The staggering talent and mad tantrums of Zlatko Zahovič

The staggering talent and mad tantrums of Zlatko Zahovič

Melania Trump isn’t the first Slovenian to get bad press. Once there was another diva who hogged the headlines; another long-haired, good-looking export who couldn’t help but make questionable decisons. His name, as fans of Porto and Benfica will attest, was Zlatko Zahovič.

The most famous player in Slovenian history was born in Maribor, the son of Serbian immigrants Jusuf and Zineta. His was a typical story: working-class, humble, with the ball tied permanently to his feet.

His talent with the ball was far from typical, though. An impudent playmaker with a rash temper, it was obvious to everyone that he was something special; including Partizan Belgrade striker Milko Gjurovski, who was stationed in Maribor at the time for military service. He’d spotted the prancing teen at an indoor game, before making an immediate call to his coach Ivica Osim. This kid, Djurovski told him, had skills.

So Zahovič left, an 18-year-old swapping Maribor, family and friends for Predrag Mijatović, Slaviša Jokanovič and Savo Milošević. Yet, just when Zahovič was breaking into the first team, Yugoslavia collapsed, and he joined every other decent footballer in the region by fleeing the ruins. Vitória Guimarães coach Bernardino Pedroto needed a left winger, so he took him.

Zahovič struggled initially in northern Portugal. Denied flexibility in Pedroto’s system, he stropped incessantly, at one point even being banned from the club’s premises by president Antónia Pimenta Machado.

Pedroto’s successor gave the Slovene more freedom, with performances upticking immediately. It was the arrival of Jaime Pacheco midway through the season that would really allow Zahovič to flourish. Pacheco, who would later go on to win the league title with Boavista, allowed his star man a free role behind the strikers.

Inspired by their creative maverick, Vitória drew away to Benfica and won at Sporting. On matchday 32, Zahovič himself scored the winning goal in a famous 3-2 victory away at Porto. It was all the evidence needed for the hosts to make a move, signing him after an acrimonious dispute between the clubs in the summer of 1996.

“Porto were completely dominant at the time and he was a good example of why,” recalls Tom Kundert of Portugoal. “A good player at Vitória Guimarães, when Zahovič moved to Porto he took his game to another level and showed all his considerable creativity and class whilst being fiercely competitive to boot.”

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“We had to understand the club’s philosophy quickly,” Zahovič would later admit in an interview with MaisFutebol. “Anyone who had quality, if he wanted to succeed at Porto, could do it because he had a lot of help in the dressing room.”

Zahovič was speaking about the impressive team spirit cultivated by moustachioed mister António Oliveira. But it didn’t hurt either that Porto boasted the finest squad in Portugal. Flying wingers Capucho and Ljubinko Drulović were a constant torment, while striker Mário Jardel regularly competed for – and won – the European Golden Boot. Porto would coast to five titles in a row between 1995 and 2000, three of which Zahović, in all his angry brilliance, would play a crucial role in winning.

It was inevitable that Porto fans would fall in love with him, being as he was the archetype of the roguish playmaker. Zahovič was long-haired for a start, with his locks tied back with a customary Alice band. He was left-footed and petulant, technically superb and instantly combustible. Collar upturned and reeking of disdain, he was box office.

By the time he left the club in 1999, Porto had secured the tri, tetra and penta – their third, fourth and fifth consecutive league titles – not to mention a clutch of domestic cups. His final year was arguably his finest, when he finished just below Dwight Yorke and Andriy Shevchenko in the Champions League scoring charts.

Bigger clubs circled, but none made an offer as convincing as Olympiacos. Sokratis Kokkalis had assumed the presidency of the Greek club in 1993. With vast wealth and a network of contacts behind him, the telecoms magnate had restructured their debt, before financing a first league title in a decade in 1997. He offered Porto a staggering £10m.

It didn’t matter that Zahovič preferred a move to Spain. It didn’t matter, either, that he told reporters that playing in Greece would feel like “being buried alive”. Upon his arrival in Athens, Zahovič was greeted like a king. Thousands awaited him at the airport. He impressed immediately, even scoring against Real Madrid in a European game.

The warning signs came early, though. Zahovič refused to integrate with his teammates, who were left unimpressed at his arrogant attitude as well as the blatantly favourable treatment he was receiving from the hierarchy. The player himself was dissatisfied with coach Dušan Bajević’s tactics – so much so that when he was substituted halfway through a game against PAOK, he tore the shirt from his back and threw it in the coach’s direction.

