The odyssey of Davor Šuker from untouchable goalscorer to vilified president

The odyssey of Davor Šuker from untouchable goalscorer to vilified president

In 2013,Readers Digest confirmed what everybody already knew. In 16 cities across the globe, they arranged for a stooge to drop their wallet in a crowded space, somewhere it was bound to be discovered.  Each contained family photos and the equivalent of $50 in the local currency, as well as details that could be used to get it back to its rightful owner. 

Less than half of the wallets were returned. For most, the opportunity to make a quick buck was too good to resist. What would happen, then, if those same people discovered a haul of antique gold coins worth $30,000? Would the results of the experiment be repeated?

Davor Šuker has the answer. The former Arsenal and Real Madrid striker discovered the very same thing whilst on a flight from Milan to London in 2011, after a careless passenger had left the valuable package behind. Taking the money for himself, it was only when Šuker’s friend attempted to have the coins valued that the theft was discovered. For many, it was a different type of opportunism than the one that had characterised his glittering career. 

No such aspersions could be cast on baby Davor when he was born in the garden city of Osijek on New Year’s Day in 1968. The son of Tomislav and Milka couldn’t help but have a sporting childhood; his father was an accomplished shotputter, winning gold at the Mediterranean Games a year before his birth, while his sister Nevenka was a talented volleyball player. 

When he wasn’t frolicking in the Drava river or practising athletics, Šuker inevitably found himself either watching or playing football, sat in front of the family television mesmerised by the gilded white jerseys of Real Madrid. He decided then that he, too, would play for the team of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás at some point in his lifetime. 

Despite joining his hometown team as a precocious youth, Šuker wasn’t destined for the top. He couldn’t head well, had no pace to speak of, and looked like a stiff breeze could blow him over. His right foot, meanwhile, was terrible. In his left, however, was enough magic to mark him out as one of the most talented forwards on the continent. Allied with a smart positional sense and a fearsome technique, Osijek coach Milan Ðuricic had no qualms about granting him a first-team debut against Vojvodina before his 17th birthday. 

Šuker took a while to establish himself with the Bjelo-Pavi, but when he did, the goals flowed. Eighteen strikes in his final season alerted the attention of the region’s biggest clubs, with Dinamo and Partizan competing for his signature. Eventually, Dinamo got their man, sealing the deal at the wedding of his teammate Miroslav Žitnjak. 

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By that time, Šuker had already done much to raise his profile. In 1987, he joined Roberts, Jarni and Prosinečki, for the World Youth Championship in Chile, forming a Yugoslavia squad that had a distinctively Croatian flair. With Zvonimir Boban and Predrag Mijatović alongside him, he scored a stupendous brace against the hosts in front of 67,000 fans at the Estadio Nacional, before plundering a strike against Matthias Sammer’s East Germany in the semi-final. When West Germany’s Uwe Brunn failed to keep out Boban’s decisive penalty in the showpiece, Yugoslavia had been crowned world champions. 

Šuker s first season in the capital was momentous, but not for sporting reasons. His 12 goals saw him top the club’s scoring charts, but nobody remembers them in a year remembered more vividly for an infamous encounter with Red Star Belgrade on 13 May 1990. On that day, a game of football lasted for just 10 minutes before broiling nationalist prejudices congealed into violence, with an apathetic police force watching frenzied supporters go for each other’s throats. 

If Šuker was perturbed by the tensions of the pitch, he didn’t show it. Thirty-four goals in 60 games piqued the interest of Sevilla president Luís Cuervas, who led a delegation to Zagreb just as the war in the Balkans threatened to tear the region apart. After protracted negotiations, Šuker arrived in Seville alongside his teammate Željko Petrović in October 1991. 

“Imagine someone bombing Seville Cathedral. That’s what’s happened in my home,” said a distracted Šuker as he was announced as a Rojiblanco player. As he spoke, the coastal town of Dubrovnik was being bombarded by Serbian forces, in an act that provoked widespread condemnation in the international community. 

Whilst Petrović would fade quickly from view, Šuker wasted no time in becoming a legend in Nervión. Sevilla’s languid number 7 made an immediate impact on his home debut, scoring a hat-trick in a Copa del Rey tie against Espanyol. The goals might have been irregular in his first season but the talents of this mercurial southpaw were undeniable. With cries of “Davor-Davor, Šuker-Šuker!” clamouring from the stands, it was clear that Šukermania had taken root. 

In Šuker’s sophomore year, Sevilla coach Carlos Bilardo summoned the ghost of the 1986 World Cup to pull off a major coup. Diego Maradona might have been slower and fatter than in his Neapolitan heyday, but alongside his namesake Simeone in midfield, the Andalusians possessed real malice. Šuker and Maradona were an ideal pairing, with the Argentine’s dazzling array of skill sure to furnish his partner with chances. 

