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.

The Beautiful Game Versus The Black Dog

A very personal subject and a huge issue for modern sport.

The life of a footballer, or indeed any professional athlete, is one fans envy; the glory, the money, the fact they’re being paid to do a job an ordinary fan would probably do for free. It makes them seem superhuman to us mortals. But what about the person behind the fame and Luis Vuitton washbag? What about when the dream turns into a nightmare and we see the real human behind the veneer?

As males we’re told from an early age to “man up”, were told that “boys shouldn’t cry” and all the usual “stiff upper lip” macho nonsense. Depression is an unseen illness, there are no outward physical symptoms, and even in 2018 people who claim to be living with the symptoms of depression are sometimes thought of as weak minded or are merely making it up. The real shame in all of this is that some young boys and adolescents actually believe this and by the time they move into adulthood they’re a lot less likely to discuss their feelings (something which is seen as a feminine trait) especially with their peers. Now imagine you’re a footballer, from the time you’re barely into your teens you’re taught to be strong, both mentally and physically, to be better than everyone else. This elitist attitude is certainly a good trait when we’re moulding our next generation of footballers, however it magnifies those fears of weakness and isolation when mental health problems arise.

There have been many well publicised cases of players receiving help for mental health conditions; Chris Kirkland, George Green, Stan Collymore, Darren Eadie, Aaron Lennon, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams, Adrian Mutu, Fernando Ricksen, Andrew Cole and Paul Merson, to name a handful. Some of those players are a big presence on the pitch, a captain, the face of their club. Even Juventus legend, Gianluigi Buffon, sought treatment for depression in 2003. During an interview later on he recalled the “dark periods” he had experienced. It is safe to assume if a hugely successful and iconic player such as Buffon can experience depression then absolutely anyone can. One may ask the question “what does he have to be depressed about?” But when you’re in that zone nothing else matters; the money, the big house, the adulation of the fans. Nothing. One would easily give it all up in a heartbeat just to feel better again.

If there is anything good to come from their struggles it is that their public recognition of the illness has given the courage to a number of fans and players to admit they need help. Former Arsenal captain, Tony Adams, who was jailed in December 1990 for drink driving as a result of years of alcoholism, set up the Sporting Chance foundation in 2000. It provides a quiet, safe environment for male and female athletes to receive counselling and treatment for all types of mental health problems. They have also branched out into training and education and regularly attend organisations across the UK to spread the word of addiction and mental health treatment.

In Germany, Teresa Enke, widow of Robert Enke, formed a foundation in his name after he committed suicide on 2009. The aim of the foundation is to help educate people about depression and heart conditions in children (those familiar with Enke’s story will know his daughter died from a heart condition, aged just 2 years old). In October 2016 they developed the EnkeApp, which not only provides information on mental health treatment but also acts as an emergency help button for people contemplating suicide. By using the app an alert is sent to the emergency services and users can be located via GPS.

There are, unfortunately, more players like Robert Enke, who have attempted to take it a step further than most and tried to end their lives. Justin Fashanu committed suicide in May 1998 after experiencing problems after publicly admitting he was gay in 1990. Former Leeds United and Newcastle United player, Gary Speed, also committed suicide in 2011. Although no history of mental illness had been reported by Speed or his family, it is believed the pressures of managing his professional and personal life contributed to his decision to end his life. Speed’s death evoked action by the FA as they sent out a booklet on mental health to all their members and over 50,000 former players. It may only be a booklet but at the very least the problem is being recognised by the FA and the best case scenario is with a greater awareness of the matter tragedies like this will be prevented.

If society is to rid itself of years of ridicule and ignorance around mental health, then it needs to get away from sensationalism of the issue. It is an illness, not an affair with a porn star. By the same token when a celebrity tells the public they’re gay, why does everyone go into a frenzied meltdown? The issues of mental health and sexuality, while important to people’s lives, are no more sensational than boiling an egg. Admittedly the more exposure these issues have, the less likely they are to appear shocking. However, it is a very fine line which the media treads, in the case of The Sun, they’re about 40 miles past the line. In 2003, boxer, Frank Bruno was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The Sun ran a front page headline stating “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. This was hardly a surprise from such a less than reputable newspaper and it certainly didn’t help people accept the seriousness of the situation, instead it made a joke out of it when it was anything but.

