During the holiday of Purim, it’s traditional to dress up in costumes and celebrate. In sports, the number 99 is always associated with Wayne Gretzky, the all-time goal-scoring great who played in the National Hockey League and has rarely been worn by any other athlete in any sport since.
No one would risk dressing up as one of the best there ever was because the expectations would be enormous
However, that has not been the case with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s new star, Djorde Jovanovic.
The Serbian striker grabbed the No. 99 jersey and has not stopped scoring for the yellow-and-blue since his arrival earlier in the year.
With six goals in as many games, Jovanovic has turned the Israeli league on its head as the Championship Playoff round is about to begin, with Maccabi Tel Aviv back and better than ever as it challenges Maccabi Haifa for a league title which looked to have been locked up already months ago.
Jovanovic joined Maccabi Tel Aviv during the most recent transfer window for a rumored $2 million after being purchased from FK Cukaricki of his native homeland. This was unquestionably the biggest move made for the club’s Serbian head coach, Mladen Krstajic, and raised many eyebrows not only around the Holy Land but Europe as well.
It had been quite some time since owner Mitch Goldhar opened up the purse strings to buy a player at quite a high price tag, the last couple being Serbian ’keeper Predrag Rajkovic and Icelandic striker Vidar Kjartansson. So for the club to make such a move was no less than a pleasant surprise for the fans.
The 23-year-old marksman had always been a player of interest for many clubs around the continent due to his potential after having grown up in the Partizan Belgrade system. Jovanovic signed his first professional contract with the club as a 16-year-old and played with the top team from 2016 to 2018. He then made stops in Belgium as well as Spain before finally returning back to Serbia where he joined Cukaricki.
During the past five years, there was no indication that Jovanovic was going to reach his potential with only eight goals in 53 games.
However, coming back home hit the right tone. As the current campaign got under way, Jovanovic began scoring at a clip of 11 goals in 14 starts with Cukaricki and his name shot up the charts while being mentioned in the same breath as Juventus’s Serbian striker Dusan Vlahovic and Fullham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The yellow-and-blue looked at those stats together with its new Serbian coach and was well aware that Jovanovic was a player who was a classic goal poacher, had the physical strength, would be able to make his team and teammates better and had the finishing instincts of some of the best in the world.
That is when Maccabi Tel Aviv decided to pounce.
Immediately after the signing, the head of Maccabi’s Football Department, Barak Itzhaki, told the club’s official website: “Djordje is a promising striker who despite his young age gained a lot of experience playing both in his country and abroad. He is well known in Serbia and is regarded as one of the most talented strikers who still has his very best years in front of him. I am delighted Djordje decided to join Maccabi Tel Aviv and wish him all the best. I would like to use the opportunity to thank Mitch for his continued support which enables us to attract players such as Djordje to Maccabi.”
While Jovanovic has yet to earn a call-up to the senior Serbian National Team squad, which could be coming soon should he continue at his current clip, he has featured for the country’s youth national team squads U16, U17, U18, U19 and U21 levels and scored a total of 10 goals in 28 international appearances.
Following his transfer to Maccabi, Jovanovic told the club’s official website: “It is a pleasure for me to join Maccabi, such a great and famous club with a rich history. As a passionate player, I can promise to give 100% every day both in training and on the pitch to fight for everyone at Maccabi, especially the fans.”
Jovanovic’s first match couldn’t have gone any better as he entered the fray in early February at Ironi Kiryat Shmona in the 60th minute and quickly found the back of the goal with the winner just minutes later to send the traveling fans into delirium.
Following the game, Jovanovic spoke about his debut modestly.
“It doesn’t matter who scores, it only matters who wins the game and who takes the three points. Of course, I’m happy and delighted that I scored the goal and that the fans gave me a warm welcome.”
Would it be possible for No. 99 to match his opening act in the Tel Aviv derby?
He didn’t match the debut, but rather he overwhelmed it as his star continued to shine bright.
It’s one thing to snatch a victory against the likes of Kiryat Shmona, it’s something totally different when you score a winner in the most highly charged contest on the schedule and one that will put you in the club’s history books.
Jovanovic once again came on as a second-half substitute in the 56th minute, but waited just a bit longer to write his name down in the annals of yellow-and-blue lore.
With the score all knotted up at 2-2 and the game deep into injury time, the cream rose to the top as Jovanovic scored in the 90th minute to take the win and leave the Reds shaking their heads in disbelief.
“I was lucky to start very well with two goals in two matches. It’s a normal process as I have been more and more with this team and coach. I’m growing up together with the team.”
Jovanovic, it seems, was just getting into shape as he has scored four goals in the past three games with a pair on the road at Hapoel Nof Hagalil plus singles against Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Hadera while also playing facilitator as well.
His strike against Beitar was one that players dream of scoring, where the ball is hit just so and is launched right into the back of the goal that reminds one of those markers that you see just in the movies. So perfect, so flawless.
“It was a very good goal, I haven’t scored too many goals like that but it happens – I had a look and hit the point I wanted. It was a special goal,” Jovanovic said.
With seven wins in a row, Maccabi and Jovanovic are rolling along at an unstoppable pace as they keep cutting into Maccabi Haifa’s lead atop the table with the championship now wide open.
“This is a team sport, not tennis, nothing can happen without my teammates,” Jovanovic explained. “I am not feeling special, I am an integral part of the team. I am only here to play for Maccabi, to earn three points and make the fans happy.”
Krstajic praised the striker while also sending a stark warning to not only his team, but the rest of the league.
“Jovanovic came here because of his ability to score goals. He needs goals, needs to score goals and that is his job. But he also needs to work harder on defense to help the club. He would not have been able to score had the team not played well on defense. It’s all teamwork, which is most important.
“Maccabi always wants to win the league championship. This is the biggest club in Israel. We are looking at just ourselves and the next three points. If we win, then anything is possible.”