Their potential was summed up most potently during a by a 2-0 whitewash of Real Madrid in the league that season, but too often Maradona delivered the performances of a loafer with the ego of a legend. With Sevilla finishing outside the European places, he was gone in a storm of malcontent and ill-discipline.   

Šuker was now the main goal-getter, and he relished the team’s dependence on him. Only Romário scored more goals that season, with the Croatian seemingly motivated by a promise from his friend and grocer José Cuevas, who had promised him a free melon for every goal he scored. By May, Sevillanos had to find something else to wrap their serrano ham around, with Šuker’s goals firing the club into the UEFA Cup.

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After another productive season saw him finish behind Iván Zamorano and Meho Kodro in the Pichichi, Šuker embarked on his final season in Seville. It was a campaign marked by two distinct moments.

The first arrived during a fraught encounter with Olympiacos in the second round of the UEFA Cup. Sevilla were 1-0 up from the first leg, before an Andrzej Juskowiak penalty in the 93rd minute tilted the game in the Greeks’ favour. With the clock hitting 110 minutes on Halloween night, Šuker curled a marvellous free-kick into Alexandros Randos’ top-corner, sending the pocket of travelling Spanish fans into ecstasy. They might have been knocked out in the next round, but the goal is still remembered fondly as a moment of pure, unfiltered joy. 

The second moment was even more romantic. By the time Sevilla lined up for the final game of the LaLiga season against Salamanca on 24 May 1996, he had already joined up with the Croatian squad as they prepared for the first major tournament in their history. His goals had played a major part in qualification, but matters were considerably less rosy at club level. 

Earlier in the campaign, a more stringent set of financial regulations were imposed upon LaLiga clubs, with Sevilla’s non-compliance leading them to be threatened with relegation. After widespread protests, they had barely managed to keep their place, with the off-field problems restricting them to an anonymous finish in mid-table. 

With a transfer to Real Madrid already agreed, Šuker left the Croatia camp, hiring a private jet to take him back to Spain in time for one last goodbye. In a moment of sumptuous poetry, he would score all three goals in a 3-1 victory, before being carried aloft on the shoulders of the Nerviónenses as he left the pitch. “It was there where I became an important striker,” Šuker admitted in an interview will El País in 2016. In England, however, he would also become a legend. 

After a tumultuous battle for independence, Croatia was finally granted UEFA membership in 1993. Fittingly, Šuker scored both goals in his country’s first competitive victory since becoming a sovereign nation, a comfortable away victory against Estonia in Tallinn. The Sevilla man would help his country qualify easily for Euro 96, finishing above Italy in second place.

At the tournament itself, the Croats were an addictive novelty, the neutrals’ favourite that combined a jarring red-and-white kit with a florid attacking style. Before losing out to Germany in the quarter-finals, their performances had impressed the watching public, with Šuker’s displays receiving particular acclaim. 

Indeed, he provided what many would later call the goal of the tournament: a marvellous chip over Peter Schmeichel to defeat the reigning European champions. That Šuker even considered such an outrageous finish against the world’s best goalkeeper demonstrated the confidence of his fledgeling nation, with his teammates intoxicated with the idea of representing the flag. “When I used to play for Yugoslavia, it meant nothing,” admitted centre-back Igor Štimac. “Now the feeling is incomparable.”

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Croatia’s impressive displays at Euro 96 weren’t the only surprise that year. Earlier in the season, Real Madrid had finished in an untenable sixth place in LaLiga. Distraught club president Lorenzo Sánz ordered an overhaul of the club, starting with the hiring of AC Milan coach Fabio Capello. The guts of £3 million had been enough to convince Sevilla into letting go of their star forward, with Dejan Petković and Agostinho thrown into the deal as makeweights. 

Joining Šuker in Madrid was a quiver of top-tier talent. Clarence Seedorf and Roberto Carlos arrived from Serie A, with Predrag Mijatović nabbed from Valencia after a strong goal tally the year before. With youngsters Raúl and Guti breaking into the first team, Los Merengues were pregnant with attacking threat. 

Šuker had settled slowly into life in the capital. As the first Clásico of the season drew closer, his goals had helped close the gap with Barcelona at the top. 

Real Madrid hosted their rivals at the Santiago Bernabéu in December 1996 in what quickly became a royal whitewash. Four of Capello’s new signings were involved with the goals, Mijatović doubling the lead from Seedorf’s pass after a Roberto Carlos cross had found Šuker free at the back post. The result was the catalyst for a long unbeaten run, with Šuker’s 24 goals proving enough to bring Real Madrid back to their rightful crown. 

