In February 2002, over 12,000 fans packed themselves into Fratton Park to see former Real Madrid and Barcelona maestro Robert Prosinečki score a scintillating hat-trick against Barnsley. What should have been an easy three points for Pompey soon descended into lunacy as Graham Rix’s side threw away a two goal lead to tie the game 4-4. Prosi was rumoured to have left the ground still covered in mud and barging past the Portsmouth faithful, lamenting his wasted hat-trick.
In many ways the game signified everything right and wrong about Prosinečki’s life in football. Since beginning his career in the early 1990s, Prosinečki had experienced great highs marred even greater lows. Part of Croatia’s golden generation, who finished third at the 1998 World Cup, Prosinečki was once tipped to be Europe’s greatest star, a title he would never truly capture. Despite stints at both Real Madrid and Barcelona, Prosinečki’s misfortune saw him riddled with injuries and inconsistent form, thereby turning his bright star into a dim glow.
The start of something big
Born in 1969, Robert Prosinečki would spend the first decade of his life living in a remote village in West Germany. It wasn’t until 1979 that Prosi would move to Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia, and the birthplace of his parents, Đuro and Emilija. Thankfully the decision to uproot and move to Croatia turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the young boy as it was there that he got the opportunity to join the youth academy of Dinamo Zagreb, one of Croatia’s most prestigious football teams.
More importantly it presented the opportunity to train under the tutelage of Miroslav Blažević, a manager so respected in Croatia that he is commonly referred to as trener svih trenera (coach of all coaches). It wasn’t long before Prosinečki began challenging for a place in the first team, an opportunity he finally got aged 18 during the 1986-87 season. Prosinečki wasted little time in making the most of the opportunity. A debut goal set the scene for things to come, or at least that’s what Prosinečki and his father had hoped. Remarkably, Prosinečki would only receive a few more paltry appearances in a season that saw Zagreb finish sixth in the league.
When the time came at the end of the season to discuss Prosinečki’s new contract, a conflict ensued; unfortunately for Prosinečki and Zagreb this conflict would not be kept behind closed doors, with local papers publishing reports of clashes between player and manager. It emerged that Robert’s father, Đuro, was tenacious in his quest to secure a professional contract for his son, an ambition that Robert soon took up for himself. When negotiations failed for the umpteenth time, Prosinečki threatened to leave, a show of bellicosity that Blažević met with equal measure. Refusing to be bullied by a player so young, the ‘coach of coaches’ released Prosi from his youth contract, claiming he would eat his coaching diploma if the young man ever made it in football.
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It was a challenge both player and father were only too keen to take, travelling around Yugoslavia in search of a new team. Prosinečki was eventually snapped up by Red Star Belgrade, who could barely believe their luck that a player of Prosi’s talent was available for free. Judging by Dragan Džajić, the then-director of Red Star, the club was ecstatic:
“On one of our visits to Zagreb we stayed at Hotel Esplanade where I got approached by a man who introduced himself as Robert Prosinečki’s uncle. He told me his nephew wasn’t happy at Dinamo and asked me if we could arrange a tryout. I told them to come to Belgrade in a couple of days and they did.
“At the tryout I saw this kid do wonders with the ball and I immediately asked our head coach Velibor Vasović to schedule an afternoon practice session at the main stadium so that I could see the kid one more time. It was obvious we had a classy player on our hands, and I initiated the contract proceedings right away. Our lawyer informed us that we wouldn’t have to pay a transfer fee to Dinamo so Robert’s father Đuro and I agreed everything in five minutes.”
Alongside fellow Red Star midfielders Dragan Stojković, Žarko Đurović and Goran Milojević, Prosinečki soon became the nation’s hottest prospect, an outcome that no doubt left Blažević with a sour, almost coaching diploma-like taste in his mouth.
With Prosinečki pulling the strings from the heart of the midfield, Red Star won the 1988 championship. That season also saw Prosinečki travel to Chile with the Yugoslavia youth squad for the FIFA Youth World Championship. It was in Chile that the Prosinečki star was born.
Part of a Yugoslavian side teeming with talent, Prosinečki stole the limelight, winning the tournament’s Golden Ball award and impressing scouts across Europe with his composure under pressure and silky play. Incredibly, the youth World Cup also saw Prosinečki become the first player banned from leaving a tournament by FIFA. Sensing that their second round knockout game against Club Brugge in the UEFA Cup would be harder than expected, Red Star had attempted to withdraw Prosinečki from the tournament early, a decision that prompted Prosinečki’s teammates to protest to FIFA officials and force president João Havelange to intervene. The bizarre escapade only served to reinforce the high esteem Prosinečki was held in by both club and country.
The years following the youth World Cup win would see Prosinečki develop his game, helping Red Star pick up league titles in 1990 and ’91. More importantly, Prosinečki was also a leading figure in the club’s famous 1991 European Cup victory over the high-flying French club Marseille.
