How Mario Stanić, who waded across a river to flee war, became one of Croatia’s most underrated footballers

How Mario Stanić, who waded across a river to flee war, became one of Croatia’s most underrated footballers

The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke described childhood as man’s true homeland. The place where one wants to return, where one never left. For many Croatians, the summer of 1998 arouses such memories, both figuratively and literally. Croatia, after all, was in its infancy as a nation and made a mark at its first ever World Cup finals in France. The Vatreni finished third in their debut tournament having previously existed as one of the handful of republics which made up Yugoslavia.

Šuker, Boban, Bilić, Prosinečki, Jarni and Asanović are names that roll off the tongue and have become synonymous with that run to the last four under the tutelage of the emblematic figure of Ćiro Blažević. But for one member of the squad, the journey to World Cup stardom and national hero status was all the more remarkable.

Midfielder Mario Stanić had spent the majority of his life in the Yugoslav utopia that was pre-war Sarajevo. Born in the historical city to Herzegovinian-Croat parents in 1972, he, like many of its inhabitants, was raised with a quintessential Yugoslav identity throughout his childhood.

An exciting attacking midfielder, Stanić burst onto the scene for Grbavica-based Željezničar in the early 1990s, enjoying a breakthrough season in 1991/92. His exceptional form was rewarded with a national team debut for the Plavi that year, as the country around him began to disintegrate. Bosnia and Herzegovina was, at the time, still peaceful and the 19-year-old was part of an exciting crop of Željo youngsters led by legendary manager Milan Ribar.

Rade Bogdanović, the late Suvad Katana, Gordan Vidović, Simo Krunić, Srećko Ilić, Siniša Nikolić and Jasminko Velić were all emerging stars hoping to emulate the exploits of 1971/72 team, which became one of three clubs outside the traditional big four to win the Yugoslav league title in its 45-year history. The names in the team also reflected the multi-ethnic nature of the side, which had been supported by all three of Sarajevo’s main ethnic groups.

Five days before turning 20, Stanić headed into a league game against Rad Belgrade in top form having netted 11 goals in 21 games as he looked to continue his purple patch in front of the club’s loyal Manijaci supporters. That game was called off 30 minutes prior to kick-off as the hostilities which came to characterise the city for the next few years emerged, officials fearing for the players’ and supporters’ safety. A newspaper report of the match declared that “Grbavica Stadium had never been sadder”, unaware of what was to follow over the course of the following few years.

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The game wasn’t completed and Željezničar never featured in the dying Yugoslav First League again. Indeed, the siege that disrupted everyday life in the fabled city commenced that fateful day.

Having just turned 20, Stanić, like most of his teammates and a significant portion of the city’s population, fled. He journeyed up to northern Bosnia and waded across the Sava River, which separated a newly-independent Bosnia and Herzegovina from Croatia. After finding refuge in the border town of Slavonski Brod, he moved to the nation’s capital Zagreb, joining the large exodus of Bosniak and Croatian refugees that had arrived from the conflict zones.

Shortly afterwards, he resumed his playing career at the newly-renamed Croatia Zagreb, who reverted back to their traditional name Dinamo in 2000. At the Maksimir Stadium, the forward formed a lethal attack with the likes of Željko Adžić, Igor Cvitanović and Goran Vlaović, which contributed 58 of the Modri’s 84 league goals as Blažević’s return coincided with Dinamo’s first league triumph in 11 years.

At the same time, foreign scouts had been keeping a key eye on talent in the region, hopeful that local players would follow their compatriots by moving to richer Western European leagues. Stanić was no different and joined fellow Croat Daniel Šaric at Sporting Gijon in LaLiga, with his seven league goals helping Los Rojiblancos fight off relegation in his debut campaign. A move across the border to Portugal followed in 1994 as the youth international joined the likes of Michel Preud’homme, João Pinto and Claudio Caniggia at Benfica.

Frustrated by a lack of game time under Artur Jorge, Stanić made the switch to Belgium powerhouse Club Brugge the following year. There he formed a telling and prolific strike partnership with compatriot Robert Špehar as the Blauw-Zwart stormed to the league title, with Stanić’s 20 league goals earning him the Golden Boot. By that point, he had also been capped by Blažević for Croatia despite the best efforts of Bosnia and Herzegovina manager Fuad Muzurović, who had attempted to cap both Stanić and Savo Milošević in Bosnian colours.

For the national team, however, Stanić was restricted from replicating his club exploits in a more advanced role. The likes of Davor Šuker and Alen Boksić commanded starting births while his former Dinamo teammates Cvitanović and Vlaović were trusted deputies. Blažević recognised Stanić’s strong work ethic and offered him a role as right wing-back in his favoured 3-5-2 formation.

