Il Guerriero – The Mario Mandžukić Story

From Zagreb to Turin…

As Tale of Two Halves’ resident Juventus writer and one half of footballfootball.football’s Croatia writing team, I couldn’t go a whole FIFA World Cup without writing about the career of a player known in Turin as ‘Il Guerriero’. The Warrior. Mr Mario Mandžukić.

Kicking off his career in lower league Germany and Croatia he transferred to Dinamo Zagreb for £1.5m in 2007. He had already been noted for his height and fitness and strength, but he also had a difficult time with referees after picking up a flurry of cautions during his formative years. This didn’t prevent Mandžukić finishing as Dinamo’s top goal scorer in successive seasons; in 2007/08 he scored 12 and the following season, 16. The 21 year-old’s reputation was growing swiftly and piqued the interest of Chelsea among others.

In what proved to be Mandžukić’s final season in Zagreb in 2009/10 he had another fine season in front of goal; netting 14, but in an often controversial season he was sent off once, and on another occasion, fined for an apparent lack of effort during a UEFA Europa League defeat to Anderlecht. Mandžukic was made an example of after the team’s poor display in a ground-breaking move by the club. This was a shocking act of foolishness by Dinamo, often his size and languid style can be confused with a lack of effort, but one thing Mandžukić should never be accused of is not giving 100%.

Mandžukić should’ve been playing in that summer’s World Cup in South Africa, but surprisingly Croatia did not qualify after finishing third in a group which England won. Ukraine pipped Croatia to second by just one point. Mandžukić’s first goal for his country came at the moribund end of a 4-1 defeat at home to England, a game in which Theo Walcott scored a hatrick.

Predictably, as with most top Croatian talents, his services were wanted elsewhere and after scoring 63 goals in 128 games for Dinamo he transferred to German side, VfL Wolfsburg during the summer of 2010.

Life at Wolfsburg didn’t start well as Mandžukić faced stiff competition from Edin Džeko for the lone striker role. As a result, Mandžukić was mainly used a substitute by ex-England Manager, Steve McClaren. However, in 2011 events off the pitch turned the tables in Mandžukić’s favour. Džeko’s departure to Manchester City and McClaren’s sacking with the side hovering above the relegation places meant Mandžukić was afforded more playing time. Making the most of the opportunity, Mandžukić scored eight goals in the club’s last seven games of the season and the club survived as he scored two goals in a last day win, 3-1 away to 1899 Hoffenheim.

Mandžukić made his tournament debut for Croatia at UEFA Euro 2012. In a group with Italy, Spain and Republic of Ireland they finished a disappointing, but not unexpected, third place. Despite Croatia’s elimination Mandžukić had a first-rate tournament as he scored two in the 3-1 win over Ireland; both headers and both involving an element of bad luck or bad goalkeeping on the part of Irish goalkeeper, Shay Given. He was also on the score sheet in their second game versus Italy, again his goal came from a cross, only it wasn’t a header this time, as he neatly controlled the ball as it dropped over the defender’s head and fired in the finish off the near post. The control and finish wasn’t as surprising as one may think; Mandžukić has over time become noted for his fine close control, something not usually associated with someone of his style and physical stature.

With a fine tournament debut behind him it was plain to see Mandžukić was destined for bigger things and his transfer to Bayern Munich was announced in July 2012. Bayern were simply unstoppable during Mandžukić’s two season in Bavaria, collecting seven trophies.

Mandžukić’s debut saw him score after just five minutes of the DFL Super Cup game versus rivals, Borussia Dortmund. Bayern went on to win 2-1. He very quickly established himself in the Bayern starting line-up by scoring seven in his first eight games. He also had a big impact in Bayern’s Champions League run that season; he scored away to Arsenal in the Knockout Round and away to future team, Juventus, in the Quarter Final. The all-German Final at Wembley saw Mandžukić open the scoring with a poacher’s tap-in on the hour mark and Bayern crowned a hugely successful treble-winning season with a 2-1 win over Dortmund. Mandžukić finished the season as Bayern’s top league goal scorer with 15, an enormous achievement considering just how commanding they had been over the course of the season.

The following season they were defeated by Real Madrid in the Champions League Semi Final, but they cantered to a domestic double; drawing three and losing two league games and finishing 19 points ahead of second place, Dortmund. Mandžukić had initially struggled with new boss, Pep Guardiola’s, new formation but he regained his scoring instinct and ended the season as Bayern’s top goal scorer with a very impressive tally of 26. These initial teething problems along with a reported disagreement with Guardiola, lead to Mandžukić being dropped from the starting XI for Bayern’s extra time DFB-Pokal Cup Final win over Dortmund. Eventually Mandžukić submitted a transfer request in the summer of 2014 citing a continued problem with Guardiola’s tactics.