Twelve goals in 29 games, a league title, and a European Cup: by any metric of success the 1990-91 season had been kind to Prosinečki, and it seemed that things would only improve.
In the summer of that year Spanish giants Real Madrid secured Prosinečki’s highly sought after signature for 2.5 billion pesetas. In many ways the capture of the 22-year-old was a sign of desperation from Los Blancos, who had finished the previous season third in La Liga and had suffered a shock elimination in the European Cup to Spartak Moscow. Led by Serbian manager Radomir Antić, Real Madrid were desperate to re-establish their dominance, and it was hoped that young Prosinečki would be the man to do it.
Prosinečki’s dream move soon became a nightmare however, with the Croat suffering injury after injury in his first season. Torn muscles, strains and struggles to regain match fitness saw Prosinečki miss six months of the 1991-92 Liga season. Despite these setbacks, Prosinečki, with his father Đuro at his side, continued on. Prosi’s perseverance would see him score against Barcelona in October 1992, a goal that would buy him more time with the Real Madrid fans.
When the club announced that Prosinečki would enter the 1993 season injury free and back to full fitness, hopes briefly rose. Twenty-nine appearances across the season would see the star fail to live up to his price tag, with injuries again robbing the young man of the continuity needed to win over the demanding Real fans. Indeed, three goals was a paltry return in the eyes of many fans from a player tipped to be football’s next big thing only two years earlier.
It was much of the same story the next season with Prosinečki turning out 23 times for Los Blancos, scoring six goals in the process. Matters had reached boiling point for Real fans and officials. In early 1994, Real Madrid chairman Ramón Mendoza took to publicly criticising the Prosinečki signing, deeming him to be surplus to requirements. Mendoza’s public musings forced the hand of Prosinečki, who agreed to join Real Oviedo on loan for the following season in a bid to regain his form, fitness and reputation.
Joining Antić once more, Prosinečki’s decision was fruitful in more ways than one. Prosinečki would turn out for Los Carbayones 30 times that season, netting five goals and helping his side finish ninth, ahead of the likes of Valencia and Atlético Madrid. Perhaps best of all was Prosinečki’s inspired performance in the Estadio Carlos Tartiere that saw Oviedo defeat Real Madrid 3-2. It was sweet revenge for the midfielder, who finally got the chance to show Los Blancos what he could do. When Prosinečki’s swansong with Real Oviedo finished at the end of the season, the Croat’s reputation was finally restored.
Crossing the Rubicon
In the summer of 1995, the Spanish media was brimming with excitement. Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff had snapped up Robert Prosinečki from Real Madrid, making Prosi only the fifth non-Spanish player to cross the bitter divide.
Based on Prosinečki’s time with Oviedo, the eccentric Dutchman thought he had found the missing piece in his Totaalvoetbal puzzle. A stunning debut in the Joan Gamper trophy promised much and fans of the Catalan club began to speculate about what Prosinečki’s arrival would mean for Barcelona. Unfortunately for the German-born midfielder, he was still subject to slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Injuries would again curtail what promised so much.
In action for Barcelona
Two seasons at Camp Nou would see him turn out only 50 times for Barcelona. A respective figure no doubt, but one far below the amount needed to establish yourself as a Barcelona star. When the club allowed Prosinečki to join Sevilla for the 1996-97 season, it seemed the Croat was destined join the sad ranks of football’s great nearly-rans. Indeed, the next five seasons would see Prosinečki travel across Spain, Croatia and Belgium in search of football and a fresh start. Each fresh start being accompanied by a fresh injury.
But before football could forget about Prosinečki, the 1998 World Cup came around.
One night in Paris
At France 98, Robert Prosinečki’s reputation was revived once more when he took part in Croatia’s remarkable run to the semi-finals of the tournament. Lining out alongside fellow stars such as Davor Šuker, Zvonimir Boban and Aljoša Asanović, Prosinečki flourished.
Croatia’s first game of the tournament saw them brush Jamaica aside 3-1 with Prosi dictating the game and even notching a sublime goal against the Caribbean nation for his efforts. For many, Prosi’s goal was the definitive Croatian moment of the tournament.
Waiting to take a free-kick at the edge of the box, Prosinečki lightly tapped the ball to Robert Jarni, Croatia’s bombarding wing back, who immediately stopped the ball thereby creating a better angle for Prosinečki to bend in a cross. As a Jamaican player came to close Prosinečki down the mercurial playmaker sold an almighty dummy that brought the ball out towards the touchline. With the ball on his left foot, Prosinečki looked up before curling it coolly into the far corner of the net from an impossible angle, leaving Jamaican goalkeeper Warren Barrett helpless. It was a goal that defied conventional logic and showed the world that Prosinečki’s magic was still there. The goal also put Prosinečki down in the record books as the first man to score a goal in a World Cup for two different nations (he played for Yugoslavia at the 1990 tournament).
