Miloš Marković –
The MLS side Chicago Fire have announced the signing of Serbia international winger Aleksandar Katai, who arrives on a six-month loan deal from the Spanish strugglers Deportivo Alaves with an option to make the deal permanent next summer. Aleksandar Katai’s transfer to Chicago Fire has raised a couple of eyebrows – perhaps rightly so – but if everything goes well, the supporters of the MLS side could end up falling in love with a highly exciting player – both on and off the pitch – who is expected to bring versatility up top and to add an extra dimension to Veljko Paunović’s squad.
Who is Aleksandar Katai?
Born in a peaceful town of Srbobran in 1991, Aleksandar Katai made his first football steps with Serbia’s giants – Red Star and Partizan’s biggest rivals – Vojvodina.
Katai was promoted to Vojvodina’s first team at the beginning of the 2009-10 season following a highly successful six-month loan spell with Serbian minnows FK Palić. From the first moment he stepped on the pitch as a full Vojvodina regular it was clear that the club from Novi Sad had a unique talent within their ranks.
Standing unusually tall for a winger at 1.82m, the 27-year-old Serbian is renowned for speed and power. His quick runs and the ability to beat defenders with a sharp turn of pace and to unleash powerful shots from a distance come as his arguably strongest suits.
A technically astute player, Katai is a highly versatile figure who can be fitted in a number of positions in midfield – acting either as an attacking central midfielder or a right winger – which could make him a valuable asset for the Chicago-based outfit.
When he is on top of his game, Katai boasts a driven mentality and an attitude of a born leader on the pitch, even though his calm exterior can often seem misleading. A move across the pond – and a chance to work with a head coach who trusts in his ability and is well-acquainted with his potential – could be highly beneficial both for the player himself and for Chicago Fire.
Third Luck the Charm
A move to the MLS is arguably Katai’s last chance to shine at the international stage.
He quickly outgrew the Serbian SuperLiga, having sealed his 2011 move to Greek giants Olympiacos following just 29 league appearances for Vojvodina. The Novi Sad-based club have a strict transfer policy in place which states that no first-team player will be sold to Red Star or Partizan – both of whom had followed Katai from his earliest days at Vojvodina – but his move to Greece turned out to be unsuccessful or – at its best – mistimed.
Without a competitive bow for Olympiacos where Ernesto Valverde met him with fierce criticism toward lack of defending, Katai was soon shipped out on loan to OFI Crete where he made only two appearances before returning to Vojvodina on loan the same year he left the Serbian club
A two-year stint back at his boyhood club did Katai good and earned him a return to Greece – not to Olympiacos though – to another loan stint with Platanias. Always perceived as a player of enormous potential and immense quality, Katai struggled to gain his footing and earn his stripes on the international stage, however.
His move to Chicago comes as the third – and hopefully lucky – pop at international glory, following a rather unsuccessful stint with La Liga side Deportivo Alaves where he managed a mere 23 competitive outing since joining the club on August 30, 2016. He was signed as the most expensive Serbian SuperLiga player that summer – for a €2 million fee the Spaniards agreed to fork out a minute before the transfer window got officially closed.
Where Did It Go Wrong for Katai?
Chicago Fire supporters have every right to question the signing of Aleksandar Katai. He joins the MLS side as an outcast for the Spanish struggling side and a player who last played 14 minutes in his team’s 2-0 defeat at Real Betis back in October 2017.
In fact, Katai only managed 52 minutes of first-team action in La Liga during the 2017-18 season and another 12 in Copa Del Rey. A look below the surface will offer more in-depth insight and potentially explain why the leading scorer in the Serbian SuperLiga – with 21 goals during the 2015-16 season at Red Star – suffered in Spain.
Having fallen down the pecking order and out of manager Abelardo Fernandez’s sight, Aleksandar Katai was left forgotten by the Spanish club completely, with slightly unspoken-of reports from Spain claiming that Katai had not been paid his wages at Deportivo Alaves since November.
