Croatia’s third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup remains one of the finest moments in the country’s football history. In fact, it could be argued that it was the finest in Croatian’s sporting history as a whole until then. Goran Ivanišević’s triumph at Wimbledon in 2000, as close to a fairy tale as professional sports gets, and the silver medal in basketball at the 1992 Olympics united a nation in times of adversity, but for the majority, 1998 wins out.
However, while Davor Šuker’s goals stole the headlines and the genius of Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinečki lit up the tournament, one of Croatia’s most talented footballers could only watch from afar.
One of the best forwards of his generation, Alen Bokšić never even made it to France with the Vatreni – The Trail Blazers – after suffering a knee injury just weeks before the start of the tournament. Bokšić had scored four times in nine appearances during the qualification, including the crucial equaliser in the playoff second leg against Ukraine.
If his absence in France was a tough blow to take for Croatia, it was even worse for the striker. At 28, he was at the peak of his power and was desperate to make his mark on the international stage. Two years earlier, his first appearance at a major tournament lasted only 73 minutes, before a head injury saw him replaced by Goran Vlaović and brought his Euro 96 to a premature end.
It wasn’t the first time fate had conspired against him. In 1987, the Yugoslav Football Federation thought it would be in Bokšić’s best interest to miss what was then known as the World Youth Championship – now the FIFA Under-20 World Cup – in order to play more domestic football. The federation withdrew Bokšić from the squad, meaning he was sat at home when his compatriots clinched the title.
Three years later, it wasn’t fate but age that prevented Bokšić from representing his country. Ivica Osim included the forward in the 1990 World Cup squad, only to keep him on the bench for the entire tournament.
Bokšić would have to wait three years before eventually making his mark in Italy. When he did so, it was at club level with Lazio, instead of in the shirt of the national side, which by then had changed from the blue of Yugoslavia to the white and red chequered pattern now synonymous with Croatia.
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The same pattern featured prominently on the badge of Hajduk Split, the club Bokšić made his debut with in 1987. With the Bili – The Whites – he developed from a promising youngster into one of the most talented young players on the continent. He scored goals, too, netting a total of 60 in 174 games in all competitions.
One of them was the only goal in the final of the Yugoslav Cup against Red Star Belgrade in 1991. It was the second time Bokšić had lifted the trophy in four years but it would prove the final time he or anyone else would get their hands on it, as Yugoslavia dissolved a few months later.
The conflict in the Balkans was far from settled when Bokšić arrived in the Eternal City as a European champion in 1993, just months after winning the Champions League with Marseille. The Croat didn’t score in the 1-0 win in the final against AC Milan, but finished the competition as the team’s joint top scorer. Crucially, he had netted the winner in the final game of the group stages, which earned Marseille their second trip to a European Cup final in three seasons.
In his only full season in France, Bokšić also topped the scoring charts in Ligue 1, netting 23 goals as Les Olympiens finished five points ahead of bitter rivals Paris Saint-Germain.
The celebrations for a fifth consecutive league title, however, were cut prematurely short after OM’s president Bernard Tapie was found guilty of corruption and the club was stripped of the title and relegated to the second tier.
Bokšić played 12 games of the 1993/94 season but it was soon evident that he was one of the prized assets the club couldn’t afford to hold onto. Such was the aftermath of the scandal surrounding Tapie and Marseille’s relegation that OM were forced to effectively conduct a fire sale.
Despite Marseille’s eagerness to get big earners off their books, it still took Lazio some 15bn lira to convince the club to let Bokšić go. Despite being a bona fide star – only Roberto Baggio, Dennis Bergkamp and Eric Cantona had finished ahead of him in the 1993 Ballon d’Or standings – the Croat’s arrival in the Eternal City was eerily low key.
As Bokšić watched from the stands as his new teammates beat Udinese 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico, Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport described him as a “star rushed to the bedside of a club on the brink of collapse.”
