Mateja Kežman: The Hits and Misses of a Travelling Striker

 In a career spanning 16 years, Mateja Kežman would score 238 goals in 485 games as a professional footballer travelling the world. Impressive undoubtedly. It’s an oft-quoted statistic however, to be considered as a top marksman, the gold standard is a goal every two games. It’s one that Kežman’s record falls just short of. So near, but not quite forcing his way into the top rank, and it may be that such a consideration provides an apt metaphor for the career of a player that plundered goals in leagues that are often considered to be less competitive, but came up short at the highest level.

Born on 12 April 1979, the young Kežman began his career in his native Serbia playing youth football for local Belgrade club FK Zemun, until 1998, when he joined Radnički Pirot as a professional. Other short-term stays with first FK Loznica, and then Sartid Smederevo ended when he joined Partizan Belgrade at 19. It was a difficult time for many in the Serb capital as the war between the former Yugoslav states raged and NATO air strikes disrupted any semblance of normal life in the city.

Despite that, Kežman would prosper donned in the club’s famous black and white shirts. Understandably, his first term was very much a difficult time with political turmoil swirling around, and a steep learning curve to climb. Eight goals in more than 30 appearances illustrated that he was not the finished article. The following season, however, saw a blossoming talent and a return of 35 strikes in just 41 games – understandably making him the country’s leading goalscorer – was sufficient to make some of the wealthier clubs in western Europe sit up and take notice.

It was enough to persuade PSV Eindhoven to take the striker to the Netherlands. The move would reap instant – and consistent – dividends.  In his first season, he would score 31 goals across all competitions, and 24 in 33 league outings as PSV took the Eredivisie title. His second season was slightly less prolific, but still sufficient to make him one of the league’s top strikers. The summer of 2002, however, would bring another addition to the Philips Stadion when Arjen Robben was brought in from Groningen, and give new impetus to the Serb’s career.

The pair instantly struck up a formidable relationship from which both players and the club would profit. Dubbed somewhat unimaginatively as ‘Batman & Robin’ the partnership would drive PSV to further glory and another Eredivisie title in their first term together. Although Robben would grab much of the highlights with his skills and searing pace, Kežman was anything but a junior partner in the setup. That same season saw him score 35 goals in 33 league games and 40 in 43 games overall. Another 38 goals the following season franked his passport for a move to one of the continent’s major leagues. It was time to test out whether Kežman was ready for the step up.

Chelsea, replete with the Abramovich roubles, pounced to take both members of the Batman & Robin partnership to Stamford Bridge, as José Mourinho indulged himself with a bit of Panini sticker book transfer activity to build a squad that would wrest control of English football from the vice-like grip of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Whilst opinions differ, the consensus of reports seem to suggest that the portion of the fee attributable to Kežman was around £5 million. Whilst the Boy Wonder would prosper, however, in the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League, Chelsea fans would come to consider Batman, more as the Joker, or a Riddler without a satisfying outcome.

In a single season with the Blues, although the club would take their first league title in half a century, the new striker would struggle to impress. It would take until the fourth day of December before the forward. who had notched no less than 129 goals in four years with PSV, averaging more than 30 strikes per season, found the back of the net in a league game. Even then, it was a meaningless injury-time penalty against Newcastle United, with Chelsea already three goals clear. Had it not been for the insistent demands of Mourinho from the sidelines, holding up nine fingers to indicate who should take the spot kick, he may have had to wait a while longer. The ‘Panenka’ conversion, however, may have been just the thing to boost any flagging confidence and open the floodgates.

It didn’t. He would add only a further three goals to his league tally, all coming against clubs that would be relegated at the end of the season. Other goals would come in cup competitions, including one in the final of the League Cup as Chelsea defeated Liverpool to open Mourinho’s trophy account with the club. It meant that, despite a season that only brought a total of seven goals in more than 40 games for a club newly dominant in England, Kežman would collect a League Cup winner’s medal, and win his fourth domestic league title in three different countries.  

If the wages were high in Chelsea’s burgeoning Roman empire, so were the demands, and in such high-octane scenarios, patience is a rare commodity. Perhaps with a season of adjustment behind him, there may have been an expectation for an improvement for the following term. Reports suggest that Kežman certainly regretted leaving London after that first season, but Chelsea were in a hurry, and the Stamford Bridge club moved him on to Atlético Madrid, largely recouping their reported outlay, looking elsewhere for the dominant striker they craved.

Having failed to deliver in England, moving to La Liga was an opportunity for the Serb to prove that he was capable of being a force in Europe’s top leagues. An early injury deflated any hopes of a flying start to his career at the Vicente Calderón though, and it would be the turn of 2006 before he could become involved in Atléti’s campaign. Often paired with Fernando Torres in a strike partnership, the stuttering start proved to have been a significant handicap for the first term in Spain and ten goals in 33 games was hardly the return the club were looking for.

For the second time in two seasons, Mateja Kežman was considered to have failed at the highest level. But for the injury, things could have been different, but the Spanish club, as with Chelsea, decided he wasn’t the answer, and a move to Fenerbahçe followed.

It’s a moot point, but many would contend the Turkish Süper Lig is not one of the most demanding in Europe. That may well be the case, but in two seasons, a return of 30 goals in 69 games, brought a return to form for the striker back enjoying regular game time. Another league title followed in his first term there, to add to his collection of silverware. The success led to great acclaim form the Sarı Kanaryalar fans, but at the end of the 2007-08 season, a loan move with a buyout clause meant another move, this time to PSG, and perhaps the last chance for success in a major league.

Although this was before the Qatar Sports Investments ownership pumped their petrodollars into the club, PSG were still a major club in France and competition for places would be difficult without the currency of goals. Unfortunately, Kežman’s bank account was low. With a fairly unspectacular loan spell at Zenit St Petersburg in the middle, his time in the French capital again returned a less than impressive end of term report. Ten goals in more than fifty appearances hardly warranted a longer term and PSG dispensed of his services.

In real terms, it was the end of the striker’s time in the highest levels of the game. A move to South China, in the Hong Kong league, was undoubtedly a significant step down in standard. Despite an abortive loan move to BATE Borisov, that brought a zero return from 11 outings, South China took Kežman back in January 2012, although he would play only twice for them. Some may consider it sadly illustrative of his career that in his final game, he missed a penalty in a shootout to decide third place in the league.

Scoring goals is perhaps the most difficult of skills to deliver on with any consistency. It’s the reason why the most accomplished of such performers are prized, and paid, so highly. Mateja Kežman unarguably had a talent for such things, and his record would stand up against the vast majority of Europe’s strikers. At the highest level though, when only the best of the best survive, and the true greats deliver in the big games, in the big leagues, a review of his career suggests that he was surely short of the required level. Few could argue with any great conviction that Kežman belongs in such company.

It’s the only reason why there lies any real debate. Had things broken slightly differently for him at Chelsea or Atlético this tale may have had a different ending. Sadly it didn’t and a player who scored so many goals will probably be remembered as a reliable striker at a certain level but, when measured against the very best, merely nearly man.

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