Croatia wrestled their independence from the iron grip of Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991. Just short of a month before, on 29 May, one of the early Croatian stars in the era of independence shone his light brightly on the football world for the first time.
Just 22 years old at the time, Robert Prosinečki played a crucial role in Red Star Belgrade’s victory over Marseille in the 1991 European Cup final. A stellar performance in regular time, crowned by the first goal in the penalty shootout, which Red Star won 5-3, saw him become a champion of European club football.
After Red Star’s European triumph, Prosinečki took to conquering one of the finest of European heavyweights in Real Madrid. He scored 10 goals in 55 games at the Bernabéu but his time in the Spanish capital was held back due to a number of muscular injuries. After three years in Madrid he stopped briefly in Oviedo, before joining Barcelona, but injuries ruined his stay in Catalonia too. Before long, Prosinečki moved to Sevilla, but he never managed to fulfil the promise of his early years.
That said, his form for the national side was often symbolic of his talent – never more so than at France 98 where his flair, creativity and passion for the game was at its finest. For most discerning fans, he was one of the stars of the tournament, and helped put Croatian football on the map. Whatever his legacy inside and out of his homeland, though, the fiery midfielder remains the first in a long and impressive line of Croatian midfield generals.
The next to take the mantle was Zvonimir Boban – an intelligent footballing aristocrat who started his career at Dinamo Zagreb and earned seven caps for Yugoslavia before Croatia became an independent nation. Despite his early allegiance to Yugoslavia, a young Boban was to play a symbolic a role in the fledgeling moments of Croatian history.
On 13 May 1990, Dinamo Zagreb hosted Red Star in a game that would become a watershed moment in the career of the midfield maestro. With emotions running high as war loomed on the horizon, the two rivals – amongst Yugoslavia’s foremost footballing powers – would do battle in more ways than one.
Croatia had just held their first multi-party election in more than 50 years, with the pro-independence party, HDZ, led by Franjo Tuđman, winning the election. Amid the shifting sands in Zagreb, Red Star brought 3,000 fans to the Maksimir, led by Željko Ražnatović – better known as Arkan – a fierce nationalist and head of the Serb Volunteer Guard.
Read | The decorated, destructive and damned career of Robert Prosinečki
Several hours before kickoff, fighting broke out in the streets, and things continued to escalate right up to the start of the game. Red Star fans were chanting “Zagreb is Serbian” and “We’ll kill Tudman” while tearing off seats in the stadium and closing in on the Dinamo fans with all manner of weapons. Police intervened but they were bound the influence of recent events, biased and intimidated by the situation.
The players, meanwhile, were still on the pitch, in the middle of the chaos of fighting, police beatings, smoke, violence and yelling. As the story goes – and there remains some doubt – a Dinamo fan taking a severe beating from an officer was helped by none other than Boban, who came to the man’s defence, kicking the police officer in the back and risking his career, perhaps life, for his compatriot.
The police eventually restored order but Boban was banned from playing for the Yugoslav national team, which caused him to miss the 1990 World Cup, a stage that was primed for his undoubted talents. He eventually came back to earn two more caps before Yugoslavia broke up.
Boban’s international career, however, was far from over, and he would go on to feature 51 times for the nation with the famous checkered shirt. At club level, it was one of the dominant forces in European football who acquired the young Croat’s services, with £8m enough to convince Dinamo to let the then-22-year-old become an AC Milan player.
In a midfield that featured the likes of Ruud Gullit, Demetrio Albertini, Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard and Roberto Donadoni, Boban had his work cut out for him if he was to secure himself a spot in the starting line-up. The young man was nothing if not determined, however, and managed to play 178 times for the Rossoneri, winning four Scudetti, three Coppa Italia titles and a Champions League along the way. He remains one of the Milan fans’ favourite imports.
Boban was also captain of the squad that so nearly beat France in the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup. If it hadn’t been for Lilian Thuram’s only two goals for Les Bleus, they would’ve been well-placed to beat a Brazil side in the final reeling from Ronaldo’s personal troubles. Alas, Boban and his compatriots had to settle for bronze, but showed the footballing world what the young nation was capable of.
One player who wasn’t part of the Croatia side that brought home the bronze medal from France was Niko Kovač, who missed out due to injury. The Berlin-born son of Yugoslav immigrants, he spent his youth at various clubs within the German capital before eventually becoming a mainstay in midfield for 2. Bundesliga outfit Hertha Berlin.
Read | Yugoslavia in the 1990s: the wonder-team that never was
A primarily defensive midfielder with an eye for a pass, Kovač’s talent didn’t go unnoticed at the highest levels of German football and Bayer Leverkusen made him a top-tier player in the summer of 1996, where he became teammates with his younger brother Robert. Leverkusen finished as runners-up in the league in 1997 and 1999, and despite playing 77 games in his three years at the club, he never truly won over the fans, moving to HSV in 1999.
After a two-year stint in Hamburg, he fled to Bayern Munich in 2001, joining forces with his brother once again. He went on to win the double in 2003 before finishing his Bundesliga career back at HSV. He would later lift a solitary league title with Red Bull Salzburg in 2007 as time wound down on his career.
Kovač was part-enforcer, part-regista, but full-blooded leader, captaining his national side at the World Cup in 2006 as well as Euro 2008, winning the respect of his peers through his professionalism and dedication to the cause. It’s why, despite a modest club career, he won 83 Croatia caps.
