Ask Luka Jovic for his favorite animal and his likely answer will be a tiger. Somehow, that fun fact even correlates to his once long bushy hair as a teenager surging through the youth ranks at Red Star Belgrade. Every facet of his game mirrors that of his idol, Radamel Falcao, the long hair Colombian striker also known as “El Tigre”. Former Red Star Belgrade director, Zvezdan Terzic, went as far to dub Jovic the ‘Serbian Falcao’ and the striker loves it. A 15-year-old Luka Jovic said it best, “I like Falcao the most. Playing with the left, the right, and the head. Every chance he takes, he’s fantastic. I’d love to be at least like him”.
His words have been prophetic. His off the ball movement and intelligence in the box, his understanding of space vs his marker, and his ability to score goals with every part of his body make the links to his idol seamless. His ruthless goal haul for the Serbian national team youth levels is another testament to his peak-Falcao-like predatory skills: 44 goals in 59 games for the U16 - U21 Serbian national team.
There is no contesting that his rise has been meteoric, but for many who knew him, it could be predicted. From a very young age, he’s often shouldered being the best player on the pitch. At just 8-years-old, Jovic was subjected to a “transfer tug of war” between Red Star Belgrade and bitter rivals Partizan. Red Star had identified Jovic the year prior to Partizan and offered to pay for his travel over the border from Batar in Bosnia, where he was born, to Belgrade in Serbia. This was a two and a half hour hike one-way. His father was also offered €50 for each game he played. Partizan tried to pry him away for €200 euros per month (again being paid to his father), but Jovic insisted on staying with the Serbian club, Red Star Belgrade.
That loyalty would be rewarded. It should be known, Luka Jovic’s exploits are no surprise to Serbians as he has long been regarded as the country’s next super star. The director of Red Star Belgrade, Terzic, has always been euphoric in his praise of the player. “As far as Jovic is concerned, he is the pearl, the new Falcao. The boy was born for football. He knows everything, you have nothing to teach him. He feels space and he knows the right movements, it’s all routine” he said in a statement to the press in 2014.
Belgrade bet on Jovic and it paid off. In May of 2014, Luka Jovic became the clubs youngest ever goal scorer in a competitive match, after coming on as a substitute for his debut at the age of 16 and scoring the goal which secured the Serbian Super League title for Red Star. He scored a mere 2 minutes after entering the match.
At just 17 years of age, ahead of the 2014/2015 season, it was again the unrelenting faith shown by Zvezdan Terzic, who gave Jovic Red Star’s famed number 9 shirt. Terzic was forced to explain his reasoning to the more senior striker and starter, Djordje Despotovic. He refuted that even Robin Van Perise, then one of the most in-form strikers for Manchester United, would not be given the “9” ahead of Jovic. “You’re a good player, but at the moment, Van Persie could come to Red Star and the nine would still go to Jovic”.
At the age of 18, Luka Jovic was sold to Benefica for €6 million after winning 1 Serbian League title and scoring 12 goals in his 42 appearances. He was afforded very few opportunities with the Portuguese side, just 2 substitute appearances during his year in Portugal. The coach of Benfica B, Helder Cristovao, was enamored with Jovic after just one training session: “He has the potential to be great much like Sergio Aguero with his technique and instinct”. Despite the praise, opportunities were lacking and 18-year-old Jovic failed to settle in Portugal.
So in 2017, Eintracht Frankfurt—then coached by Niko Kovac who was aware of the player since his youth level exploits— secured a two year loan with an option to buy. Jovic attributed his breakthrough to Kovac where he played 27 games and scored 9 goals in the 2017/2018 season. “In one month at Frankfurt, I ran more than in an entire year at Lisbon,” he told Frankfurter Rundschau. Kovac was a fellow Balkan and helped settle Jovic and set his priorities. “I just needed someone like Niko Kovac to wake me up. He demands the maximum and gets the maximum out of you. I have Niko Kovac to thank for the success that I now have”, he added.
And breakthrough he did. 28 goals in all competitions — 15 with his right foot, 9 with his left, 4 with his head, and 1 penalty. He scored 5 goals in a single Bundesliga game. It was his deft chip over Handanović of Inter Milan that secured Eintracht’s progression to the Europa League quarter finals where he ended as the competitions second top scorer with 10 goals. Much like his idol Falcao, the Serbian sensation always seems to appear at the right moment and the right time to score a goal.
Now, at 21-years-old, he has signed for the biggest club in the world, Real Madrid. Some may say the journey is just beginning, but Jovic can point to the long days of travel to and from Batar to Belgrade for training as the beginning. Followed by the countless hours watching Falcao clips and former Macedonian great, Pancev. Then the move to Portugal at 18, followed by a subsequent move to Germany at 19. At 21, Jovic has carried responsibility and lived experiences that prepare him for the high octane world that is Real Madrid. It’s not the beginning, but Madrid will be the most exciting chapter in Luka’s long story.