Athens, 18 May 1994, AC Milan, led by Fabio Capello, had just completed a 4-0 rout of favourites Barcelona in the Champions League Final. Zvonimir Boban was at the heart of the victory. A gifted, dogged, playmaker, he had completed a journey of absolution since an incident which became known as ‘the kick that started a war’ in 1990.
A fervent supporter of Croatian independence, Boban had joined the pro-Croatian team, Dinamo Zagreb as a part of their youth academy in 1983. He went on to be a prominent member of the Yugoslavian side which won the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987 and captained the Dinamo side at just 19 years old. In 1990 however he would be part of an event which many believe was the catalyst for the Yugoslav war which followed.
The war itself began in June 1991, however ask any Dinamo Zagreb fan or supporter of Croatia and they’ll tell you it started during a riot at the Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade game in May 1990. A dangerous time politically; the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb had recently held its first multi-political party rallies for over 50 years and there had been a lot of pro-Croatian independence support in the following weeks.
The game itself saw two vitriolic rivals square off, not only rivals on the pitch but also politically. Red Star fans were (and still are) notoriously pro-Serbian and had Serbian crime boss and later paramilitary leader, Željko Ražnatović (better known as Arkan), in among their hardcore fans. He became part of the Serbian army during the war and would later be charged by the International Tribunal for War Crimes.
The resulting riot was no real surprise. Reports of violent clashes outside the stadium already had the police on high-alert before the game, however, the Pro-Serbian police, stood back and watched the Red Star fans tear up seats, sing pro-Serbian/anti-Croatian chants and throw missiles into the surrounding Dinamo fans. The enraged Dinamo ultras saw this as a clear message that the police were supporting the actions of the Red Star contingent and attempted to climb and pull down the perimeter fence which held them back. The fence eventually gave way and the ultras poured on to the pitch, many police officers were assaulted and both sets of fans clashed for over 70 minutes, fires were lit and the toxic smoke of fire and tear gas filled the air before police water cannons arrived at the stadium to disperse the warring fans.
During the riot many of the Dinamo players stayed on the pitch and Boban witnessed a defenceless Dinamo fan being beaten on the ground by a police officer, incensed at one of his people being brutally treated, ran over and, Eric Cantona-style, kicked the officer before being helped to escape by an assortment of Dinamo fans and players. It isn’t surprising the police didn’t try to arrest him given the level of violence already happening around them.
Boban immediately became a Croatian hero, however the Yugoslavian FA (heavily pro-Serbian) wanted him brought to trial to face prosecution, but instead they banned him for six months. This resulted in him missing the 1990 FIFA World Cup, at which a proficient side containing many of the victorious 1987 World Youth Championship team, reached the Quarter Finals.
It is believed the incidents of that day signalled an almost rebellious inspiration among the Croatian people and they saw the riot and the assault by Boban as a movement against the Pro-Serbian Yugoslavian government.
Many Dinamo fans enlisted in the Croatian army in 1991, while their Red Star rivals joined the Serbian army, as Dubrovnik among other cities became the focus of the world at the start of the Yugoslav war. Many years later, 2006 to be precise, I was in Zagreb for the Croatia versus England game (the one where the ball skipped over Paul Robinson’s foot). I was chatting with a group of drunken and loud, although perfectly decent and welcoming, Croatian fans in a bar. They recounted, via one of their group who spoke perfect English, their recollections of the war. Needless to say their accounts were mostly abhorrent and it was clear the mental wounds of the war were still very raw.
Success in Milan
Boban, made his move to Italy in 1991, with Milan paying £8m for him. Milan had already become a dominant force of world football in the late 1980s under Arrigo Sacchi, their back to back European Cup wins in 1988 and 1989 were the stuff of legends and lead by the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.
Current Milan manager, Fabio Capello, had noted Boban’s attacking midfield prowess and felt his creative, determined style would suit his already celebrated team. Boban began a period of acclimatisation on loan at Serie A relegation-fodder, Bari, and played 17 times during the 1991/92 season. Milan won the league that season and would retain it during Boban’s first season with the Rossoneri the following year, this despite Milan winning only one of the final 11 games.
Boban certainly had some illustrious company in the Milanese midfield, the aforementioned Gullit and Rijkaard were joined by Boban’s former Yugoslav team mate, Dejan Savićević , Roberto Donadoni and Demetrio Albertini. But Boban wasn’t at all out of place and made 22 starts during their victorious 1992/93 season.
Milan and Boban made it a hatrick of league titles under Capello as they secured the 1993/94 scudetto. Their European dominance, while not winning the Champions League every season, was stunning. Milan made the Final five times in a seven-year stretch and won three. Their famous pummelling of Johan Cruyff’s Barca was sandwiched in between 1-0 defeats to Marseille and Ajax, in 1993 and 1995. Boban started in the latter two finals and his performance in the defeat of Barca is one to behold; an intelligence and tenacity, he won the midfield battle against José Mari Bakero and Guillermo Amor of Barca.
Croatia’s Golden Generation
In 1996 Boban represented his newly-independent Croatia as they made the Quarter Finals at UEFA Euro 96, he played in all four games and scored Croatia’s second goal in a 3-0 trouncing of Denmark at Hillsborough. He also famously captained the Croatian team at the FIFA World Cup 1998 in France, his fiery nature and strong character made him the perfect choice to captain a nation only independent a few years previous. Boban played all but one game as they impressively reached the Semi Final by defeating Germany and Romania along the way. Croatia eventually finished third, after securing a 2-1 win against Holland in the Third Place Play Off. Boban assisted two of Davor Šuker’s six goals in the tournament; Croatia’s opener against France in the Semi Final and the winner versus Holland.
Boban’s Milan career peaked as the 1990s drew to a close and he became the very definition of a trequartista. His incredible vision and playmaking abilities were his most recognisable attributes, there were many occasions where he played defence splitting through ball or performed a back heel or dummy to open up the defence and shift the play in another direction. A very unselfish player, he was often the unsung hero of countless Milan wins.
Croatia failed to qualify for Euro 2000 and after 51 appearances he retired from international duty in 1999. Boban left Milan in 2001 and joined La Liga team, Celta Vigo, but after an unhappy few months in Spain he announced his retirement in 2002.
Life After Football
Since retirement he has never shied away from voicing his opinions on the fortunes of his former Milan side, but despite his continued involvement and opinions on the game he has publicly stated he will never become a coach.
Even during his younger days Boban was known as a literary man, and during retirement he gained a masters degree in History from the University of Zagreb in 2004. He also became a successful television pundit in Italy and back home in Croatia.
Always an outspoken and vociferous character, Boban was a good choice to join a newly reformed FIFA in 2016. As a result of the FIFA corruption scandal he was appointed their Deputy Secretary General in 2016, it was hoped Boban would bring some transparency and accountability to a badly rotten organisation. (Ironically, in a tremendously vague statement from his employers they stated his role was assisting with “developing the game and organising competitions”).
The fall out of his actions at the Dinamo and Red Star game may have been the spark which started the Yugoslav war but Boban has no regrets, he later said;
“Here I was, a public face, prepared to risk his life, career and everything fame could’ve brought, all because of one ideal, one cause, the Croatian cause”
Willing to give up everything for something you believe heavily in is an admirable trait and no matter your opinion on his actions you cannot deny Boban has unbelievable resolve and spirit, whether defending his people or playing the game we love.