A title wasn’t enough to tempt Capello into an extended stay, however. With a return to Milanello confirmed, Jupp Heynckes was appointed in his stead. Šuker shook off the managerial instability by cementing his place in the Real Madrid attack, heading a fearsome trident alongside Raúl and Mijatović. Heynckes failed to convince domestically but he led his side to the Champions League final in May, with Mijatović goal securing the trophy in a 1-0 victory over Juventus.

After a 32-year wait, Real had La Séptima. Šuker, even if he had been restricted to the role of late substitute in the final, had been crucial in ending a decades-long hoodoo. He departed for the World Cup in France with another major trophy under his belt, and his place in Madrileño folklore seemingly secure. 

Hindsight has lacquered a rose-coloured sheen to Croatia’s achievements in France during that fateful summer, but in truth, few countries mistook them for an underdog. Šuker was by no means an isolated threat in a team that could call upon Aljoša Asanović, Boban and Robert Prošinecki from deep. Under Ciro Blazević’s 3-5-2, Robert Jarni and Goran Vlaović were given ample licence to get forward. Croatia were talented and seasoned, but they were no surprise. 

Still, Šuker ’s goals were a joy to behold. Two arrived in the first two games, a deflected strike against Jamaica bookended by a well-taken trap and finish versus Japan. In the second round, he placed his hand to his throat before taking a decisive penalty against Romania’s peroxide blondes, feeling his pulse before slotting a cool finish past Bodgan Stelea in Bordeaux – the only problem was, the referee ordered it to be re-taken. No matter, with Croatia’s intrepid number 9 dispatching an identical strike to see his side safely through.

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In the quarter-finals, Croatia faced the reigning European champions. Germany had bested Yugoslavia in the group stage before eliminating Luis Hernández and Cuatehmoc Blanco’s Mexico in the next round. With Oliver Bierhoff and Lothar Matthäus in tow, Berti Vogts’ side offered the first real test for Blazević’s charges.

When Christian Wörns was sent for an early bath, a nation started to believe. Dreams gave way to reality after superb goals from Jarni and Vlaović saw Croatia race into a two-goal lead. With Germany chasing desperately for a way back into the game, Šuker pursued a lost cause on the left-hand touchline before cutting in on his right foot to evade a desperate Jörg Heinrich lunge. As the ball bobbled past Andrea Köpke and into the net, it was left to Blazević to sum up the feelings of an entire country: “This is a historic moment in Croatian football history,” he beamed, as red, white and blue flags fluttered in the Lyon evening. 

After beating the Germans so comprehensively, hopes were high for a similar upset against Roger Lemerre’s hosts. France had been unconvincing thus far, hobbling to an extra-time victory over Paraguay in the quarter-finals, so when Asanović released Šuker in the 46th minute for the opening goal, the passage to a historic place in the final seemed feasible. 

Unfortunately for Croatia, however, Lilian Thuram chose that warm evening to score the two most unlikely, and crucial, goals in French football history at that point. With Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff spluttering, the right-back stepped up with two well-taken finishes to send the delirious hosts through. Croatia were out, but they had lit up the tournament like no other. 

With a bronze medal still possible, Blazević needn’t have worried about his team’s motivation. Holland stood in the way of a podium finish, but for Šuker personally, the Golden Boot was still within reach. It would either be him or Ronaldo, and a goal against the much-fancied Oranje would give him an early advantage.

With 35 minutes gone, Boban spliced the pass that would crown Šuker ’s glorious year. Fixing himself instantly into a shooting position, he arced a scything effort across the face of Edwin van der Sar’s goal, the Juventus goalkeeper rendered helpless as the ball rippled into his bottom corner.  t was a goal that summed up everything that made Šuker great.  Opportunistic, innovative and lethal. 

Šuker returned to Madrid in the new season facing a mountainous task. How could he possibly replicate the form of the previous year? An already-difficult proposition would soon be made impossible, thanks to a £16 teddy bear. 

Even since Šuker’s relationship with Spanish TV personality Ana Obregón went public in 1997, it was manna for the pages of Hola! and various tabloids. The “geriatric barbie” – as Victoria Beckham would later call her over a rumoured fling with her husband David in later years – was a guaranteed story. In 1999, however, her name began appearing regularly in the sports pages, too. 

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Šuker had been in London, negotiating a possible transfer away from Madrid. His form had dipped considerably in the new campaign, with sections of the Madrid support suggesting that his glitzy relationship and the Madrid social scene were having a distracting influence. When Šuker admitted to reporters that he had bought his girlfriend a teddy bear from Harrods, manager John Toshack guffawed that “a woman like that deserves more”. 