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Sadly, Bokšić would never quite live up to the expectations. During three seasons in Rome, he would occasionally alleviate headaches but never prove to be the remedy to the life-threatening disease that seemingly afflicted Lazio. Disagreements with Zdeněk Zeman, who had taken over from Dino Zoff as manager at the beginning the 1994/95 season, made Bokšić’s stay on the banks of the Tiber an unpleasant affair.
For a man who had scored more than a goal every two games in Marseille, his 17 league goals in 67 Serie A games were a paltry return. Bokšić’s profligacy in front of goal was a stigma that accompanied him throughout his career.
An incredibly athletic forward – “a 400m runner who got away from track and field,” as former Juventus fitness coach Giampiero Ventrone once dubbed him – in many ways Bokšić was ahead of his time. He was among the first prototypes of the modern striker, in an era when football slowly began moving away from traditional number nines in favour of more dynamic and nimble forwards.
Physically imposing but gifted with excellent technique and searing pace, Bokšić was a riddle many found impossible to solve. “I don’t know who is better,” former teammate Slaven Bilić once said when asked to compare Bokšić with his attacking partner, Davor Šuker. “If you ask me as a centre-back, when you play against Bokšić, he would have slaughtered you. Running, dribbling, going left in the channel. He’d kick you, beat you, whatever. But maybe he wouldn’t score. But Šuker? You’d have a good game against him, but then he’d score a couple.”
Despite his obvious assets, goalscoring was never Bokšić’s forte, as 134 goals in 433 games testify. In Serie A, his record stood at 34 in 137 games. Three of those came while donning Juventus’s black and white stripes in the 1996/97 season. Fed up of Zeman’s methods, Bokšić had moved to Turin in the summer of 1996 for 14bn lira to join the reigning European champions. “The real problem was Zeman’s approach to training,” he told La Repubblica in the same year. “His fitness sessions break players. In two seasons, I did my hamstring four times. You can’t treat every player in the same way.”
With Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Paulo Sousa ushered out of the door, Bokšić, Christian Vieri and Zinedine Zidane were the men Marcello Lippi turned to in a bid to extend his team’s domination at home and abroad. However, while Zidane was an incredible success, Bokšić’s best moment with the Bianconeri came via a stunning goal against Manchester United in the group stages of the Champions League.
The goal was one of just seven in all competitions the Croat scored in his solitary season under the Mole Antonelliana. If the one against United was the pick of the crop stylistically, his winner against Bologna was crucial in the title race.
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With six games to go, Juventus led Parma by a solitary point after being thrashed 3-0 at home by Udinese. Bokšić’s goal eased the Old Lady past Bologna opening a four-point gap over the Ducali, who had lost 2-0 at home to Udinese. Parma’s only chance to cut the four-point gap came and went as Juventus held out for a 1-1 draw at the Ennio Tardini in the third-last game of the season, before a draw in the penultimate game of the campaign sealed a 24th Scudetto.
The striker’s only season in Turin would ultimately end in disappointment as Juventus failed at the final hurdle in the Champions League when Borussia Dortmund upset the odds to win 3-1 in Munich.
Despite winning the league title and the Intercontinental Cup – he missed the two-legged European Super Cup final through injury – the Croat was inconsistent during his sojourn under the Alps. A well-documented lack of goals, coupled with a series of injuries and Juve’s richness of options up-front, convinced Lippi it was time to turn Bokšić’s one-way trip to Turin into a return to Rome.
Less than a year since leaving Lazio, the Croat returned to the blue half of Rome for 25bn Lira. Here he found a team that was much healthier than the one he had first joined four years earlier. Sven-Göran Eriksson had replaced Zeman in the dugout and Sergio Cragnotti’s lavish spending had turned the Biancocelesti from also-rans into serious title contenders.
Bokšić’s first season back on the banks of the Tiber was also his finest in Serie A, netting 15 goals in 38 all competitions, including 10 goals in 26 league games. Bar his exploit at Marseille, it was only the second time he had reached double figures in a league season since he scored 12 in 27 games in his penultimate campaign for Hajduk Split in 1989/90.
