. They build careers just to earn a lot of money, and lose interest once they have achieved it.
"It is not entirely their fault. The coaching system is terribly outdated, and agents only care about money. The agents' ambitions often determine the players' career paths. They don't think ahead, lack long term planning, and love making immediate revenues.
That is why you rarely see Serbian players at clubs like Salzburg and Rennes. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was an exception when he chose to start at Genk, and he was the last top talent who really made it all the way ."
Many talented players don't really care about football. They build careers just to earn a lot of money, and lose interest once they have achieved it.Anonymous...
That is the big danger in Stevanovic moving to Manchester City. He comes from a good family, is well educated and always has smile on his face.
Milosevic praised his attitude, claiming: "The boy is very professional. He listens to everyone – ready to learn and work everyday".
And yet, Markovic was a nice hard-working lad with a charming smile too. That wasn't enough, and a strong character is needed in order to survive at the top level, especially after a big move to a very rich club.
Skills alone won't be sufficient, and just trying to emulate Ronaldinho won't turn Stevanovic into a world class magician. He has to find his inner Vidic as well. But then again, he was born in Uzice.