On the climb with club and country is Dejana Stefanović, a fun-loving and confident personality, though a relative newcomer to the top level and someone still finding her true playing position. The Serbia international recently helped Vålerenga seal UEFA Women’s Champions League qualification for the first time, and the women’s football world should soon get to know a lot more about a player with hope in her heart, and a step in her soul.
As Vålerenga embark upon their 2020 season, the Oslo side do so having made club history last time around. Toppserien runners-up in 2019, the feat far surpassed the club’s previous best finish of 5th (2013) since their promotion to the top level in 2011.
The experienced internationals like Dutch midfield dynamo Sherida Spitse, English striker Natasha Dowie and Cameroon star Ajara Nchout would mesh well with their up-and-coming prospects. The latter contingent includes Dejana Stefanović, the 22-year-old Serbian international signed from league rivals Avaldsnes IL in July.
An adaptable player and a character brimming with life, she is ‘Deki’ to those who know her. Music, and what it prompts and inspires from her, is an everyday essential for the defender/midfielder, and also a touch symbolic of how she has found her place at both of her Norwegian clubs so far.
“We have four people who are responsible for music and atmosphere,” she explains. “Sherida Spitse, Marie Dølvik, Guro Pettersen (now signed for Piteå IF) and me; four different styles.”
“In Avaldsnes, I was DJ, and they got sick of the song ‘Djadja’ by Aya Nakamura! I was the only one who loved that playlist, but it was cool.
“I love all styles; just good songs with good energy, I am not too picky about it. I am a big fan of Billie Eilish and my favourite song is ‘Ocean Eyes’.
“Also, I love techno music; maybe Fisher and his song ‘Losing It’. I’m also a big fan of Adele and her song ‘When We Were Young.’”
French-Malian singer Aya Nakamura aside, those are all English-language examples. While there are undoubtedly other languages that help teammates of differing nationalities find a common communication ground, familiarity with English can be huge in enabling a player in a multi-national team to showcase more of who they are.
So did Deki study it in detail in school?
“Yes, I did, but still struggling a little! Also, I had roommates from different countries, so we had to speak English every day.
“I like to watch Netflix, so that helps a lot.”
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Recent times have included opportunities for Deki alongside EURO 2017 winner Sherida Spitse in central midfield, including in the Norwegian Cup final defeat to LSK back in November. Long-range efforts have been part of her game’s armoury through the years, and she certainly knows how to catch them right sometimes when she strides up to drill a free-kick.
In Serbia’s current qualifying campaign, for UEFA Women’s EURO 2021, Deki was a scorer in the 6-0 win over North Macedonia in Skopje back in October. Like Vålerenga, the team contains more experienced figures than her, but the credentials she brings to the side are clear to see.
Continuing to establish herself as one of her country’s most talented performers, she already fills one very important role for Beli orlovi (The White Eagles), alongside a player who has featured in this season’s W-League for Melbourne City.
“In the national team, Milica Mijatović and me (are the team DJs). Music is really important for us.
“We have a lot of traditional dances, and when we win, it is the best feeling to be in that locker room. There is a lot of dancing and positive energy…crazy.
“We are a country who respects tradition. Food and music are the best things in Serbia.
“Music connects people, and I love to dance, like you can see on my Instagram profile! So, one day without good music and dancing is a really bad day for me.”
Even her personal tagline is song-inspired: “Like my teammates say, ‘don’t worry, be Deki.’”
Bobby McFerrin’s global hit (‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’) may have a somewhat wry edge, but Deki applies it wholeheartedly, and authenticity also underpins her motivations for her sport. She recalls where her footballing bond began, sharing the scene, too, of her home city.
“Yes, I grew up in Kragujevac; I can say I had such an interesting childhood. I have two siblings; one brother and one sister.
“Growing up at the time when the city was without money, kids found happiness on the streets playing football. When I was a kid, football was everything for me.
“When you play, you don’t think about anything; I was just thinking how I can score, then how I can do some special celebration!”
In the men’s game, Dejan Stefanović was plying his trade in England’s Premier League for Sheffield Wednesday when Deki was born, and the defender would continue to be a prominent Serbian player in Dutch and English football for many years after. For clarity – perhaps for commentators when Serbia next play England – she was not named after her famous compatriot and near-namesake.
“I know who Dejan Stefanović is, but it’s not because of him. The name of my dad is Dejan, so I got that name because of him.”
Brazilian star Ronaldinho was the player who sparked her imagination for getting started with football. She switches back to the time when another of her lifelong loves was kicking into full swing, with her earliest memories of owning music, and also experiencing it firsthand.
“The first song I remember, One Republic ‘Apologize’. I like music festivals like Tomorrowland (held in Boom, Belgium) or Exit (held in Novi Sad, Serbia), but my first concert was the band Rebelde (RBD) in Belgrade.
“(If I could see anyone from all-time, I would choose) Adele or Billie Eilish, definitely.”