Interestingly, Kovač’s greatest exploits might yet come as the man on the sideline. After retirement, he became an academy coach at Red Bull Salzburg before being promoted to the assistant manager position with the first team. His first solo role was as boss of Croatia’s under-21 side, which he managed from 2013, before taking over the senior squad and once again enjoying respect from his compatriots on the pitch.
In March 2016 he took the reins of Eintracht Frankfurt, guiding them clear of relegation via playoffs. The following season he elevated the club to 11th, and last season Kovač, with his brother Robert as his assistant, defeated Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal final and took Frankfurt to eighth in the league. Such consistency was duly rewarded with the biggest job in German football: manager of Bayern.
In order to get the complete picture of the current state of Croatian football, we need to rewind back to the middle of 1991, to a moment that would change the life of a player who’d eventually surpass Prosinečki, Boban and Kovač at the very highest level.
As the war in Yugoslavia escalated, Stipe and Radojka Modrić, with their son Luka in tow, were forced to flee their home. Luka’s grandfather was executed by rebels in December 1991, with the family forced to live in a hotel in Zadar. It was in these troubling times that young Luka Modrić began, like most children his age, to play football for the sheer love of the sport. It also offered an escape from the trouble around him.
Read | The making of Luka Modrić from war-torn Croatia to the world’s best midfielder
With the support of his parents and uncle, Modrić entered an academy around the same time he began school, and eventually came under the tutelage of Domagoj and Tomislav Bašić. Modrić has since earned his keep through his exceptional football intelligence, a keen sense of awareness, and the technique to execute these traits as a means to compensate for his slight physique.
Hajduk Split, however, couldn’t see past his stature and chose to pass on Modrić, but with the help of Tomislav Bašić, he signed for Dinamo Zagreb at the age of 16. His first year in professional football was spent on loan at Zrinjski Mostar in the Bosnian top flight, taking physical beatings on a weekly basis but honing his play enough that he eventually won the league’s player of the year award. In alluding to the exceptionally physical style of play, Modrić said: “Someone who can play in the Bosnian league, can play anywhere.”
After finishing his apprenticeship in the beautiful city of Mostar, Modrić returned to Dinamo in 2006, helping them win the title three years in a row, growing ever more important to the team. During his three-year stint in the capital, he demonstrated early flashes of brilliance and was one of the key cogs behind Eduardo’s rise to the stardom, which eventually earned him a transfer to Arsenal.
The enormity of the talent of the long-haired, frail-looking star wasn’t lost on the big clubs either. Chelsea, Arsenal and Barcelona all courted Modrić when he decided his apprenticeship in Zagreb was up, but he eventually settled on Tottenham to ensure that he would feature regularly in a competitive starting line-up. His talent would take him to hero status at White Hart Lane as he helped the club become of Engish football’s most potent again.
José Mourinho’s Real Madrid became the final destination in Modrić’s rise to the very top. After controversial and very public transfer dealings between Daniel Levy and Florentino Pérez, the midfielder was eventually presented as a Real player, and despite an acrimonious first six months, he’s gone on to become one of the world’s best midfielders since. His silky touch, vision, ability to move forward and pass has seen him elevated to not just one of the world’s best footballer, but perhaps Croatia’s greatest. He has six Croatian Footballer of the Year awards to his name, which sit nicely alongside his four Champions League titles and the adoration of the Bernabéu faithful.
A player who is moulded from a similar cast to that of Modrić is friend and club rival, Ivan Rakitić. Like Modrić, Rakitić’s parents sought refuge from the war, a journey that took them to Switzerland. The young Ivan grew up a product of the Swiss youth system and eventually made his professional debut for national powerhouse Basel in 2005.
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Rakitić excelled at Basel from the very beginning of his term with the club. In three seasons he managed to win a league title, a domestic cup and proceed to the round of 16 in the UEFA Cup. His outings in red and blue eventually earned him a move to Schalke, where he continued to ply his trade alongside players such as Zé Roberto, Kevin Kurányi and Manuel Neuer.
The next step in Rakitić’s path to football superstardom was Sevilla. After a slow start in LaLiga, he eventually captained the squad to Europa League glory in 2014 before earning the biggest move of his career with Barcelona. Since then, he’s played over 200 times for the Blaugrana, winning three league titles and the Champions League, and securing his status as one of European football’s most influential midfielders.
In love and war
The deep imprint of civil war is still woven into the very fabric of Croatian football, and some of the finest maestros in the game today are products of those dark times. In the hours of conflict, football became an outlet, not only for the players, but for the people. Perhaps that’s why the finest Croatian stars have been the midfield generals – with the notable exceptions of Davor Šuker and Alen Bokšić – the ones who carve out something exceptional in the toughest of times. The visionaries; the free-thinkers. Like their compatriots almost 30 years ago, freedom is everything.
The DNA of Croatian football is centred on an intelligent use of the ball, and the next generation looks just as promising. Mateo Kovačić remains a fine passer, and despite an underwhelming stint at Real Madrid, his time will surely come at the very top – his talent is in no doubt. Another potential star of the future is Ante Ćorić, with many in Croatia predicting he’ll one day take over from Modrić. Fresh off a move to Roma, the freedom to be anything he wants awaits.
Robert Prosinečki and Zvonimir Boban paved the way for a generation of young Croatian talents when they first moved to big European powers and then took bronze at Croatia’s first ever World Cup in 1998. Niko Kovač built on that success both on and off the pitch with his professionalism and consistency, and Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić have taken things yet further, ensuring two of the world’s very best midfielders hail from the nation of just four million. It’s a vivid testament to a small country continuing to make waves in the world game.
By Nicklas Kastrup @koldlangside