One of those ten goals, at home against Sampdoria, was arguably the finest he scored during his time in Italy. Having picked up the ball 40 yards from goal, Bokšić found himself sandwiched in between two defenders. He took the ball away from the first before nutmegging the second with consummate ease and chipping Fabrizio Ferron with a delicious left-foot touch from the edge of the box. As the ball sailed over his head, the Sampdoria goalkeeper could only look and applaud.
Bokšić might not have been a great goalscorer, but he was definitely a scorer of great goals.
If the goals didn’t exactly flow, the trophies did. In his first season back in Rome, Bokšić lifted the Coppa Italia after Lazio beat AC Milan 3-2 on aggregate in the final. The following season, continental glory followed. He scored a crucial late equaliser as Lazio drew 1-1 in Moscow against Lokomotiv in the first leg of the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. A stalemate draw in the return was enough for the Biancocelesti to reach the final in Birmingham, where they would lift their first ever European trophy following a 2-1 win over Mallorca.
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Four months later, Lazio added a second piece of continental silverware to their trophy cabinet after beating a Manchester United side fresh from Treble glory 1-0 in the European Super Cup.
If the win over United in Monaco crowned the European triumph of the previous season, it also set the tone for what would turn out to be the most unforgettable of seasons for the Laziali. Trailing league leaders Juventus by nine points with only eight games left, Lazio’s hopes of a first title since 1973 looked dead and buried.
Despite winning six of their remaining seven matches – including an away win against Juventus – they trailed the Bianconeri by two points by the time the final game of the season kicked off. However, while Lazio dispatched Reggina 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico, Juve’s floundering title bid drowned in Perugia, where a waterlogged pitch forced the game to be suspended for almost an hour. When it resumed, Alessandro Calori wrote his name in Lazio’s folklore with the winner, gifting the Roman club just its second Scudetto.
A second league title in three years brought Bokšić’s second spell in Rome to an end, and with it, his sojourn in Italy. A modest return of eight goals in 34 appearances in all competitions in his final season in Italy wasn’t enough to discourage potential suitors and the Croat swapped Serie A for the Premier League, travelling the seldom beaten path between Rome and Middlesbrough.
It didn’t take long for Bokšić to justify the £2.5m fee Boro had paid for him, scoring twice on his debut in a 3-1 win over Coventry. It was to be a false dawn, however, as the Croat soon found himself at the scrutinised for reportedly being the highest paid player in English football. Despite being swiftly dismissed by Bryan Robson – “Talk of £63,000 a week is utter rubbish,” thundered the Boro manager – rumours over Bokšić’s wages didn’t make the Croatian particularly popular within the dressing room.
The situation didn’t change when Robson was succeeded by Terry Venables and then Steve McClaren. “I sensed the lads didn’t like him and it was easy to understand why,” said Gareth Southgate, who moved to the Riverside Stadium in Bokšić’s second season on Teesside. “In McClaren’s vision for Boro, everyone worked together and no-one sought special treatment. But there were two sets of rules at Boro: rules for Alen and rules for the rest.”
Despite his chronic fitness problems and alleged preferential treatment, Bokšić’s spell in Middlesbrough had some bright moments. He finished top scorers in the first two campaigns at the club and was voted the player of the year in his debut season. In 2002, he scored the only goal as Boro beat Manchester United at Old Trafford for only the second time since 1973. Six months later, he was on target against the same opponent as Middlesbrough won 3-1 at the Riverside on Boxing Day.
It would prove to Bokšić’s final goal as a professional, retiring less than two months later, his body finally calling time on him. Somewhat fittingly, a man who had dazzled European football found his swansong against one of its great heavyweights. He remains one of Croatia’s greatest talents and man who, in another era more suited to his style, may have become the wider legend his talent undoubtedly deserved.
By Dan Cancian @mufc_dan87