While playing club football in Serbia, her close control and confidence on the ball, whether in the middle of the park or from full-back, stood out very clearly. Having represented WFC Trijumf in her native Kragujevac, she wore the famous Crvena zvezda stripes for WFC Red Star, in Belgrade.
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A year of top-tier football in France came with southern club ASPTT Albi, though the team did not quite manage to stay up in 2017/18. The Norwegian adventure got underway 18 months ago with three-time Toppserien runners-up Avaldsnes IL.
The later switch to Vålerenga bolstered her championship prospects, but just as crucially, it cracked open the door to another initiation opportunity! Rather than being someone who dreads having to sing for her fellow players, though, Deki tells how she welcomes any chance to do it, even if she is not a newcomer.
“I am not shy, so I sing every time a new player comes to the team; we sing together. The songs are always different, but I can say that one is ‘Ružo rumena’, a traditional Serbian song.”
If she put her rhythmic intuition to the test by creating her own version of a track, that would also be the song she would want to cover. The current or former teammate she would choose to record it with is a fellow national-team player, a fellow 22-year-old, and she is also a midfielder.
Super Serbian symmetry, with an SC Sand schemer.
“I wasn’t thinking about this, but I can say it would be with my best friend Dina Blagojević.”
Back at Vålerenga, former FC Rosengård coach Jack Majgaard Jensen leads the team into the new season, taking over from Monica Knudsen as the former Norway midfielder and LSK boss becomes development manager. With the aforementioned Natasha Dowie and Ajara Nchout plundering 11 goals each in the league in 2019, they now have Røa’s 16-goal Synne Jensen as they bid to overhaul LSK.
Deki appears to be heating up nicely as well, with an arching, right-footer finding the net from 30 yards in the recent pre-season match against second-tier Øvrevoll Hosle. During the off-season, she has been back home, putting the training work in for ‘pre-pre-season’, with a break in Amsterdam also in there to enjoy.
Chillier climes apart, Deki has found the transition relatively seamless, 1500 miles or so northwest from home.
“It has only been hard to adapt on the weather, and it still is, but everything else was easy. At the beginning, yes, it was hard of course, but now it’s easy.
“I left the house when I was 15, so I got used to being far from home.”
Her wish is of course for club success and continued progress with the national team to run concurrently. In a EURO 2021 qualifying group with Kazakhstan and North Macedonia, Serbia sit 3rd behind France and leaders Austria, after two wins and two losses (to the top two) so far.
The campaign resumes next month at home to North Macedonia, and though Serbia are naturally an outside bet to make it to the Euros this time, it remains a game of surprises and why-nots. Finishing third and reaching double figures for points in their previous two Euro qualifying groups, Deki sees increasing standards in various regards, but of course, the challenge continues.
“I think we have a really good team this year. Things are getting better in the national team; almost all players play in good teams around Europe.
“This year, we have better support from the federation than before, but always it can be better. I think we still need a little time for people to understand that football is also for women.
“We are gonna do everything to prove to them we deserve more.”
There are hints of a player with a strong ‘something extra’ to her game when she gets on the ball and strides on, committing opposition players. Her attributes are wide-ranging, which has perhaps so far contributed to a little uncertainty in respect of where she fits best on the field.
“I can say that is the hardest question for me, because I am not sure yet what is my position. My first position was midfielder, then I was full-back.
“At this moment, I am central midfielder in Välerenga, and that is my favourite position, but I can also play defender. I was striker for a few games, so whatever the coach needs, I am okay with that!”
As she navigates her way through a midfield, the pursuit of her personal path follows in the same vein – with confidence, curiosity, and all the uncertainty of adventure. She may not yet know what seasons to come will bring, or even the on-field position that will prove to be hers, but she has more than an idea of what she is all about.
She illustrates it endearingly when asked about interests away from playing, and in essence, who Dejana is.
“I’m studying sports management and also football coaching. I like to watch TV shows on Netflix; my favourite one is Money Heist, or La casa de papel in Spanish.
“Dejana is a crazy Serbian girl; stubborn and always positive. Love music and dancing.
“Coffee lover. Football fan and professional player.
“I love to travel and eat good food.”
The final scene provides just the place for her to unleash that infectious energy. Those long-range rippers she likes to serve up might not be quite the order of the day here, but a fantasy 5-a-side scenario is no less appetising.
This regular last question on here through the years asks for four examples of current or former teammates from the interviewee’s career that they know they would want on their side in a match-up like this. So, who gets to try and dazzle alongside Deki?
“Hard question. Okay, I can say Cho So-hyun (West Ham United and Korea Republic midfielder), Rebekah Stott (Melbourne City and New Zealand defender), Rikke Marie Madsen (Vålerenga and Denmark midfielder) and Dina Blagojević (SC Sand and Serbia midfielder).
“I choose them because I think they are really funny, positive and good people first, and of course, amazing players.”
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