As soon as Robert Prosinecki saw the commanding figure patrolling in front of FK Rad’s defence during a Serbian league match in 2011, he knew he had to get him. The former Croatia midfielder had been in charge of Red Star Belgrade – where he had made his name as a player during the late 1980s – for six months and was on the lookout for new recruits when he spotted Luka Milivojevic. “Prosinecki really wanted him. In the first meeting I remember him telling me Luka would be his captain,” recalls Ranko Stojic, a former Yugoslavia goalkeeper who was then Rad’s president. “He’s always been a real leader from a young age and it was his and his father’s dream to play for Red Star. I think it was an easy decision to make.”
Crystal Palace supporters may still be scratching their heads in an attempt to come up with a song for the midfielder who arrived from Olympiakos on transfer deadline day for an initial €13m (£11.1m) but there is one thing upon which they can agree. While the reinvigorated Mamadou Sakho has rightly attracted most of the plaudits for Palace’s revival under Sam Allardyce since the France defender arrived on loan from Liverpool on the same day as Milivojevic, the performances of the 25‑year‑old from Kragujevac, Serbia’s fourth‑largest city, have certainly not gone unnoticed in south London.
Elected man of the match on his home debut against Middlesbrough as Palace won the first of four successive games including the shock victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last weekend, Milivojevic endured his second defeat since moving into the Premier League against Southampton on Wednesday. But even with five of the current top six still to play and only three points separating them from the relegation zone, Stojic assures Palace fans they are in safe hands.
“I knew it was just a matter of time for Luka to settle in,” he says. “In his position I’m sure he is one of the best in Europe. He has always been better just in front of the defence because he is very good at using his body to win the ball back and reading the game. Luka provides cover for the central defenders and is very intelligent with his positioning, just like [Sergio] Busquets at Barcelona. Every six months he gets better and better.”
Now sporting director at the Slovenian club NK Maribor, Stojic first spotted Milivojevic playing for his local team Radnicki Kragujevac at the age of 15. “At that stage, Luka was a No10 and the best young player in that part of Serbia,” he says. “I was told about him by an academy coach so we went to watch one game and spoke to his father afterwards. He told us he already had offers from Red Star and Partizan but, at the time, we had a fantastic academy and managed to persuade him to come to Rad to finish his formation. It was a real coup for us.”
A first call-up to Serbia’s senior squad came in September 2011, just before Prosinecki – who was in the Red Star team crowned European champions a few weeks after Milivojevic was born in 1991 – took the plunge. One of several promising acquisitions, including the now-Napoli defender, Nikola Maksimovic, made by Red Star in the winter transfer window, a brilliant goal in the derby against Partizan Belgrade in November 2012 cemented his status as the new darling of supporters.
Less than a year later, however, he was sold to Anderlecht after Prosinecki had departed following serious financial difficulties at the club. Once more, the move for Milivojevic and the Partizan striker Aleksandr Mitrovic – now at Newcastle – was brokered by Stojic, who had played in goal for the Belgian club during the 1980s.
“It was good for them to go there together because they are friends and it can be hard to go to a new country,” he says. “Anderlecht weren’t sure whether to play him in defence or midfield at first so it was hard for him to break into the team.”
Milivojevic made only 19 appearances in Belgium before he was sent out on loan to Olympiakos in his second season. Then coached by the former Spain midfielder Míchel, he quickly found his feet in Piraeus and became a mainstay in the title‑winning side of 2014‑15, starring in a 1-0 victory against Juventus – who went on to reach the final – in the Champions League group stages.
“He was very happy to arrive in Athens and said his ambition was just to play in the Olympiakos first team. Step by step, he rose to be the captain,” recalls Johnny Georgopoulos from the Athens-based newspaper Gazzetta.
“There is an affiliation between Red Star Belgrade and Olympiakos because they have an excellent relationship due to religious and historic ties. But Anderlecht made a big blunder because the buyout clause for him was a little over €2m so it ended up being a very good deal for them.”
The impact Milivojevic had in two and a half seasons at Olympiakos is perhaps best described by how they have fared since he left for Selhurst Park. Having lost only once in the league until January, after the departure of their midfield talisman Olympiakos lost three consecutive games for the first time in nearly a decade. Paulo Bento – brought in to replace Hull City’s Marco Silva last summer after he secured a sixth consecutive title – was subsequently sacked.
Milivojevic’s time in Greece was not without controversies, however. During a Champions League tie against the Croatia side Dinamo Zagreb in October 2015, he celebrated their 1-0 victory by wearing a Red Star Belgrade cap in the post-match mixed zone. Given the full-scale riot which ensued after the two clubs met in 1990 that has been described as providing the impetus for the region’s civil wars, it was perhaps not the smartest move.
“The security guard at the ground asked him to take it off and accused him of provocation,” Georgopoulos recalls. “Milivojevic said he had been given the cap by a supporter because he was a former Red Star player but Dinamo said they would appeal to Uefa. He’s usually a very calm guy so this was slightly out of character.”
Nonetheless, Silva was first in the queue in January to sign Milivojevic when Olympiakos hinted they may consider selling him but the Hull manager missed out as Palace agreed to pay their asking price, which includes a €1m bonus if they survive relegation.
“Big Sam wanted so much to have him at Crystal Palace so he knew it would be a good move for him. But he can still do better,” Georgopoulos adds.
With Milivojevic’s wife and two children now settled in London, Stojic is also expecting him to continue his progress.
“The most important thing is his ambition. Luka is very much a team player who is happy to take a booking in the first five minutes of a match if it means his team end up winning the game. That kind of mentality is very important for his position. You’ll also see that he has a powerful shot from outside the area.
“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t move to a top-four club in one or two years.”