Random Ballers: Marko “Pantela” Pantelić

Marko Pantelić. Ever heard of him? Unless you’re a fan of Serbian football or a supporter of one of the 12 European clubs that he played for during his career, it’s unlikely. I have heard of him despite falling into none of the boxes I just listed but sometimes the road less traveled and all that jazz. No, I discovered Pantelić on FIFA 2009 during a Career Mode save with Hertha Berlin and became obsessed with him to the point where I would exclusively reserve Hertha’s goalscoring responsibilities for the long-haired striker (did I unwittingly invent the Pro Clubs Mode right then and there and if so where is my compensation EA?). This is the a story of Marko Pantelić, otherwise knows as “Pantela”, well sort of…

A young Marko during his PSG days

Born in Belgrade in 1978, Marko Pantelić would join local Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade’s youth system in his childhood. Pantelić however would not represent the first team until the age of 25, as two high profile transfers which ended in failure fragmented his career with his hometown club in between his academy days and his senior debut. When he was still a child Marko’s father got a job in Greece and moved the family to the city of Thessaloniki, former stomping grounds of Alexander the Great, and it was here where Marko’s professional career began. His undeniable talent was entrusted at a young age by Iraklis Thessaloniki, with his new local club signing him to pro terms at the age of just 16. In the 1995-96 season he scored four goals in eight games in Greece’s top division and also made his European football debut in the UEFA Cup. The young Serbian star’s performances did not go unnoticed, already Pantelić possessed the ability to finish clinically and this would become the hallmark of his career. Aged 18 Marko signed for PSG (remember those two underwhelming moves I mentioned earlier?).

In his first season with the Parisian club Marko didn’t manage to make any senior appearances and after featuring just four times in all competitions the following season it was determined that a loan would be the best next step for the youngster. The following season spent at Swiss Super League side Lausanne was positive for Pantelić who scored eight times in 21 games, also winning the Swiss Cup during his loan spell. Whilst this seemingly wasn’t quite enough to resurrect his PSG career, his performances in Switzerland did convince Celta Vigo to pick up the now 20 year old’s contract (aaand here comes the second failed move of the Serbian’s young career).

Marko Pantelić struts his stuff at Celta de Vigo’s Stadium de Balaídos

Celta de Vigo around the time they signed Pantelić were consistently qualifying for Europe through their position in Spain’s La Liga and with the likes of Benni McCarthy and Brazilian born Spain forward Catanha to compete with for minutes, Pantelić was loaned out during his first two seasons on the books of the Galician club and in his third he failed to make a senior appearance in sky blue.

Having failed to make the grade in France and Spain, Marko returned to his home town and signed for Obilić Belgrade in 2002. He was not yet 24 years old but without a professional goal in his last three seasons the former Yugoslavia youth international’s stock had fallen and this move back closer to his roots with Obilić was an opportunity for Marko to start again after the footballing whirlwind his life had become since first leaving Serbia in his childhood. Whilst the goals didn’t immediately flow, Pantelić was beginning to settle for the first time since his days in Thessaloniki and although he would move clubs again in January he would remain in Serbia and sign for FK Smederevo 1924. It was here in a town only about 30 miles downstream the river Danube from Belgrade where Pantelić would relaunch his career in a big way.

Pantelić celebrates with his Smederevo teammates after winning the “Serbia and Montenegro Cup” in 2003

Pantelić and his new club finished the 2002-2003 campaign strongly and it was Marko himself who scored the only goal of the game against Red Star Belgrade in extra time of the Serbia and Montenegro Cup final to win FK Smederevo what was their second of only three major honors in the club’s history to date. Upstream in Belgrade, Marko was very much back on Red Star’s radar. Having achieved hero status, he would also hit the ground running the following season and by January 2004 his goals for Smederevo and perhaps in particular his winner against Red Star in the previous season’s cup final had persuaded his former club to make Marko their biggest ever mid-season signing.

Living the dream: Marko Pantelić pictured sporting the kit of his boyhood club Red Star Belgrade

To begin his second stint at Red Star Belgrade Pantelić would once again win the Serbia and Montenegro Cup with his 6’8″ compatriot Nikola Žigić scoring the winner in the first minute of the final; he also won his first ever league title at the end of that campaign. Marko would claim the only golden boot of his career in the one full season he spent with Red Star but despite this they would claim no silverware. Big European clubs once more came calling for Marko and he would depart Belgrade again, this time of his own accord. On the last day of the summer transfer window Pantelić secured a season-long loan move to Hertha Berlin.

