Croatia: Robert Prosinecki

Nothing can impact upon a footballer’s career quite like a sticking sobriquet. But imagine being branded ‘Glass Legs’, the moniker afforded Robert Prosinecki in his injury-ravaged Primera Liga days.

Nothing can impact upon a footballer’s career quite like a sticking sobriquet.

To be branded ‘the new George Best’ at Manchester United, for example, is tantamount to having a millstone hung around one’s neck.

Once christened, there is no going back.

Some live up to tags, others flunk it.

Gabriel Batistuta’s ‘Bati-gol’, Raul’s ‘Baby-star’ and Roberto Baggio’s ‘Divine Ponytail’ amount to aliases rather than nicknames.

But imagine being branded ‘Glass Legs’, the moniker afforded Robert Prosinecki in his injury-ravaged Primera Liga days.

Prosinecki had the world at his feet in 1987 when he was voted the top player at the World Youth Championships.

Lauded by Pele, he became an instant target of Europe’s elite but stayed faithful to Yugoslavian football until the outset of the Balkans conflict.

After leaving Dinamo Zagreb, he captained Red Star Belgrade to the 1991 European Cup title.

All well and good until then; and then came the money men from Real Madrid with their pesetas and the attraction of Primera Liga football.

In 1991, at 22, the leggy playmaker left home.

Ten years later, he has wound up at Portsmouth, the English First Division club who have not known top-flight football since the infancy of their new midfield general’s career.

He goes to the World Cup with many expecting to see a shell of the player who orchestrated the Yugoslavia midfield at Italia 90.

Since that tournament, Yugoslavia as a country has been - as a result of war and at the cost of horrific bloodshed - split with Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia the new countries formed.

Fighting back home took its toll on the young Prosinecki, who never rediscovered the form he produced with Red Star during his Madrid days.

Subsequent spells at Real Oviedo, Barcelona and Sevilla confirmed the obvious: the Croatian had all the tricks, a marvellous footballing brain and a great eye for goal.

But he would spend an eternity recovering from injuries, and lengthy runs of first-team games were just not happening.

A return to Dinamo Zagreb in 1997 looked to signal the final throw of the dice ﷓ and it paid off.

A year later, Prosinecki’s promptings took Croatia into the semi-finals of the World Cup.

He scored twice to become the first man to net for two countries at the finals, following his strike against the United Arab Emirates for Yugoslavia at Italia 90.

Standard Liege were struggling to pay his wages in mid-2001 and Portsmouth, owned by Yugoslavia-born Milan Mandaric, made the stunning signing.

‘‘Once you lure a major target like this, it opens the eyes of others with regard to the intentions of the club,’’ said Mandaric.

Director of football Harry Redknapp was just as enthusiastic.

‘‘I signed Paolo di Canio for West Ham, but Prosinecki has the ability to have the same sort of impact for Portsmouth,’’ he boasted.

‘‘He won the European Cup with Red Star Belgrade in 1991 and played in Euro 96 with Croatia. Then in the last World Cup he was unlucky not to get to the final.

‘‘He’s captain in a team full of world-class players like Zvonimir Boban and Alen Boksic, and now we’ve got him. It’s a fantastic signing.’’

Certainly Prosinecki impressed and dictated the pace of a host of Pompey matches already, although he has now accepted a contract with Japanese club Grampus Eight, described by Mandaric as ‘‘an offer he could not refuse’’.

Croatia’s team will feature more than a sprinkling of veterans, including the mercurial Prosinecki.

He turned 33 in January, while Boksic will be 31, Davor Suker 34 and Robert Jarni 33 come Croatia’s opening match against Mexico on June 3.

They could make no impression and be home by mid-June, but there is something doughty about these Balkans.

And just as another Croat, Goran Ivanisevic, fearlessly chopped down the likes of Tim Henman and Pat Rafter to capture the world’s imagination in London, wouldn’t it be just a little special to see Prosinecki’s men roll back the years with one last hurrah?

Prosinecki owes it to himself, if no-one else, to be remembered as a champion warrior rather than the man who might have been king.

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