Dragoslav Šekularac obituary

Brilliant Serbian footballer who played for Red Star Belgrade and won 41 caps representing the former Yugoslavia

The sumptuous playmaking skills of the Serbian footballer Dragoslav Šekularac were so eye-catching during the early 1960s that Pelé once asked him whether he had actually been born in Brazil. Indeed “the Brazilian” was one of Šekularac’s nicknames, and he was also called “the romantic” and “the artist” – sobriquets that reflected other-worldly talents in midfield that were showcased beautifully for Red Star Belgrade and the Yugoslavia national team.

That Šekularac, who has died aged 81, never became a millionaire superstar like Pelé was partly down to the fact that the former Yugoslavia’s stringent rules would not allow him to leave the country for bigger and better things. But there were also times in his career – and he went on playing until he was almost 40 – when he was criticised variously for not making the best of his gifts, for a lack of team play, and for a woefully disrespectful attitude to officials.

He had, for instance, been the salient star of the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile, where his brilliance on the ball and in its distribution was largely responsible for Yugoslavia reaching the semi-finals. But a few months later, in an all too typical piece of indiscipline, he attacked a referee when playing for Red Star, and was suspended for 18 months.

The son of Bogosav Šekularac, a lawyer, and his wife, Donka (nee Markovska), Šekularac was born in Štip, then in Yugoslavia and now part of the Republic of Macedonia, but the family moved to Belgrade within six months of his birth.

His abilities as a footballer were evident from childhood; he said he could not remember a time when he was not kicking a ball of some kind, initially one made out of rags. Šeki, as he would soon be known, became entranced by the elegant football played by his local club, Red Star Belgrade, and at the age of 13 he went to their stadium for a trial. To his deep disappointment, he was told that he was too small.

Later, he was spotted playing in the schoolyard and brought back to Red Star, where his progress through the junior teams was swift. In 1955, he made his debut for the senior side, and in the following year played his first match, in his customary role of inside-forward, for the national team.

In 1956 he won a silver medal with Yugoslavia at the Melbourne Olympics and in 1958 he was a member of the talented side that thrashed England 5-0 on a hot afternoon in Belgrade. He was a pivotal player for his country in the World Cup finals that year in Sweden, where Yugoslavia failed to progress from the group stage only on goal difference.

It was in the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile that Šekularac reached his zenith, at once a gloriously elusive and constructive figure in a team that beat West Germany 1-0 in Santiago in the quarter-finals. They went down 3-1 to the Czechs in the semi-final, and 1-0 to the Chilean hosts in the third place match in Santiago. Throughout the tournament Šekularac, who was deployed at inside right in a four-man midfield, was outstanding. Between 1956 and 1966, he won 41 caps for his country and scored six goals.

Domestically Šekularac won four Yugoslav championship winners medals at Red Star, with whom he also reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1957, when they were knocked out by Fiorentina. But the terrible incident in 1962 when he struck the referee after being sent off for dissent in a league match, clouded his later years at the club. The Yugoslavian authorities allowed him to move abroad in 1966, and he ended his time with Red Star, for whom he had made 375 league appearances and scored 119 goals, to play for Karlsruhe in West Germany.

After a season there he had a brief return to Belgrade to play for the OFK club and then in 1969 he went to Colombia before finally, in 1975, returning to Europe for a season with Paris FC.

On retiring from active football he was for a short while coach of the Serbian White Eagles in Canada. As manager of Red Star Belgrade over the 1989-90 season, he took his old club to a domestic league and cup double. But his stormy temperament came to the fore again in December 1989 when, during a Uefa Cup match against Cologne, he tussled with stewards as they prevented him from approaching the referee.

Another suspension followed and – in an era when Red Star were in any case habitually hiring and firing coaches on a yearly basis – he was relieved of his job at the end of the season.

His last managerial post came in 2006, when the Serbian White Eagles, who had gone out of existence in 1980, were resurrected and appointed him as the first head coach of their new era. Šekularac led them for one reasonably successful season before retiring.

• Dragoslav Šekularac, footballer and manager, born 8 November 1937; died 5 January 2019


Brian Glanville

The GuardianTramp

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