In the 15 years since then there have been huge strides made to raise awareness of the issue, charities like Mind and CALM have helped people to better identify the symptoms and get the help they need. As a result, society is more educated and a little more compassionate towards those in the same situation, but the stigma of weakness still exists. That stigma is made up of two parts, the first being a general ignorance around mental health itself, the second is the perception towards players of the wider public. These are going to be the hardest issues to tackle and changing people’s attitudes in an increasingly opinionated world is going to be hugely difficult.

Footballers suffer from the problem that their profession is right in the middle of the media spotlight, we all know this goes with the territory and most people believe the players themselves court this hype. However, when things go wrong the feelings of guilt when they’re being expected to perform without question and be a role model, week after week, are significantly increased. Last year 160 Professional Footballer’s Association members sought advice and help for mental health problems through the association; 62 of which were current players and managers. The question is how many more out there need their help but feel too ashamed because of the stigma, to speak up?

It is churlish to place footballers above everyday people simply because of their profession. Nearly 20% of the population in the UK are affected by anxiety and depression, however in most cases because the average fan cannot relate to the life of a modern footballer they often take their admittance less seriously than people of their own peer group, as a result footballers are seen to be attention seeking or exaggerating to gain the public’s sympathy. The footballer’s feelings of how they will be perceived is part two of the stigma and places most of them in an impossible situation.

The negative perception isn’t just restricted to opposition fans and the media. In February 2018, Cowdenbeath player, David Cox, described how he was not only the target of fans but also opposition players for merely speaking publicly about his own mental health problems. No doubt it took Cox great courage and determination to not only face the fact he needed help but to also speak up and acknowledge it for everyone to hear and judge. The positive work by charities, the NHS and the football authorities has increased awareness but the David Cox case highlights the point that most footballers aren’t afforded the luxury that you or I have; namely keeping these issues within a close network of family and friends. It is little wonder footballers suffer in silence or speak up when the situation is much worse than it needs to be.

The focus for awareness amongst footballers tends to be on those who are in their 20s and 30s and are at the peak of their careers, however there also needs to be significant attention afforded to what players do with their lives after retirement. Their career is very short when compared to the majority of professions and they can be out of the game by their mid-30s, some retire earlier, whether through injury or just a simple lack of ability. Long gone are the days where a footballer retired to run a country pub or a post office, and even with vast sums of cash in reserve, not properly occupying your time can lead to all sorts of problems in later life. Without sensible investment, education and preparation for retirement during their careers a former player can easily spiral out of control and struggle with loneliness, boredom and debt and turn to drugs, alcohol and gambling, amongst others, as coping mechanisms. Many players have ended up penniless within years of retirement; Geoff Hurst had to claim unemployment benefit in the early 1980s after leaving football for a short while (it is a scandal the FA didn’t offer him a job for life, but I digress). Former Aston Villa player, Lee Hendrie, was almost another tragic case; he tried to commit suicide twice before being declared bankrupt in 2012. Former England goalkeeper, David James, is another example. Despite playing at the highest level for a number of years (and thus being expected to have accumulated a significant retirement fund) was declared bankrupt in 2014.

It is a fair argument that these players, who have had everything done for them from their youth days in the academies, aren’t used to fending for themselves, especially where financial matters are concerned. The responsibility is not only with the individual and their club but also with their agent. A good agent will obviously guide and advise the player, however in a world of ‘super agents’ who very often appear to be acting in their own interests, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn this doesn’t happen very often. It will certainly be interesting to see how the players of today manage when they retire over the next decade.

There is also a need, one which is probably more important than focusing on adult professionals, and that is to ensure tomorrow’s adults are well cared for. The necessity for clubs to be an extension of social services is more vital than ever with hundreds of young men and women being released by English academies every year. They have been fed a dream of money, fame and glory from an early age and to have it taken away and be pushed out into the big, wide world can often be too much for some. In March 2013 a young man who was released from a Premier League academy at 16 committed suicide after suffering with mental health problems following his release. Currently English academies provide education and training for players between the ages of 16 and 18, as well as teaching life skills and emotional wellbeing courses. Significantly both the Football League and Premier League manage their players’ expectations throughout their time in the academies and keep in touch with the boys and girls they release for up to four years after. It is hoped by demonstrating a dedication to the duty of care beyond the football pitch they can help prevent the tragic suicide of 2013.

