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Feature Interview: Dejan Damjanović is ACL's Greatest of all Time

After a three-year wait, and concerns that he may never get to play in the ACL again, Dejan Damjanović is officially the AFC Champions League's all-time leading goal scorer with 40 goals, a feat achieved in this year's competition with Hong Kong Premier League side Kitchee SC. His name will forever be etched into Asian football history but for someone who came so close to winning the competition for both FC Seoul and Suwon Samsung Bluewings, the goal record is the least he deserves.

Individual achievements in a team game are a bonus but for Dejan Damjanović, a man who has been synonymous with the AFC Champions League over the last 12 years, becoming the outright top scorer in the competition feels like justice. Heading into the 2021 AFC Champions League Group Stages, Dejan was one goal short of equalling the record and two goals short of being the outright top goal scorer. Of course, the man who he had to beat was fellow K League legend Lee Dong-gook. Dejan had to wait nearly three years to get his chance again in ACL but once the 2021 Group Stage kicked off, it didn’t take long for him to get on the scoresheet. 

His 37th goal - to equal the record - came in Kitchee’s 2-0 win over Port FC in Match Day 1, his 38th which eventually sealed the record outright came in the 2-1 loss to Cerezo Osaka just a few days later. Then, to put daylight between himself and the chasing pack, goals 39 and 40 came from 12 yards out in back-to-back matches with Guangzhou FC. 

During K League United’s interview with him pre-ACL, Dejan said that the season would be considered “perfect” for him if he was able to follow up the Hong Kong Premier League title win, his Player of the Year Award, and golden boot win with the ACL record in the bag. Job done, then? Dejan thinks so. 

"Yeah, this is perfect for me, for Kitchee, for Hong Kong football generally. Normally, you always be a little bit sad that we couldn't make this last step and make it to the second round because it was possible, really possible. But in six months, I took all the plastic and glass and trophies what you can take in one country. So it's perfect and I hope we can repeat this season again in 2022, we will go again in Champions League."

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In 2018, while in the blue of Suwon Samsung, Dejan equalled Lee Dong-gook's record of 36. But, after Suwon Bluewings failing to qualify for the competition in 2019, Dejan wasn't quite so sure he'd get another chance to play in the Champions League. "That was my biggest concern: ‘can I play one more time ACL?’ Because that next year (2019), Lee Dong-gook scored one more goal and went above me. So, I was like ‘how I'm gonna get my ACL chance?’ I'm coming in this age and, you know, people like to speak ‘he’s old.’ You know this, they speak last five years about me. I understand this, they have a right. I'm so happy that I'm still making them look stupid."

Of course, after leaving the Bluewings, Dejan signed for Daegu FC and helped guide the Sky Blues to ACL qualification, scoring nine times and coming ever so close to hitting 200 K League goals in the process. But, the club decided not to extend his stay beyond 12 months and he was back to square one again. “I went to Daegu, we qualified for ACL and I didn't stay. I was thinking maybe, if I don't find something for ACL now, probably that will be my last ACL campaign. But I found Kitchee and I was really happy with this and was really focused on this record, because I didn't know if too many chances will come again. It's possible at 39 and 40."

Dejan had to wait nearly three years to get his chance. Before joining Kitchee SC in January 2021, his last ACL match was the semi-final second leg between Suwon Bluewings and Kashima Antlers at Suwon World Cup Stadium on 24th October 2018. To come so close to reaching a second ACL final of his career, it might be easy to look back and rue what happened that night but Dejan sees it differently. 

"Not too much," is his response when asked if he thought about that particular game much afterwards. "I didn't think about this but when I speak with (Elvis) Sarić we remember this game and we always remind ourselves what kind of game we had at that time, what a crazy game [it was] and how it ended and that we didn't go to the final. I'm sure that was a chance to win ACL."

Suwon had such an unlikely run to the semi-finals that year with the team's home form almost seeing them eliminated after the group stage. All three of Suwon's group stage wins came away from home. In fact, the Bluewings' only home win was the Round of 16 clash with fellow K League side Ulsan Hyundai which set up the quarter-final tie with Jeonbuk. A 3-0 win in Jeonju was followed up by a 3-0 home loss and a dramatic penalty shootout victory.