Obregón, who had never been a shrinking violet, spat back at Toshack, calling him a clown and suggesting that, with her partner suspended without pay, “he was hardly going to buy me a diamond ring was he? Toshack should spend less time on me and more on Davor.” After such stellar form the year before, a Madrid exit now seemed inevitable. 

Offers arrived from Turkey and Greece, the promise of a more accommodating level of football and a hefty pay packet. Šuker, however, was more interested in the sporting challenge on offer at Arsenal. Arsène Wenger had just sold Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid, and had used the bulk of the profits to sign French winger Thierry Henry as well as build a revamped training ground. With a few million lying around in change, he secured the signing of a player who had been rated amongst the world’s best just 18 months before. 

Šuker for his part was so desperate to play in England that he signed on reduced wages, enthralled by the prospect of a league with which had been besotted ever since crowds and stadiums of 1996. 

Alas, the Croatian struggled to make an impact in north London. Despite acclimating well to life in the capital, Šuker found himself wedged behind Nwankwo Kanu and Dennis Bergkamp in the starting ranks.  When Henry began finding his feet as a striker, the writing was on the wall.

There were, however, brief moments of inspiration. A mazy run and finish against Coventry, for example, or the instinctive half-volley against Sunderland. Most Gunners, though, remember him for the brace against Aston Villa, with the second goal arriving directly from a free-kick inside the box. Šuker might have been ageing, but every one of his Arsenal goals oozed class. The arrival of Sylvain Wiltord from Bordeaux the following summer meant that the Croatian’s short but satisfying stay was finished.

Spells with West Ham and 1860 Munich followed, but the magic had largely gone. Šuker retired in 2003, the same year he was voted as the greatest player in his country’s history. That would have been a wonderful place to finish the story. Šuker, though, has never been too far away from controversy.

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In 1996, he was photographed posing at the grave of former Ustaše leader Ante Pavelić in Madrid. Ustaše had sought the advancement of an ethnically “pure” Croatia, collaborating with the Nazis in the persecution and killing of minority ethnic groups. Šuker’s response to the photos, as reported in The Guardian, was telling. “It is well known what Davor Šuker stands for,” he said, referring to himself in third person, as he often does.

Šuker’s support of the defender Josip Simunić has also generated outrage. The former Croatia international, who helped fund a 2016 film alleging that the Croatian holocaust was exaggerated, was banned for 10 games in 2013 after engaging in nationalistic chanting after a World-Cup playoff game against Iceland. Šuker, who by then had been elected as chief of the country’s footballing federation, saw fit to appoint him as a coach for the national team.

Since his election in 2012, Šuker has fielded insinuations about a supposedly-close relationship with super-agent Zdravko Mam. In recent revelations, he was embarrassed when it was suggested that he had been receiving payment for his role. That wouldn’t be too bad, had he not declared in an earlier interview that he was working pro bono. All of the above has helped make a man who was previously regarded as untouchable seem all-too-fallible. 

Ivan Perisić is perhaps the most high-profile star to speak out, criticising the decision to play meaningless friendlies like the one against Estonia in March 2017, which saw Marko Pjaca’s season ended with an anterior cruciate ligament injury. “I would advise Mr Šuker,” Perisić said, “to pick better opposition with facilities of higher quality because we can only lose more players on such horrendous surfaces.” 

Rumours of interference in the playing squad, meanwhile, have plagued the team for years. In 2014, Eduardo da Silva spoke disparagingly of “outside influences” that had been impacting negatively on the players. The accusations were thinly veiled. The same year, German broadcaster ARB suggested that Šuker had been in regular contact with notorious match-fixer Ante Šapina. Šuker strenuously denied the claims, however, distancing himself from a man who had been sentenced to five years in prison for bribing players and officials throughout the continent. 

“I am very excited” Šuker announced last year. “We all know how important continuity is in the world of football.” He was speaking at his re-election as president of the Croatian Football Federation in December. Dario Simić, the former Inter and AC Milan defender, had been an unlikely challenger to Šuker’s incumbency, even launching legal proceedings against an election process that Prime Minister Andrej Plenković had criticised for a lack of transparency. 

Despite the protestations, however, Šuker’s coronation was inevitable. His mandate may be renewed but fans of Croatian football will be hoping it leads to an improved relationship with their national team after an opaque first term. 

Šuker’s legacy off the pitch might be in question, but on it he is untouchable. He was the figurehead of a fledgeling nation, a footballing ambassador for a country taking its first steps on the international stage. Throughout his career, he demonstrated what Croatia was capable of as the captain and inspiration of a generation that reached new frontiers. That, at least, is something to be celebrated.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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