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Bajević, who’d implored Kokkalis to sign Zahovič in the first place, would come to rue his earlier enthusiasm. Faced with a terminal breakdown in relations, the president made a businessman’s choice. Bajevič was cheaper to get rid of, so he was gone. By the time Zahovič departed for Slovenia’s Euro 2000 playoff game against Ukraine, he had already done much to alienate himself from the club’s irate fans.

It would get worse, though. Zahovič refused to return from international duty, railing about a lack of professionalism in the Greek league. New coach Alberto Bigon tried to intercede, but it was to no avail. The best player in the Olympiacos team was holed up, sulking on a Maribor sofa.

In late January, relations thawed. Zahovič returned to Greece, reinstalled immediately in Bigon’s starting line-up. Frustrated with the Italian’s defensive set-up, however, it was only a matter of time before Zahovič’s next explosion. It came during a crucial match against Panathinaikos on matchday 25 of the league. Midway through the second half, Bigon made the fateful mistake of hooking Zahovič off: cue a hail of insults and histrionics, followed by another march down the tunnel and another hasty exit.

This time, Sokkalis was in no mood to be charitable. Zahovič was slapped with a two-month ban and a hefty fine. By the time Slovenia lined up for that summer’s tournament in Holland and Belgium, nobody knew where their country’s greatest player would end up.

In reality, most fans around the world didn’t know a great deal about him, other than what they’d heard in fleeting reports. Zahovič was the barely-recognisable face of the competition’s most exotic team, a rarity that had only been recognised by FIFA some eight years earlier. He may have scored most of Slovenia’s goals in qualifying, but casual football fans around Europe would rarely have seen him play.

That obscurity was shattered on the day of Slovenia’s first game. The opponents were Yugolavia; reduced, but still virulent. Zahovič ran the show, scoring two and assisting one as the minnows bounced into a 3-0 lead. That Vujadin Boškov’s men came back to equalise didn’t matter. Slovenia, in white and forest green, had become the darlings of the tournament.

Zahovič scored again in the second group match against Spain. Ultimately, though, it would be Slovenia’s last act in the competition, a turgid goalless draw with Norway sending them home.

For the first time, Zahovič had a rival for the nation’s hearts. Srečko Katanec, the national manager who’d taken the team from obscurity to the highest level, still looked fit enough to play himself. After all, he had been a brilliant midfielder in his own right, one of the stars of the Sampdoria team that had reached the European Cup final in 1992. His bland and level-headed persona contrasted starkly with Zahovic’s prima donna milieu.

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“Katanec was disciplined, ascetic, a believer in the primacy of the team,” writes Jonathan Wilson in Behind the Iron Curtain. “Zahovic, by contrast, was a free spirit, technically gifted, individualistic. Both carried unhelpfully large egos.”

For now, though, they had brokered an uneasy truce, even if Zahovič had been angered by Katanec’s comments that August that Slovenia lacked a real leader on the pitch.

Inevitably, Zahovič’s performances in Holland and Belgium encouraged bigger clubs to make a bid. It helped that Kokkalis was desperate to get rid of him. Valencia offered less than half of what he had paid the previous summer but it didn’t matter: Zahovič was gone, to the relief of all parties involved.

This was the move he had wanted; a better league, a better team and a better coach. Yet the Slovenian stood no chance of gaining a regular place in Los Che’s starting line-up, not in a squad containing the likes of Gaizka Mendieta and Kily González. What’s more, Valencia boss Héctor Cúper was conservative to his core.

Zahovič was bought with the express purpose of being an impact substitute, someone who could play behind the strikers and thread in through balls. Needless to say, he didn’t react to his new status too well. “Cúper was just a completely different person in tough matches,” Zahović railed to Dnevnik years later. “He just couldn’t stand the psychological pressure, so his teams were always losing.”

That may well have been true. Despite reaching consecutive Champions League finals, Cúper and Valencia did lose them both. It didn’t help that, after coming on late in the second half of the latter final, Zahovič had his penalty saved by Oliver Kahn.

By the season’s end, it was clear that player and coach would not reconcile. Cúper needed a reliable squad player who has happy to play a limited role. Zahovič, as always, needed to be the centre of attention. “Valencia were, in fact, a very defensive team,” he told Record on the eve of his departure. “This is not my way of playing. In fact, I’m convinced that Héctor Cúper will never win any title.”