"I must admit when we passed that Jeonbuk dream team I was sure that we can reach the final and then we have the chance to get this title especially me, I'm chasing this title all my career. But, I was over that [defeat], I gave my best. I know I played really good all these games all season in Suwon Samsung and we did unbelievable season, an almost perfect season so I cannot be sad, we give our best we didn't have luck that time. I remember, I was a little bit smile, little bit sad - it's okay. I was over that."

I was there that night at Big Bird on 24th October 2018. The atmosphere was electric even before the game plus it’s always special when it’s Korea versus Japan in ACL. That night, Suwon were having to fight back from 3-2 down on aggregate having lost in Japan a fortnight before. The Bluewings needed a result at home but disaster struck with just 25 minutes on the clock when Kashima went 1-0 up through Shuto Yamamoto who made it 4-2 on aggregate. Suwon came out fighting in the second half and scored three in the space of eight minutes, cranking the volume up several notches around the stadium. The mood up in what was a very partisan press box was that of relief. What happened next simply wasn’t in the script. 

Some questionable defending allowed Nishi Daigo to pull it back to 3-2 on 64 minutes, just four minutes after Dejan had put daylight between the two teams. At 5-5, with two away goals each, the game would be heading to penalties. But, after laying on the assist for Yamamoto at the beginning of the night, Serginho dealt the crucial blow to make it 3-3 and 6-5 overall. At 3-1 up I had begun writing some rough questions for the mixed zone afterwards, ‘congratulations, you are through to the final, how does it feel? - that sort of thing. I just didn't foresee what was about to happen, nor did anyone else in the stadium it seemed because you could hear a pin drop.

It was a real travesty that Suwon lost that night, you could see it in Dejan’s reaction afterwards that he knew that was probably his last chance to win the Asian Champions League. He had dragged Suwon through the group stages, scoring a brace in a 2-0 away win over Sydney FC, one in a 2-0 win away to Shanghai Shenhua and the winner away to eventual champions Kashima Antlers. In the knockouts, Dejan scored three over two legs against Jeonbuk in the quarters and two - one in each leg - of the semis with Kashima. Football is a team game but teams need players like Dejan - proven goal-scorers who have made finding the back of the net their craft. 

With around 85 minutes on the clock that night I decided to pack up my stuff and head down to pitch level and watch the last few minutes from the sort of tunnel area near the corner flag close to the north end, the end Suwon were attacking in the second half. Dejan was visibly fuming, kicking the turf and swearing to himself. Of course, I cannot say for sure what he was thinking or feeling at that time but, for me, it was as if he had done absolutely everything that he could to claw that limited Suwon side through to the semi-finals, only for some of his teammates to let him down. That’s how it appeared from my perspective. 

I then ran inside again and took up position in the mixed zone. Big Bird must have one of the best mixed zone’s in K League, it's long and narrow and the players from both dressing rooms, one at each side at the end of the long corridor, have to walk the same way to get to the team coaches parked outside. This means you don’t have to stand on one particular side to get an interview with a home team player like it is at FC Seoul for example. 

Dejan must have been one of the last people in, I thought I had missed him in the time that it took for me to scuttle back inside. Goalkeeper Shin Hwa-yong was one of the first in after me but he was given another reason to be annoyed as the doping team decided it was right at that moment that he should be tested. Dejan eventually did come in, I didn’t interview him as I didn’t want to bother him. Plus, what could I ask him? He spotted me as he walked to the dressing room, we did one of those sort of open hand handshakes and half hugs and I said that I was "sorry." Then he told me that he was going into the dressing room to have a few stern words with his teammates, or words to that effect anyway. 

But that night felt like an injustice after what happened at FC Seoul and the way the club backed Hwang Sun-hong. He deserved better.  He came even closer in 2013 - scoring in both legs in the final for FC Seoul against Guangzhou Evergrande only to lose via the ever cruel away goals rule. Then in 2016, FC Seoul reached the semi-finals but, essentially, lost the tie in the first leg by losing 4-1 to Jeonbuk. He may never get the chance to lift the ACL trophy but being given the chance to break the ACL goal record feels like some sort of justice. 