Mandžukić apparent problems at club level certainly didn’t affect his international form as he scored twice in a 4-0 win in Croatia’s 2014 World Cup game against Cameroon. The team however didn’t make it past the Group Stage as they were defeated by hosts, Brazil, and Mexico, both by three goals to one. Mandžukić only featured in two of the three group games as he was suspended for the opener due to a red card he received in the final qualification game for a horrific tackle on Iceland’s Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson

He joined Atletico Madrid in July 2014 and played just one season in Spain, he helped Los Rojiblancos to third in the league. Mandžukić finished as the club’s second leading goal scorer with 20, just five behind French sensation Antoine Griezmann. Again, Mandžukić had his problems with the officials as he picked up 14 yellow cards, the second-most on the team. Leaving Bayern to join Atletico could’ve been considered a step down in quality for Mandzukic, but his playing style and Diego Simeone’s aggressive, energetic pressing tactics really suited each other and it is a shame for both parties he didn’t play more than one season in Madrid.

In the summer of 2015 Juventus were looking for a replacement for Real Madrid-bound, Alvaro Morata. After a protracted transfer negotiation, Mandžukić became a Juve player just weeks after Juve’s Champions League Final defeat to Barcelona (bizarrely, this was his third successive move to a club who had just lost the Champions League Final). After a very indifferent start the club lay in 12th place after ten games and Mandžukić had only scored once before the end of October nadir. Juve would go on to remain undefeated for all but one game for the rest of the season, picking up a domestic double. They were knocked out in the Knockout Round by Mandžukić’s ex-club, Bayern, in the Champions League.

That summer Mandžukić started all Croatia’s games at Euro 2016 as they topped their group, despite letting a two-goal lead slide against the Czech Republic. They qualified for the Knockout Round with a last-game victory over defending champions, Spain. Unfortunately, they were knocked out in extra time by eventual tournament winners, Portugal. Mandžukić and company failed to register a shot on target against the Portuguese as they limped out.

Mandžukić scored a comparatively low 13 goals in his first season at Juve, 11 in his second and just 10 last season. However, it over this period when he has started to show his true worth to the team. No longer an out and out striker he has become a more modern centre forward and his all round game improved season upon season. He successfully played as a left winger in a number of games in the 2016/17 season and was massively praised for his versatility.

He has become a true figurehead for both club and country; a role model of determination, energy and passion. Mandžukić has won the double in each of his three seasons in Turin and has also scored some memorable goals, the obvious being the better-than-Bale’s overhead kick to equalise in the 2017 Champions League Final, he also scored two in this season’s Quarter Final Second Leg fightback in Madrid; two predatory headers from right-wing crosses which have become a Mandžukić signature move over the years.

That tackle on Guðmundsson in 2014 qualifying, his vexation, the mountain of yellow cards, the borderline arrogance and aggressiveness are what make up Mandžukić. He isn’t the most technically gifted player you’ll find but he has that quality all fans love to see in their players, someone who will give everything, and more, for the cause. In Italy it is referred to as ‘grinta’, and it is that which Juve fans will remember him by if his rumoured transfer this summer comes to fruition.

Mandžukić was a key figure in Croatia’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign; he finished with five goals and was their top goal scorer as they made the tournament in Russia via the Play Offs. His attacking qualities are certainly not in doubt, especially his aerial abilities. The cross to their target man, Mandžukić, is something of a ‘go to’ play for Croatia and we can expect to see more of this at this year’s World Cup. Mandžukić is also a tireless runner who excels in a high-pressing tactic and has received appreciative comments from many of his coaches for his stamina and work rate, because of this we can also expect him to drop deeper and hold up the play for Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić to work their midfield magic.

This summer Mandžukić will represent his country at his second, and probably last, World Cup. For Croatia he is very much a talisman and one of their best players. He above most will need to be at his best if they are to fulfil their potential in Russia and put behind them the disappointments of 2014 and 2016.

 

Flair, Composure, Petulance, Cigarettes and Alcohol…

The life and times of Robert Prosinečki 

Robert Prosinečki a dynamic, intelligent and technically gifted midfielder. A footballing journeyman who made over 400 league appearances across five countries. He won a European Cup, World Youth Championship, played 49 times for Croatia, 15 times for Yugoslavia and played at two FIFA World Cups. Partial to a drink and a cigarette during his playing days, he played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and had a one season stint at Portsmouth later in his career.

Prosinečki is probably best remembered for his performances at the UEFA Euro 1996 and the World Cup 1998 in France, and in particular the goal versus Jamaica in their opening game. The goal is one of genius; an intelligent, audacious chip over the goalkeeper from an impossible angle. He helped lead his side to the Semi Finals on their World Cup debut and the team won many fans across the world. He also played and scored for Yugoslavia at Italia 90, thus making him the only player to have scored for two nations at a World Cup Finals.

German-born Prosinečki started his career at Dinamo Zagreb but only made a handful of appearances as a teenager. His father pressured for a professional contract with Dinamo but their well-respected and fearsome manager, Miroslav Blažević, famously shunned the request and was reported to have said he would “eat his coaching diploma” if Prosinečki ever became a real footballer.