By then, Zahovič’s escape route had been plotted. That summer, Benfica general manager Luís Filipe Vieira flew to Maribor, armed with the promise of regular playing time in Portugal. As Águias were far from the reliable behemoth they are today, riddled with internal strife and struggling outside the Champions League places. Zahovič, they felt, was a proven performer who could be a custodian for younger talents like Mantorras and Simão.

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Injury, however, derailed much of his first season, with many Benfiquistas still wary about his links to their bitter rivals. Some felt that he was struggling to integrate in a squad that already had one talented left-footed playmaker in Artur. “I’m only interested in what the coach thinks and decides, because he is the one who accompanies us every day,” Zahovič told reporters in 2002. “What goes on in the media doesn’t interest me.”

It was hard, however, to escape the feeling that Zahovič’s return had been something of an anti-climax. He departed for the 2002 World Cup, eager to re-discover some of his best form: “Certain players haven’t done anything in attack.”

Katanec could barely hide his contempt. He’d just witnessed his side go down 3-1 to Spain, the World Cup getting off to the worst possible start. Everyone knew who the insult was aimed at, but nobody knew about the cataclysm that had just gone down in the dressing room.

Zahovič, incensed at being substituted for teammate Milenko Ačimovič, had kicked over a water bottle on his way off the field. At the final whistle, he had gone straight for the coach, allegedly yelling, “You’re a prick of a coach and were a prick of a player. I could buy you, your house and your family.”

At first, the Slovenian Football Federation tried to downplay the incident. The matter, they said, had been settled internally and Zahovič would remain with the squad under caution. The Slovenian players waved away media queries, having been banned from discussing the matter in public.

Shortly thereafter, Katanec hosted a press conference where he tearfully announced his departure from a national job once the tournament was concluded. The bust-up with Zahovič was mentioned, as were the shameful slurs thrown in his direction.

Predictably, Zahovič reacted. He hastily arranged his own press conference, complaining to reporters, “This has been going on a long time. He wanted to provoke my reactions from day one of the preparations. Things were happening and I didn’t want to react, even though I was having to listen to somebody putting me down every day.”

The suits at the federation were left with no choice: Zahovič, having broken the cardinal role, was to be sent home. Their decision might have been helped by a newspaper poll which found that just 6.7percent of people back home backed the playmaker’s position. Robbed of their most gifted player and with morale destroyed, Slovenia finished the tournament with two goals and no points.

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Zahovič returned to Lisbon, the best player in a team that simply could not defend. José Antonio Camacho, the Spaniard who looks like he eats rocks for breakfast, assumed the managerial reigns in November. The upturn was immediate, with Benfica finally returning to the Champions League places.

The following season was overshadowed by the tragic on-field death of striker Miklós Fehér. Zahovič led the tributes in the following game against Académica. After scoring the only goal, he had gathered his teammates in a kneeling circle, whereupon they all pointed to the sky in dedication to their former teammate. Together, they would retain second spot in the league, blighting title-winners Porto’s celebrations by ousting them in the Portuguese Cup final.

That summer, Camacho departed for Real Madrid, and with him went any realistic prospect of Zahovič retaining his influence on the team. Giovanni Trapattoni, the new incumbent, had little time for the Slovene’s ageing talents, with the club terminating his contract in January 2005. “Benfica wishes Zahovič all the best in his future career and we thank him for his professionalism and commitment,” read an anodyne club statement.

By February, Zahovič turned 34. He’d always expected high standards, not only from his teammates and competitors but also from himself. He knew his powers were waning, that he couldn’t reconcile the player he was with the player he had been. He retired, having played a part in securing Benfica’s first title win in 11 years.

“I think he’s one of those top-class players who Portuguese clubs could just about keep hold of at the time,” Kundert remembers. “Unlike nowadays when he would undoubtedly be hoovered up by one of the richer leagues in a heartbeat. Anyone who saw him strutting his stuff in Portugal knows what an outstanding talent he was.”

“He is considered an eternal football star,” agrees Miran Zore, editor-in-chief of Slovenian football website Nogomania. “Every football debate in Slovenia sooner or later ends up with Zahovič, his presence, goals and impact. He can divide people with his character but as for his football, everything is clear. The guy deserves a statue.”

Zlatko Zahovič doesn’t need a statue to be remembered, though. The goals and skills, not to mention the dramatics and tantrums, make him impossible to forget.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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