In the humble surrounds of Novi Sad almost five years ago, a 16-year-old Luka Jovic made his first strides as a professional footballer amid much hype.
The talk of Belgrade, it was not until May 28, 2014 that Red Star fans finally got a glimpse of Jovic in action as the teenage prodigy scored the equalising goal in a 3-3 draw away to Vojvodina at Karadjordje Stadium.
Brought on as a substitute in the 73rd minute, Jovic’s impact was immediate, with the long-haired teenager running onto a lofted pass within three minutes of his introduction before rolling his shot beyond Srdjan Zakula.
Milos Ninkovic – a 28-time former Serbia international – played that ball to Jovic, who chested it down and broke Dejan Stankovic’s record as Red Star’s youngest goalscorer in a competitive match.
“He is such a nice guy. [At] 16 years old, to play for such a big club in Serbia is unbelievable,” Ninkovic, who now plays for A-League side Sydney FC, told Omnisport as he reflected on Jovic’s memorable bow.
“Back then when I watched him and talked to him, I said ‘look, you’re an unbelievable talent. You just need to work hard. If you do this, you’ll probably have a big career’.
“As soon as he came into the first team and I saw him, I knew he was a special talent. If he worked hard and focused on just the pitch – nothing on the outside – he would have a big, big career.”
Jovic made another 47 appearances – scoring 13 goals – before he was snapped up by Portuguese giants Benfica for a fee in the region of €7million in 2016.
But Jovic only played four senior games for Benfica, including a two-minute cameo against Bayern Munich in the 2015-16 Champions League quarter-finals, as he was then shipped to Eintracht Frankfurt on a two-year loan deal in 2017.
“I was surprised he didn’t play there because Portugal normally like these type of players,” Ninkovic said. “He is good on the ball, very good finisher and very quick. He looks very strong and maybe looks heavy, but he is very quick if you look at his goal against Inter [in the Europa League round of 16]. He is strong and quick. I was surprised that he didn’t play there.”
Jovic has not looked back since swapping Lisbon for Frankfurt, where the 21-year-old scored nine goals in his first season at the German club, winning the DFB-Pokal in the process.
This term, Jovic has netted 15 Bundesliga goals – a tally only bettered by Robert Lewandowski – and 22 in all competitions for Eintracht, making him one of the most coveted strikers in world football, as the likes of Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern Munich queue up.
“I always remember during the 2010 World Cup. I spoke to Nemanja Vidic – probably the best defender of the past 20 years,” Ninkovic added. “He told me one thing, you have to be lucky. You have to pick the right team, players and staff around you. He said to me, ‘look, I came to Manchester United from Spartak Moscow [in 2006]. I was lucky that I had Rio Ferdinand around me and Alex Ferguson. That’s why I became one of the best defenders in Europe’.
“He said, ‘maybe if I went to Stoke City or some other club in Spain, probably he wouldn’t have been such a good player as he was’. It’s very true. You have to be lucky. Germany is a much stronger league than Portugal. He didn’t play much there and now look at him. He was lucky – he found the right coach, club and players around him.”
LaLiga champions Barcelona are reportedly the frontrunners to prise the Serbia sharpshooter – who opened his international account against Germany last week – to Camp Nou, where he has been touted as the next Luis Suarez by national team boss Mladen Krstajic.
“I think it’s very important, he needs to find the right club, who play the type of football he wants. When you’re at such a high level and you try to choose between Barca, Real Madrid and Man City
– there’s not much difference,” ex-Dynamo Kiev midfielder Ninkovic, 34, continued.
“Every time I compare a Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho team. Mourinho’s team at Manchester United – [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan, [Romelu] Lukaku and [Paul] Pogba, they didn’t improve. They even played worse than they did at Borussia Dortmund or Everton.
“If you look at Guardiola, all players improve. [David and Bernardo] Silva, [Raheem] Sterling, Fernandinho, [Leroy] Sane, [Sergio] Aguero. I think Jovic needs to look at the coaching and who is good for him to improve. As I said, there’s not much difference between [Zinedine] Zidane, Guardiola or [Ernesto] Valverde. I’m just so happy for him and hope he makes the right decision.”
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