Josip Šimunić, pictured above hoisting Marko into the air during their Hertha BSC days, describes his Serbian ex-teammate: “Pantelić is a miracle of a man. He’s the kind of legend that I would rarely ever meet.”

Proving that the third time is the charm, Marko Pantelić did finally crack a major European league and his Bundesliga tally at the end of his first season read a respectable 11 goals in 28 games for the now 27-year-old forward. The loan move from Red Star was made permanent in the summer of 2006 and the Serbian would score 27 goals in 50 games over the next two seasons however Hertha finished in 10th place on both occasions. This was now the longest time that Marko had spent at a single club and it was also the most consistently fruitful spell of his career in terms of goalscoring. Having grown out his hair during his second spell at Red Star the striker by now had a distinguished look and quickly found himself somewhat of a cult figure in Berlin amongst the supporters. In his final season in Berlin the club managed to mount a title challenge for part of the campaign but Pantelić’s involvement was more limited than previously having somehow lost minutes to Ukrainian forward Andriy Voronin who himself was fresh from a season in the wilderness at Liverpool; the club finished in 4th and Pantelić announced that with his contract expiring at the end of the season and with over 100 games for Hertha under his belt he would not be renewing terms.

Watch Marko Pantelić’s top 10 goals for Ajax

Ajax, having finished in third place and 12 points behind the previous season’s Eredivisie champions AZ Alkmaar, were in the market for a goalscorer and the Amsterdam club signed Pantelić to a one year deal. He scored 21 goals in 39 games across all competitions and averaged one goal contribution per game in the league but Ajax still missed out on the title, this time only by one point and to an FC Twente side winning the Eredivisie for the first time in their history under Steve McClaren. Pantelić expressed his desire to stay with Ajax but was unwilling to settle for only the one additional year that the club were offering him. Looking for security in his contract and in his life at this point, Marko signed for Olympiacos and moved back to Greece where he had originally made a name for himself some 15 years ago at Thessaloniki. As far as the Serbian’s legacy in Amsterdam goes, within his solitary season he forged quite the reputation for himself amongst fans; not only was he voted by them as one of the club’s best strikers (of which there have been… a few, you might say) but there’s even a popular Ajax podcast names after him, “de Pantelic podcast”.

At the end of his playing career with Olympiacos

In the three seasons he would spend with Olympiacos his involvement on the field would gradually dwindle however Pantelić won the most silverware of his playing days during this time, three league titles and two Greek Cups. Aged 35 Pantelić retired at the end of the 2012-2013 season; in addition to his club achievements he also scored 10 goals in 43 appearances for Serbia, including a goal at the 2010 World Cup Finals against Australia. Given the setbacks Pantelić faced after such a promising start to his career it’s a testament to the man that the failed PSG and Celta de Vigo moves didn’t halt his ambition. Not content to remain a big fish in Serbian football after rebuilding his career, Pantelić took another risk when he moved to Hertha Berlin, the club with which his career is arguably most synonymous and the stage of his career when I personally discovered Marko Pantelić. But the story doesn’t end here! What about the whole “Pantela” thing, right?

The story of Marko Pantelić’s ascribed alter-ego of Pantela is a bizarre one to say the least. Towards, the end of his playing days, the Pantela character emerged online and came to prominence in Marko’s home country as a regular feature on the popular news website Kurir. Under the Pantela pseudonym you can find an odd variety of articles with “Pantelić’s” anecdotes and opinions ranging from picking up American women at the infamous(!?) Serbian discos of Los Angeles, California, to his concerningly backwards views on instances of racist abuse by Serbian football fans (again, I repeat these are not the words or views of the real Marko Pantelić, well not necessarily). Marko himself does have an affection towards the Pantela character and has even said that he would love to meet the person responsible for the articles and social media accounts, of which there are many.

To be honest with you, there’s a lot more but you have to be willing to enter something of a Marko Pantelić dark web along the way and there’s a heavy reliance on Google Translate’s Serbian to English function too so I’ll leave the Pantela stuff there for now.

Pantelić tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020

So, what’s Marko up to these days? He has decided to continue to pay back to the nation of Serbia’s imprint on world football. Currently he’s the vice president of the Football Association of Serbia, a position which he has held since 2018. He also got coronavirus last year but relax, he’s fine.

Keitel Frankle

Co-Founder, United Mates Football Podcast

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