Depression and other mental health conditions are extremely complex and while patients can be medicated and treated one can simply not explain the power of the mind, the power that it holds over us, every day. Depression is an abhorrent illness and one which makes the sufferer disengage from society. This is its most debilitating symptom; it makes you do exactly the opposite of what you should do in order to receive help; it prevents you from speaking up.

This article has been troubling to research and write, not least because of my own personal experiences with depression, but I am glad I did. I usually sum up my articles with a question or give the reader something to think about, this time I’ll change it slightly and bring myself into it. I too have met with my fair share of negativity on the subject of my own mental health, but I believe the world is much more educated and sympathetic than it used to be. While writing this has brought back a lot of old memories it is nothing compared to that of the tragedies face by the Enke, Speed and Fashanu families. I survived, I received help. Over the years I have managed to more or less deal with this horrific illness and I urge anyone reading this who is struggling to cope to seek help, see your doctor or speak to one of the many mental health charities out there. Former Wigan Athletic and Liverpool goalkeeper, Chris Kirkland, said in an interview, “I just want people to know that you’ve got to talk. I never saw a way out until I started talking” I agree with him; it worked for me.

www.mind.org.uk

www.thecalmzone.net

Enough is Enough – Lille OSC fans vent their frustration.

The 2011 French double winners are staring into the abyss amongst a mess of ultras violence

The images from the pitch invasion and threatening chants at the end of the Lille OSC and Montpellier HSC game last weekend have shocked many but not come as a great surprise to most. In an increasingly pressurised sport, where results and instant success are demanded by everyone, it is common to see fans become frustrated and feel isolated. Although fan protests are one thing players being attacked are another. A Lille spokesperson likened the incident to the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985 where 39 Juventus fans were killed, those links are a little insensitive and wildly exaggerated but the French FA needs to take action to ensure player safety is maintained.

In the wake of the incident former Lille legend, Eden Hazard, urged the fans to get behind the team again, he wrote on Twitter “This evening, I’m hurting for my Lille…remember, stay united and together in the good times just as in the most difficult moments. Go LOSC!”

To help bring some perspective, Lille are in the midst of a relegation battle after winning the league and cup double little more than seven years ago. Their fall has been consistent with many smaller clubs who have risen from mid-table also rans to league champions (we can use Leicester City as an English comparison). Lille won the French Ligue 1 title, their only league title to date, in 2011, under the management of Rudi Garcia. This was in his second spell with Lille and under his guidance they made a push from possible Europa League contenders to champions of France.

Under Garcia, Lille played some very attractive, attacking football. This was highlighted by 2009’s league effort where they finished fourth and scored a division-high 72 goals. Their title win and subsequent exposure in the Champions League gave Lille their moment in the spotlight and it’s little wonder their better players and indeed the manager attracted the attention of bigger clubs. Garcia left to join Roma in 2013, this was the same season in which they sold Eden Hazard to Chelsea, but that didn’t derail them as they narrowly missed out on European qualification by one point. Since then they have finished third, eighth, fifth and 11th as their slide down the league started. Like a lot of clubs who have been punching above their weight, Lille have managed to stay afloat in Ligue 1 by maintaining their selling club mentality and their transfer outlay over the last three seasons significantly less than they have received. This sounds like good business, however there has been a lack of genuine quality replacing those who have left the club.

One man who was determined to stop the rot at the northern French club is entrepreneur, Gerard Lopez. He bought the club last year, has recently overseen the construction of new training facilities and has been part of the overhaul at the club’s already impressive youth academy. Lopez also appointed experienced, tactical maverick, Marcelo Bielsa, in May 2017.

Five managers in four years would certainly suggest Lille’s fall down the division started well before Bielsa’s appointment and isn’t totally down to his inability to steady the ship, however the board must take some of the blame as Bielsa probably isn’t the first name you would choose if you wanted a loyal and steady manager. He has always been something of a cross between a football oracle and a court jester, a tactical genius mixed with the unpredictability of a broken catherine wheel. He was appointed as Lazio manager in 2016 and lasted two days before resigning over alleged broken promises surrounding transfers, he was subsequently sued by the club for breach of contract. Prior to that he reigned for little more than a season as Marseille manager and resigned after just one game of the 2014/15 season following a defeat to Caen. He cited differences with the club’s management as the reason behind his resignation, however one must question the timing of his decision.

