Dejan Stankovic: "How many goals? About 1,000"
Switzerland is one of the teams favored to win the 2017 Beach Soccer World Cup, thanks to experience, talent, and Dejan Stankovic. The 31-year-old is the leader of the pack, a goal-scoring machine, and probably the best striker in the world. A conversation about the art of scoring goals and the team's potential.
You're our national beach-bomber. How many goals have you already scored for Switzerland? Good question. I'd like to know the answer myself. According to my calculation, it should be around 1,000 goals in roughly 290 international matches. But there's no exact statistic.
Do you still remember your first goal?
That was in 2005 at my international debut in Locarno, when we defeated Italy 11:10. I moved towards the goal from the right side, and sent the ball into the right corner with my left foot. At the time, I had never even dreamed that I would have such a career.
And what was the best goal in your career?
The winner in the 3:2 against the highly-favored Russians in the quarter-finals of the 2009 World Cup. Just before the end of the second third, I hammered the ball against the crossbar with a bicycle kick; the ball bounced back to a teammate, he passed it to me, and I sank the ball into the net with a second bicycle kick. The goal took us to the finals and was chosen as the best goal of the tournament.
How does one score a beach goal?
With a great deal of feeling in your feet, and the right instinct. I know where I need to stand. I read the game. I sense where the goalkeeper is standing, even if I have my back to him. And I always have a plan. I always know what I want to do before the ball gets to me. I was probably born to score goals.
There's also your incredible free kick conversion rate: almost every one makes it in. How do you do it?
Practice, practice, practice. I get to the field before everyone else, and I'm usually still there while the others are already showering. In beach soccer, the person fouled has to take the free kick himself, and there's no wall. I always have a plan, and I change up the corners. This makes it unpredictable for the goalie, and I make 80 to 90 percent.
You're usually guarded quite closely. Is the play on sand harder than on grass?
Obviously, we also have fierce duels. But in beach soccer, the goals are numerous and spectacular; for this reason, the strikers are generally better protected by the rules. The defender can't touch the attacker if he does a bicycle kick, or else there's a free kick. And since free kicks are extremely dangerous, as we've seen, there aren't as many fouls.
Does anyone ever intentionally toss sand in your eyes?
That is absolutely taboo, and is immediately punished with a red card. But we still have hidden fouls. Standing on toes, pulling on jerseys – things like that. And verbal provocations, of course.
Are you easy to provoke?
When I was young, I would fall into that easily, and it would damage my concentration. But it doesn't get to me anymore.
At the FIFA Gala in 2009, you were honored as the best beach soccer player in the world, together with Lionel Messi. What is he actually like?
Before the Gala, I waited for my appearance in the same room as Messi, and Ronaldo as well. But we didn't talk. I watched them, and admired the level of calmness and professionalism they handle events like that with.
Are you ever recognized on the street?
People recognize me at Copacabana, the epicenter of beach soccer. But in Switzerland, usually only at home in Aarau.
Do you ever regret not making it to professional on the grass? You made it as far as the Challenge League with FC Winterthur.
No. I've seen beautiful beaches, and been to fascinating places like Lagos and Baku. The beach soccer life is amazing – and I still haven't gotten enough of it. I'm in the best form of my life, and hope to continue playing at the highest level for four or five more years.
Is it possible to make a living in beach soccer?
Perhaps in Russia, Italy, or Spain, where the cost of living is lower, but not in Switzerland. I have a 70% working hours arrangement in the commercial sector. We Swiss are all amateurs, but are nevertheless one of the best teams in the world. This is something we can be deeply proud of.
Have you stepped up training for the upcoming World Cup?
Yes, we've been training six nights a week for the last three months. Every day, we drive to the gym in Basel after work, and then back home. We've given up a lot, and I hope that this commitment will pay off for the team. This means achieving our goal of making it to the semi-finals.
Switzerland is known for its aggressive style and spectacular goals, but also concedes a relatively large number of goals. Have tactical corrections been made for the World Cup?
No, we are standing by our philosophy. It belongs to us, and makes us unpredictable. We Swiss are the "Brazilians of beach soccer." I'm proud of this, and the spectators love us for it.
Is the current Swiss team the best of all time?
Absolutely. We have a perfect mix of youth and experience. What's more: Our discipline and teamwork have never been better. We're all pulling in the same direction.
Trainer Angelo Schirinzi describes you as the "leader of the pack." There's a lot of pressure on you. Too much?
I can feel this obligation. But I can deal with it. I want to be a role model, both on and off the field. I want to be the driving force that pulls the team forward.
As number five in the world, Switzerland will face off against the Bahamas (44), Senegal (15), and Ecuador (22). The top two in the group both qualify for the quarter-finals. Will this just be a formality?
Before we talk of our opponents, I'd like to emphasize that this World Cup participation is not something to take for granted. Only four out of 28 European teams will be there – even top teams like Spain or two-time world champion Russia failed to qualify.
So the World Cup group matches will be all the more straightforward?
Perhaps on paper. We actually expect the first game against the home team to be quite hellish. The stadium will be boiling over. We need to keep a cool head, and stay true to our game. The same applies for the matches against Senegal and Ecuador.
To conclude, we'd like to ask you to share your travel advice. You've been to a countless number of dream beaches: Which one is the most beautiful?
It's hard to say. Tahiti, San Diego, the Bahamas – there are so many. But I like Dubai the most. For me, that is the absolute best destination for beach soccer.