Mateja Kezman: Life In The Fast Lane

Harry Burford

It usually doesn’t take much to go from ‘hero to zero’ among the often unforgiving realms of top-flight European football. Hundreds of would be stars have seemingly encountered such an unwanted fate in the past, whilst hundreds more will likely suffer similar destinies in subsequent campaigns further down the line.

Modern football can be cruel, hard-hearted and incredibly ruthless, but at the same time, the beautiful game will nonetheless accommodate those who are willing to stick to their task with intense and unbreakable focus.

If you simply cannot handle the heat of top-flight European football with thousands of screaming fans pushing you forward at every available turn – then you know what they say, it’s probably best to stay out of the old proverbial kitchen altogether, isn’t it?

In the case of Mateja Kezman, such an analysis couldn’t be more apt. The former Partizan, PSV, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Fenerbahçe and Paris Saint-Germain striker was eventually cast aside as something of an unavailing journeyman – yet there was once a time in which this no-nonsense Serbian hitman could seemingly do no wrong.

His is a story of mounting achievement and rapid decline all wrapped up in one climatic ensemble. Mateja Kezman could have once won the world over as one of the most effective goalscoring frontmen of his generation – but instead, the Serbian’s career served only to burn out and fade away in the most unceremonious fashion possible.

Kezman had already plied his trade among several competitive Serbian teams before opting to join his boyhood club of Partizan Belgrade in 1998. Here, the young striker would prove nothing short of a breakout sensation. With an impressive record of 33 goals scored in 54 league appearances for the Serbian Steamrollers, including several well-taken finishes among the fierce Belgrade derby, it was only a matter of time before Europe’s elite seemingly came a-callin’.

In the summer of 2000 Mateja Kezman eventually put pen to paper on a prestigious move to the Dutch Eredivsie with PSV. Taking his mounting cult hero status to Eindhoven with him, the striker sought to impress his newfound onlookers with his aggressive forward-line play and reliable goalscoring output inside the final third.

All in all, his time among the Dutch top-flight could have hardly played out any better. Kezman thrived with the PSV faithful cheering his every move. He won numerous accolades whilst representing the high flying Eredivisie outfit, including Dutch Player of the Year in 2002/03, as well as a succession of league titles and illustrious Dutch Super Cups.

Kezman thrived in Holland particularly under the stewardship of the great Guus Hiddink. He scored an incredible 129 goals in just 176 games for PSV, aided in part by another young breakthrough star in the shape of Arjen Robben. Together, the in-form pair proved absolutely deadly in their approach. Eredivisie defences simply couldn’t handle what the exciting young duo had to offer.

Yet this is where the good times seemingly came to an end for Mateja Kezman. Both he and Robben would eventually sign for Chelsea amid great hype and sensation, but only one would subsequently continue their upward trend of becoming one of Europe’s very best players.

Guided by the seemingly endless pots of wealth on offer behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge, most Blues fans remained understandably enthralled for the upcoming Premier League season in the summer of 2004. Alongside Kezman and Robben, each of Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho, Petr Cech and Paulo Ferreira had all been drafted in at the club amid growing pandemonium within the Chelsea fanbase.

Mateja Kezman hardly shone as the standout name among the club’s newly sourced array of exciting acquisitions, but big things were still largely expected of the man who had only recently served to tear Dutch defences apart with his growing confidence in front of goal…

Despite being handed the famous No.9 shirt down at Stamford Bridge, it subsequently took months before Kezman first registered himself on the scoresheet among a Premier League fixture. He may have proven somewhat unfortunate in retrospect, but many Chelsea supporters had already begun to sense the overarching cloud of disappointment that would soon serve to define the striker’s feeble Blues career.

Mateja Kezman simply represented a totally different player now that he had made that all-important switch to the English top-flight. He was no longer the main man at Chelsea with the club playing host to so many standout attacking names at the time, with his failure to set the English game alight resulting in some labelling him one of the worst Premier League acquisitions of all time.

The former star of the Dutch Eredivisie had lost much of his early confidence. An overwhelming lack of technical prowess suddenly rose within the striker’s overall game, signalling a distinct lack of form that would limit the Serbian to just one solitary season among the English capital.

Yet life in the fast lane would do him no favours. Kezman would go on to suffer a frustrating knee injury whilst operating at Atletico Madrid, face an inexcusable sending-off against Argentina among the 2006 World Cup, subsequently rediscover some of his prior goalscoring form among the Turkish game with Fenerbahçe, before failing at each of PSG, Zenit Saint Petersburg, South China and BATE Borisov in a career that would see him face early retirement at the age of 33.

So just who was Mateja Kezman? Was he an exciting young goalscorer who was a tad unlucky not to last more than one single season among the English top-flight? Or does he simply represent an out-in-out Premier League flop who failed to handle the pressure of playing in front of the determined Stamford Bridge faithful?

In the end, the Serbian didn’t live up to the mounting expectation that was once supposed to define his career as one of the most deadly top-flight finishers the European game had to offer. On the back of that mere notion alone, we are left to wonder what might have been for Kezman if things could have somehow turned out differently.

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