No doubt he is a talented manager and he has national experience with Chile and Argentina, but his appointment now seems a little desperate on Lopez’s part. The bizarre way he left Lazio and to a lesser extent, Marseille, struck again in Lille as he was suspended in December 2017 for apparently travelling to Chile to visit former colleague, Luis Bonini, without the club’s permission. Bonini was recovering from stomach cancer and although Bielsa remained suspended, the allegations of the unauthorised trip were later found to be false. However, Bielsa was eventually relieved of his position shortly after. After his £58m spending spree in the summer of 2017 it can be argued the club suffered from ‘too much too soon’ as he signed twelve players and completely revamped the first team. Bielsa reportedly took under an hour to decide, from his first team squad, who was staying and who would be sold on. It certainly is apparent the club just never adapted to the huge change brought about by his whirlwind changes and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the club’s owners will have expected something in return for their investment. Although spending vast sums of money can be seen as a little careless, especially for a club with, as I will explain below, such a precarious financial outlook. Bielsa’s record of just three wins in the first 14 games of the season will have also been on the mind of his employers, but Bielsa and the owners must all shoulder some of the blame for Lille’s current predicament.

New manager and former Lille player, Christophe Galtier, started well at the turn of 2018 but results aren’t improving enough to keep Lille in Ligue 1. Their recent form has seen them win just two league games in 2018, despite this Lille’s survival isn’t a lost cause just yet and the events of last Saturday evening seem all the more surreal considering Lille, prior to the game versus Monaco, had nine games left and were only one point from safety.

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To further kick the club while they’re down their reported financial troubles have been at the forefront of the sports news recently. In December 2017 France’s football watchdog, DNCG, enforced a transfer ban on the club, no reasons were given, although it’s believed this was due to financial concerns. The club were not allowed to make any transfers during the January transfer window and this could have a huge knock on effect as the final stages of the season draw closer. That added to the fact the club could now face punishment by the French FA for the pitch invasion against Montpellier and be forced to play a home game behind closed doors. The lack of a rousing atmosphere isn’t going to help their relegation fight and without any gate receipts they will also be further hit financially.

Saturday’s events in Lille, as well as those involving West Ham United fans during their game against Burnley at the London Stadium highlight just how emotionally involved fans are and just how much their club’s future means to them. As anyone who is familiar with their club falling down the table season after season the momentum can build very quickly as player sales without significant reinvestment in the team can create a weakened squad, this produces worse results, and so on. As the team declines it is often the fans who suffer.

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Gerard Lopez met with the Lille’s ultra groups in the week before the Montpellier game in an attempt to build a better relationship with them, they apparently assured him the fans would back the team until the end of the season. It is reported the DVE, one of Lille’s most prominent ultra groups, was responsible for the pitch invasion and subsequent protest so it appears their promise was shattered by their actions at the final whistle. Ultras across the world have a sometimes uneasy alliance with their club’s directors and players, they are given special access to the team, clubs also contribute to ticket and travel costs; things which most fans would give anything to have. In return for this access and preferential treatment they give their unwavering support both in numbers in the stands and vocally during the game. However as we have seen on occasions when a team is doing badly the ultras can and often do turn on the team and board of directors. Unfortunately the Lille incident isn’t a one off. In September 2017 ultras of Legia Warsaw attacked their players in a car park after a 3-0 defeat against Lech Poznan. In Spain in May 2017, Tercera Division side, Alcala, lost to San Fernando, 1-0. The Alcala ultras invaded the pitch and attacked the opposition players. Many would agree the presence of ultras can be of great benefit to the team in the form noise, passion and colour. However when things go wrong their actions often lead to intimidation and violence. For many ultras their team is literally their life, but their actions can be seen to be particularly excessive to fans, like those in England, where the ultra culture isn’t as prominent.

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The incidents at the Lille and West Ham games are certainly an ugly stain on the respective fan bases. However most football fans will agree it is that emotional attachment, the joy, elation, despair, frustration and anger, which not only brings them back each week but also has a huge impact on their day to day lives; relegation, for some, can be akin to the death of a relative. Lille, like West Ham, are fighting for their lives in the top division and history shows us some clubs never return from relegation; indeed both country’s second divisions are littered with relegated clubs who cannot make the leap back into the big time, whether due to bad management, investment or luck. If relegation becomes reality for either it may be difficult to rebuild and win promotion. The players and owners come and go, and while the actions of Lille fans on Saturday cannot be justified, the fans remain a constant, through good and bad and they ultimately deserve better than this.