"I deserved [the record]. And yeah, everything what I did during these 12 years, I'm saying playing in ACL, I deserved [it]. I mean everybody who played with me, who played against me, knows how I behave when we play ACL and how I'm looking on this competition and how I'm competitive when I'm playing this competition. And everybody, for sure, was lucky and happy to have me like this as his teammate. And I did my best. Like I told you before, always, I'm doing and trying to do my best, to give all I have on that game because I know this is the biggest and the most important competition in Asia. 

"And I like to always be competitive, always fighting and playing against the best teams, best players in Asia because I'm looking at it like I'm one of them who is always playing for one of the best teams from Korea, playing ACL we were K League champions so we need to represent it in the best light, always. Korea at that time now Hong Kong, even in China when I was in Beijing, so that was normal for me. There is no joke. No smiling, no funny, no friendly - this is a game where you need to give 100%, so I was like this all the time. And in the end, luck and everything came perfect for me. And I grabbed this record, I now move to 40 goals. And maybe I could score a few more. You're gonna see."

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The dynamic was different in 2021, he was playing for a league champion in Kitchee but being one of the lowest ranked teams in the competition meant expectations were different. "We were really dominant in Hong Kong and we did really good job. I cannot say easy win the title, but it looked much easier than it was. Every game, when it was important, we won so when we came to ACL, I told them, 'guys, this not gonna be the same competition, you cannot be dominant, you cannot attack all the time, you cannot keep the ball all the time.' So I was a little bit concerned, just how everything will look in the first game, a lot of pressure. 

"Four or five players from our best 11 didn't come with us because we had too many more foreigners than what we can use in ACL. So it was a totally different squad, players coming from Asian qualification games after one month in Bahrain. I'm saying now 100% we will pass the group if we had these four players - these players are excellent. So I was a little bit concerned with how everything would look, a lot of pressure on me, 'Dejan is here to chase the record, we can do something.' So I was a little bit concerned until the game started. 

In the first game against Thai Port, Kitchee took the lead - not through Dejan, but through Roberto in the 37th minute. Dejan's goal came towards the back end of the second half, helped by a team which had grown in confidence as the match went on. "Our first game was the most important in the group to see can we do it or not. Realistically, Cerezo is the best team in our group, we don't need to compete, let's try to be second. So to be second, we need to beat Thai Port. When we scored the first goal, I was like 'yeah, that's it, we can do it.' Now our players believed more, and then every minute we were better, and more confident. And then when I scored the first goal, you know, I put a lot of pressure down that time now - I'm equal with Lee Dong-gook and I feel comfortable. Now it's okay. 

"And you saw it after that, we had really, really good games in a really, really hard group. And I'm happy that I did it [the record] in first two games, I didn't wait six games and I was not happier but I had satisfaction in myself - I did it. Now I can relax and I can enjoy the game and help my team."

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Goal number 38 came in the 38th minute of the second group stage match against eventual group winners, Cerezo Osaka. Dejan's goal actually put Kitchee 1-0 up but once the record was broken, Dejan reiterates it was all about getting as far as possible with Kitchee." After that I didn't change the goals. Let's make something for Hong Kong football, let's put Kitchee on the Asian map because nobody knows about Hong Kong champions and nobody's asked about us but now they start to respect us. I had like 20 interviews after the ACL, fans are wearing the jerseys during the day walking in Hong Kong, it total crazy about football now in Hong Kong because of what we did."

What's next for Dejan? After returning to Montenegro for a long rest, he is gearing up for pre-season with Kitchee. "I'm under contract for six more months. And we are now in some process of negotiation about a contract. But I didn't sign still, [we're] a little bit stuck. But it's okay, and I'm trying to prepare just for next season. I'm planning to stay in Hong Kong but you never know, if something changes I'm more than open to listen, I'm now looking for a good challenge. I'm not chasing the money. So, if something better comes and if I cannot fix these negotiations with my team Kitchee, you never know. But I'm focusing and I'm thinking that I'm going back to Hong Kong. But you never know.”

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