There are over 40 foreign players in the K-League. Brazil has always been the favored destination for coaches and owners in the market for new talent. Eastern Europe has also been a fairly popular hunting ground and that is where Dragan Mladenovic started a career that has taken in some of Europe’s most prestigious clubs.
The Serbian now plays for Incheon United – the west coast outfit that is a veritable Balkan enclave – but his journey east has been a long one. Born in 1976, the tall midfielder impressed in his local leagues and earned a move to the storied Red Star Belgrade.
The 1991 European champions may not be the continental powerhouse they once were but his performances earned a call-up to the national team in 2003 and a year later, a $3 million move to Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers.
“The history at Rangers is bigger than Red Star,” he said, “but Red Star was European champions in 1991 but with tradition and everything, Rangers are a much bigger team.” A bigger team maybe but it wasn’t an easy time for the player who managed only a handful of games before moving onto Spain. “In Glasgow, they didn’t give me a chance. When I was injured, they brought in other players.”
A lack of fitness was one reason but at least Mladenovic got a taste of the famous ‘Old Firm’ clash with city rivals Celtic. “It was very nice,” he recalled. “I have played a few derbies –Red Star and Partizan, Real Sociedad and Atheltico Bilbao, the Basque Derby and Rangers and Celtic at Celtic Park. That was the best derby. The atmosphere is unbelievable, a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
60,000 fans crammed into Celtic Park must seem a world away from the more genteel surroundings of the K-League where some teams have problems filling the large and modern stadiums from that remain from the 2002 World Cup. “I am a professional but sometimes when you see a big stadium and it’s hard to see a crowd and it’s a little disappointing. They have everything here in Korea, the stadiums –they are unbelievable – but there is no crowd, it is a problem.”
Crowds maybe smaller but the player is happy at Incheon, one of the friendliest and forward-thinking clubs in the K-League. “People who know me, they understand why I came here. I don’t want to speak to the media for private reasons. I wanted to get far away from Europe because I had some problems there.
“I am enjoying Togel Hongkong games, for the first time in my life I am enjoying football. In Korea, they don’t have relegation and they don’t have to fight like in Europe. In Red Star, we won the championship twice, every game we had to win. Here, OK, we go to win but if we don’t win then we don’t get relegated and the players are used to that. That was my problem when I came here, I wanted to win all the time and if we didn’t win then I became angry…at Rangers you have to win. When I went to Real Sociedad, they were second-from-bottom and fighting relegation.”
So there is less pressure in Korea? “Yes, the pressure is much, much less.”
Less pressure but standards in Asia’s oldest professional league are better than many in the west may imagine and after playing in Spain, Scotland and Serbia, Dragan knows that more than most.
“It’s a good league. My friends ask me why I am here but I say ‘believe me, it is a much better league than the league in Serbia and other European leagues.’” And the best team? “Seongnam. They can play in Europe and they would do well. They are the only team that can play well tactically. They run well, they have good players and have good tactics. At any time they know where every player will be and it is good.”
Incheon are not quite at that level yet but the club looks to be moving in the right direction – moving up the table, on to the stock market and soon to a new, purpose-built stadium. Mladenovic would like to see better training and tactics however.
“In Spain, almost everything is with the ball. We don’t spend too much time on the tactical part. In Incheon they have 40 players and many young players. My suggestion is that when you are young you have to learn something. If you play on the wings, you have to learn how to cross well.
“Running is the easiest thing to learn. When you are young you need technical and tactical skills. For me, it is a little disappointing, for the young guys there is too much running.”