Something had to give and eventually his father orchestrated a move away from Zagreb. He approached then European powerhouse, Red Star Belgrade, met with Director of Football, Dragan Džajić, and arranged a trial for 18-year-old, Prosinečki. They were extremely impressed with what they saw and started contract negotiations immediately. This obviously ruffled some feathers back home in Zagreb and the way in which Prosinečki left was a grudge Blažević would hold against him (he left Prosinečki on the bench for Croatia’s World Cup Semi Final against France in 1998). Blažević later blamed Prosinečki’s father for his unceremonious exit from Dinamo, stating he refused a four-year contract on Robert’s behalf and already had contact with Red Star before the negotiations with Dinamo began.

Nevertheless, Prosinečki immediately became a first team player at Red Star and won the Yugoslav First League in his debut season, no doubt to the annoyance of Miroslav Blažević. His skill, vision and shooting ability would help drive Red Star to the pinnacle of European football a few years later. Domestically, he won three league titles with Red Star and made over 100 appearances in four years.

Prosinečki was part of the victorious Yugoslavia side at the FIFA World Youth Championships 1987 in Chile. They won five of six games and defeated West Germany on penalties in the Final. Prosinečki’s composure and energy won him the tournament’s Golden Ball. It is little surprise Yugoslavia won the tournament as one only has to look at their squad to see why; Davor Šuker, Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban and Predrag Mijatović, were just a few of the players who would become household names across Europe over the next decade.

He was very much in the right place at the right time as the late 1980s and early 1990s were a golden period for Yugoslav football, much like Romanian football around the same time, they too produced an unlikely European Cup winner. Their European expedition began with a 5-2 aggregate win over Grasshoppers of Switzerland, Prosinečki scored two penalties in a 4-1 Second Leg victory.

Prosinečki was on the score sheet again as Red Star defeated Rangers 4-1 on aggregate in the Second Round. He scored his fourth of the competition in a 6-0 aggregate win over Dynamo Dresden in the Quarter Final. It’s worth noting Red Star were leading 3-0 from the First Leg and 2-1 in the Second Leg in Germany, when the game was abandoned due to rioting by Dresden fans; Red Star were awarded a 3-0 win.

The Semi Final was a tense affair with Red Star shading a 4-3 aggregate win over Bayern Munich, a last minute own goal from Bayern’s Klaus Augenthaler gave Red Star their place in the Final.

Red Star defeated Marseille in the Final in Bari, Italy. A penalty shootout was required to separate the teams as they played out 120 goalless minutes. Red Star inscribed their name into European folklore and with that win they remain the last eastern European side to win the European Cup/UEFA Champions League. The squad from the 1990/91 season was a who’s who of young Yugoslavian players who went on to become international stars; alongside Prosinečki were Vladimir Jugović  who played for Sampdoria, Inter Milan, Lazio and Atletico Madrid, Siniša Mihajlović (Inter, Lazio, Roma and Sampdoria), Darko Pančev (Inter, VfB Leipzig and Fortuna Dusseldorf) and also Dejan Savićević (Milan).

Predictably, Prosinečki’s own move abroad wasn’t too far away and he joined Real Madrid in 1991, a step up in quality and one which should have suited his playing style, however he didn’t settle as he would’ve hoped and endured an injury-plagued three seasons at the Bernabeu, making just 55 league appearances.

Prosinečki was loaned out to Real Oviedo in 1994 and he had arguably his best spell outside of his homeland. His improved fitness, dynamism and flair really came to the fore and in just 30 league appearances his performances caught the eye of both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Prosinečki became a free agent at the end of the season and chose to join Barca, signing a three-year contract in July 1995. However once again injuries damned his time at a new club and he was sold by Bobby Robson to Sevilla in 1996. He unfortunately endured a miserable time in southern Spain and the club were relegated from La Liga at the end of the 1996/97 season. It was time to head home.

Having made 124 starts in six years in Spain he returned to Dinamo Zagreb, now renamed Croatia Zagreb, in 1997. Prosinečki slotted right into the team and guided them to two league titles and thus two Champions League appearances. His influential role as captain in Zagreb’s midfield was the catalyst for their success and he helped to guide and advise some of Croatia’s future stars; just as he was involved in the last great golden generation ten years previously. The Croatia Zagreb team of that era sent six players to the 1998 World Cup in France, an impressive number considering the quality of their team at the tournament.

Prosinečki’s injury-hit career drew to a close with stints in Belgium, England and Slovenia, before returning home again in 2005. He is much relished from his time at Portsmouth as his performances helped save the club from relegation during his season there and this lead to him being elected into their all-time best XI in 2008.

Prosinečki’s lifestyle vices certainly didn’t affect his performances, although he later acknowledged their effects on his body during his retirement from playing. His energy, determination and work rate remained second to none throughout his career. It is a shame however that his career with European giants Real Madrid and Barcelona were so badly affected by injury, it is obvious a player of his immense talent deserved to be able show what he was capable of for many years at one of Europe’s colossal clubs. Revered for his performances on the international stage for Yugoslavia and later Croatia, Prosinečki remains one of the country’s most successful players. Croatia teams since his retirement have had an abundance of midfield talent and there has been more than a little ‘Prosinečki’ about them; masses of desire and technical ability all mixed together with a little egotism.