The Jamaica match was just the beginning of the Prosinečki tale. The next game, a victory over Japan, saw Croatia qualify for the second round of the tournament, with Prosinečki and David Šuker the leading lights. A 1-0 loss to Argentina in the final match did little to dampen Croatian spirits who bombarded Romania in the knockout stage. Few could argue that Croatia’s 1-0 victory flattered the Romania side.
For their troubles, Croatia were drawn against Germany in the quarter-finals, the same Germany who had eliminated Croatia in the last eight of Euro 96. It was the Croatians who would taste victory in France, however, with an emphatic 3-0 victory sending them into the semi-finals against hosts France.
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The semi-final against France was tight but thrilling. Unfortunately it was also the end of the Croatian march to glory as the hosts and eventual winners ran out 2-1 winners. In the third-place playoff against Holland, Croatia solidified their spot in the hearts of football fans across the globe with a 2-1 victory. Prosinečki and Šuker scored either side of a Bolo Zenden strike to secure a remarkable finish for Croatia. Alongside Šuker, Prosinečki was one of Croatia’s stand-out players, something that gave hope to Prosi fans that he could translate international success to domestic football.
On the road again
Sadly, Prosinečki would spend the years following the 1998 World Cup wandering the footballing wilderness, bouncing from club to club. He had one last adventure in him though, in a busy city on the south coast of England.
In 2001, fans of Division One side Portsmouth awoke to staggering news. The club, which had only escaped relegation on the final day of the previous season, had signed 32-year-old Robert Prosinečki on a one year deal. An ex-Real Madrid and Barcelona midfielder would be playing at Fratton Park.
Needless to say fans of the club swamped club stores attempting to have the name Prosinečki printed on every conceivable piece of clothing. Pubs began to be filled with idle talk of what new signings Robert Prosinečki and Peter Crouch could achieve. Hopes were high. The move was not without its cost, with Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandarić shelling out over £15,000 a week to keep the Croatian happy, an astronomical sum for a Division One player at the time.
Promising entertainment upon his arrival to the local reporters, Prosinečki stuck to his word. The club’s opening match against Grimsby saw the former Real and Barcelona man waltz around the Grimsby defence. In an act of desperation, Grimsby put two markers on Prosi for the second half; it was ineffective in taming the Croat. The gulf in class between Prosinečki and those around him was clear to see, and the midfielder reaped the benefits, having a hand in all of the goals in an emphatic 4-2 win.
The following games showed more of the same, including a 25-yard dipping free-kick – a la Cristiano Ronaldo – against Crystal Palace and a remarkable piece of wizardry against Rotherham United. In the game against The Millers, Prosinečki sent his marker to the floor with a sublime dummy before coolly waiting for his him to rise from the floor and send him on his derriere once again.
Although Prosinečki’s form dipped midway through the season, he did manage to score that hat trick against Barnsley in February 2002. Sadly for Prosinečki the goals dried up after Barnsley with the Croat only finding the net once more that season, not that fans seemed to care. The skill, glamour and arrogance that Prosinečki brought to a Portsmouth side that finished 17th that season saw the Croat go down as a Pompey legend. Despite playing for the seaside club for only one season, Prosinečki is widely regarded as one of the greatest players ever to don the blue jersey.
It wasn’t just Portsmouth fans who recognised Prosinečki’s brilliance as the midfielder’s form was enough to earn him a late call up to for the 2002 World Cup. Sadly in 2002, Prosinečki would only play 45 minutes of football as Croatia were eliminated in the group stages. His inclusion in the squad, however, was testament to how fine Prosi’s form had been at Portsmouth.
In many ways the World Cup was Prosinečki’s last hurrah, with the Croat playing only two more seasons in football, at Olimpija Ljubljana and NK Zagreb respectively, before hanging up his boots and embarking on a managerial career.
Prosinečki’s career was one of great contradictions. For a player labelled as injury prone as he was, he racked up 400 club appearances during the course of his career and scored in every season he was fit. For a player often forgotten about, he was once of the most highly decorated in Europe, winning the Bravo Award in 1991, the Franjo Bučar State Award for Sport in 1997 and 1998, alongside the Yugoslav and Croatian Footballer of the Year awards in 1990 and 1997. For Croatia and Yugoslavia, Prosinečki won a FIFA Youth World Championship and played at World Cups in 1990, 1998 and 2002, not to mention Euro 96.
Prosinečki’s early years promised much but so often he fell short of his undeniable talent thanks to injuries and sheer bad luck. Nevertheless the name Prosinečki, to anyone who remembers him, is always accompanied with a smile. What Prosinečki’s career lacked in trophies, it made up for in spectacular memories. When Prosinečki was on form, the world took notice. Just ask anyone lucky enough to see his goal against Jamaica, or the hordes of Portsmouth fans that hold a special place in their hearts for the Croat who smoked forty a day and left hapless defenders in his wake.
By Conor Heffernan @PhysCstudy