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While their famed basketball team had to wait a mere 12 months to achieve international acclaim at the 1992 Olympics, the football team had to wait a full five years before embarking on their maiden international tournament, debuting at Euro 96 in England. The prolonged wait was worth it as Stanić played a full 90 minutes in the Vatreni’s late 1-0 triumph over Turkey in Nottingham before winning a penalty against Denmark in a 3-0 win at Hillsborough. Though their tournament ended following a controversial 2-1 defeat to eventual champions Germany in the last eight, Stanić and his teammates had made an impression in their tournament debut.

Having earned the plaudits in England, the attacker-turned-wing-back found club stability with a move to Carlo Ancelotti’s Parma. A sleepy town in the nation’s north had been transformed into one of the continent’s most exciting footballing hotspots, featuring a conveyor belt of talent. Stanić joined a locker room containing the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Néstor Sensini, Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Dino Baggio, Enrico Chiesa and Hernán Crespo, and was later joined at Parma by the returning Faustino Asprilla, Stefano Fiore, Alain Boghossian, Juan Sebastián Verón, Ariel Ortega and Abel Balbo in a who’s who of 90s stars.

His four years at the Tardini saw Parma win a UEFA Cup – their second of the decade – and Coppa Italia double in 1998/99 as they dined alongside calcio’s traditional elite. Sandwiched between his time at the club was the 1998 World Cup, which made Stanić and his teammates immortal back home.

A dark horse for many, confidence was high within the Croatia camp that they could win the tournament on debut, with the players talking extensively about the emotional attachment associated with wearing the famous chequered shirt. Also featuring in France was a familiar face to Stanić in his ex-Željo teammate Gordan Vidović, who, after finding refuge in Belgium, was converted into a defender for the Red Devils.

In France, Stanić occupied his role as a marauding wing-back once more and in total missed just 10 minutes of football across Croatia’s seven games. In their opener against Jamaica, he had the honour of being first Croatian on the scoresheet at the World Cup finals as he slotted home a 27th-minute opener from close range, helping set Blažević’s side on course for a 3-1 victory. Having finished second to Argentina in Group H, the Croats edged past Romania in the round of 16 via a Šuker penalty before earning revenge against the Germans in the last eight.

Buoyed by the first half sending off of Die Mannschaft defender Christian Wörns, Croatia took the lead in dying seconds of the half when a run deep inside German territory by Stanić saw him tee up left wing-back Robert Jarni. Further goals by Vlaović and Šuker sealed a semi-final date with hosts France, and the seismic prospect of being 90 minutes away from reaching a World Cup final.

Sadly, Stanić’s Parma teammate Lilian Thuram became Les Bleus’ unlikely hero as his brace cancelled out Šuker’s opener early in the second half. A third-place finish was secured following a 2-1 defeat of the Netherlands as a bleach-blonde Stanić celebrated the momentous achievement.

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His teammate, Aljoša Asanović, was full of praise for Stanić: “Mario provided great energy in both directions. As a wide player who began his career as an attacker, the transition he made to be part of the side in that time was of great importance,” he told These Football Times. “In terms of his importance to our overall play, he brought to the national team enormous potential and drive which was integral to our success,” Asanović affirmed.

A mainstay in the national side, Stanić was later a part of Croatia’s unsuccessful Euro 2000 campaign, which ended when his equaliser failed to generate a subsequent winner over 10-man Yugoslavia in Zagreb.

At the turn of the millennium, Stanić made the move to the bright lights of the Premier League and a pre-Abramovich Chelsea under Claudio Ranieri. A debut goal – one of two – against West Ham saw his spectacular 35-yard effort replayed in highlights and montages for years to come, although his career at Stamford Bridge was largely hampered by injury. Nevertheless, his seven goals in 69 appearances, tireless endeavour and undoubted skill made him a favourite amongst the Chelsea faithful. Chronic knee injuries saw him retire in 2004 at the age of 32, two years after playing a peripheral role across two games for the Vatreni in an underwhelming Croatian World Cup sequel.

Two decades on from his historic feats in France, Stanić’s exploits in the Croatian shirt should not be understated. It was only six years earlier that he was forced to abandon his home city under a storm of bullets and bloodshed before embarking on the dangerous trek across the Sava. Many of those that fled didn’t make it.

Stanić reflected on his escape from Sarajevo in an interview with Zagreb newspaper Večernji List earlier this year, shedding light on the circumstances behind his departure from a city under siege: “I fled Sarajevo with a suitcase, shirt, two underpants and a passport”, he said. “I had enough luck to save myself. Many others did not. That left a mark on me and taught me to appreciate certain things. I would love for us to better appreciate each other. That, I believe, would make us happier in our lives.”

In the end, he made it and ensured his place in Croatian football folklore as a member of the celebrated ’98 vintage. He most recently watched on with pride as Luka Modrić and co bettered their achievements with a sense of euphoric joy and unity largely unseen in the country since that summer of 1998. In the annals of history, Mario Stanić’s place is secure.

By Damir Kulas @DamirKulas

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