He was black-listed together with Bojan Krkić and Christian Santos who were also unpaid, which in the end did not prevent Deportivo Alaves from making moves in the January transfer window, despite the claim they could be punished for their disregard towards the three first-team outcasts.
Distraught by the negative atmosphere and lack of trust he was given at Deportivo Alaves, the calm boy from Srbobran struggled to find the strength to overcome problems and get back to his coach’s grace.
Deportivo Alaves’ cold shoulder was just another obstacle in Katai’s bumpy road to prominence, but Chicago Fire should rest assured that the 27-year-old Serbia international has more than enough in him to lift his head high, just like he did so many times before.
Reasons behind Aleksandar Katai’s international struggles are up for debate but, if there’s anything beyond doubt about the 27-year-old winger from Srbobran, then it’s a general misconception and overall fallacy towards his attitude towards football.
A head full of messy hair, his face covered in beard and left arm vastly covered in ink would not paint a picture of a professional footballer – in Serbian terms at the very least. Having returned to Serbia in 2014 after a turbulent period abroad, Aleksandar Katai – that quiet boy from Srbobran – opened his heart and spoke about the problems that followed him throughout his career.
Not long after Olympiacos shipped him back to Vojvodina in 2011, Katai felt ill after a game and was admitted to hospital where he was diagnosed with thrombocytopenia – an illness characterised by low levels of thrombocytes – which left him tied to a hospital bed for two weeks.
“The recovery process lasted a couple of months. I was under constant therapy which resulted in me gaining plenty of weight. It all hit me after the game against Spartak. I would notice bruises on my body in the past, but this time I was completely ‘blue’.” Katai remembers.
Katai was told his disease could come back, but he seems to have found a way to control it. A medical check every six months is making sure his level of thrombocytes is reasonable, but the illness ended up taking its toll in the end.
Red Star Resurrection
Aleksandar Katai took a long road over to join Red Star. With Vojvodina’s stance towards selling players to Belgrade’s behemoths still in full force, Red Star found their way to grab the Serbia winger thanks to goodwill of their brother club from Greece.
Former Red Star manager Nenad Lalatović insisted that Red Star attempt to land the out-of-favour Olympiacos player but quickly regretted his decision after seeing the condition and shape the winger turned up in, claiming he ‘had a problem in his head’.
Katai was, however, determined to prove his worth and cast off more than a couple of pounds extra in his overweight belly. He was on a mission to shed the perception of him being just another wasted talent. The first thing he did was to find the way to terminate his Olympiacos contract and to forgive a €300,000 debt owned by Red Star as part of his loan deal.
The Serbia winger then signed a two-year contract with Red Star and strived under the guidance of Miodrag Božović, who replaced Lalatović at the helm.
He headed into the 2015-16 season in perfect shape – both mentally and physically – and it paid dividends for Red Star with Katai ending the season with the SuperLiga top goalscorer accolade in a title-winning season for the Belgrade’s heavyweights.
The Champions League qualification matches at the beginning of the 2016-17 season saw Katai extend his formidable form and earn a call from newly promoted La Liga side Deportivo Alaves. The rest is history already with his transfer to Spain ending up as just another notch in his heavily-worn belt.
Standing at yet another crossroads of his career, Katai has a brand-new mission to achieve.
This time, however, he will enjoy full support from his new club a compatriot and an expert educator in his head coach and a league of a level that – despite constant improvement – still is the closest he’ll get to play in the SuperLiga.
A holder of Master’s degree in English language and literature, Miloš Marković worked as the Editor-in-Chief at Sportske.net. He now contributes to various outlets as a freelance journalist. He also is a member of the Guardian Network and a FIFA correspondent for Serbia. Passionate about English language and football, Miloš Marković is also a huge Liverpool fan. You can find him on Twitter @milosemarkovicu.