Davor Šuker: The Godfather of Croatian football

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In my childhood years, I rarely even touched a ball. I couldn’t get my head around why all the boys in my class were so excited to head down to the concrete turf at lunchtime to swing their feet at a ball. It never appealed to me; I never thought it would.

As you can tell, I was very wrong. Clouded, at the time, by the whirlwind of youth, I was none the wiser. We all know that one lad that said he didn’t make it professional because he did his knee in. Well, I didn’t make it professional because I was a late bloomer. I’d rather spend my weekends writing about those who did make it instead.

This also meant that my first football memory was very different to yours.

My first football memory is having a conversation with my best friend around the age of seven or eight about what to me was nonsensical anxiety over his height. He told me about an upcoming deadline or something about making it to the next level at Reading’s youth academy, keenly pointing out that height and build played an important factor in the selection process.

Admittedly, I never thought a kid his age could be defined in football by their height. He used to compare himself to Lionel Messi (a reflection on how I’m not that old) and how he is short, but he’s the greatest of all time.

That was his way of comforting himself when he thought he wouldn’t make it as a professional footballer. As we’ve grown up, our realities were nullified, and the fact only 1% of youth academy footballers ever made it became a stark one for my friend Charlie.

Nevertheless, the stories of Lionel Messi’s rags to riches and how he made it into the sport in the first place because of his height are commonplace in commentary dialogues now. But it begs the question: What about those on the other side of the continuum, those argued to be too ‘stocky’ for the sport?

That’s where today’s subject Davor Šuker comes in.

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Here he is, celebrating after knocking a crossfield pass into his stride and scooping his left foot under the ball to chip Peter Schmeichel and give Croatia a stunning 2-0 lead over European champions Denmark at Euro 96. The beautiful goal resonates iconic in the modern day and is a testament to the magic in Šuker’s left foot.

Even before he validated his glittering career as a feared striker at the 1998 World Cup with the Golden Boot, the Croatian was recognised as one of the most talented centre forwards on the planet.

And his talents didn’t lie exclusively on the pitch. While Croatia continues to be a force to be reckoned with in international tournaments, reaching this year’s World Cup semi-final, the nation of four million people has had an enshrined football pedigree since its formation.

Šuker has been an eternal flame in the ascent of Croatian football in a variety of roles. Firstly as a footballer, then as a patron of youth development in the country, and now as the President of the Croatian Football Federation.

Here is the story of Davor Šuker, a weathered football fanatic that continues to be an enigma in Croatian football since the founding year of the nation in 1991.

Never destined for the top

Despite living with football at the heart of his life, Šuker was never expected to make it into the big time. Height wouldn’t be the denominator, but instead, his tendency to be a bit less elegant with his playing style. He couldn’t head well, had no pace to speak of, and looked like a stiff breeze could blow him over. His right foot, meanwhile, was terrible. In his left, however, was enough magic to mark him out as one of the most talented forwards on the continent.

Allied with his positional awareness and polished finishing technique, his hometown club’s coach Milan Ðuricic had no qualms about signing him on. Maybe if he was younger, he would have been the victim of the brutal selection process my friend taught me about. At 16, though, he was worth a shot.

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Sure enough, before his 17th birthday, he was given his debut. An opportunity to vindicate his coach’s decision was set in stone. Though not capitalising straight away, when Šuker learnt where the goal was for Osijek, the goals surged in.

40 goals in 91 matches was an astonishing return for someone getting their first taste of professional football. But even more sensational was his ability to take the skills he had learnt at club level and frame them at international level, playing an attractive style to authenticate interest from established football dynasties.

1987 – The formative year of Croatia’s 35-year-long footballing empire

Although many would have forgotten the 1987 Youth Championships held in Chile, it proved to be the cockcrow of Yugoslavia’s instantaneous success and Croatia’s future fortunes. During the tournament, which the nation made up of Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs, Kosovans, and Slovenians won, Šuker was one of many that brought a uniquely-Croatian flair to the team.

Robert Prosinečki was the Luka Modric of that great youth team, the creative orchestrator, and with him were the talents of Zvonimir Boban, Predrag Mijatović, and the goalscoring habits of Šuker, who scored a fantastic brace against the hosts in front of 67,000 fans at the Estadio Nacional, before plundering a strike against Matthias Sammer’s East Germany in the semi-final.

In the final, Yugoslavia would be confronted by the other side of Germany, Golden Shoe-winning striker Marcel Witeczek’s West Germany. Seven goals in the tournament was a reason to fret for Yugoslavia, but the game went all the way to the lottery of penalties. Šuker slotted his spot-kick away and he was aided by fellow Croats Dubravko Pavličić and Boban to a triumph that laid down the foundations of a bright future.

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A Youth Championship, harmonised by his six goals, only raised Šuker’s profile. More importantly, though, it was the first forerunner to Croatia’s infinite slipstream of milk and honey. Supreme football nations of yesteryear relied on selecting players from one or two clubs to ensure the chemistry and unity of the squads were already a definitive part of the national setup.

Ivan Osim was an advocate for this selection process method, and so instead of picking players from certain teams, his doctrine laid within the idea that the palpitations of Yugoslavia’s beating heart relied substantially on the flair of the Croats.

1990 – 1991 – A new dawn for Hrvatska

The success of the 1987 side that lifted the Youth Championship filtered into the first team for the 1990 World Cup, giving Croats a platform to build upon when they became their own team in 1991.

Though Šuker, now spritzing in goals for Dinamo Zagreb, was listed in the 22-man squad for Italy, he did not feature. His Croat teammates, however, did. They gallivanted on a hugely successful campaign, losing out to Argentina on penalties at the quarter-final stage.

Progressively, the Croatian influence within the Yugoslavia team became more apparent, and on 16 May 1991, just days before the Croatian independence referendum, Osim named an all-Croat lineup in a friendly against the Faroe Islands. If there was ever any need for validation that Croatia’s football empire was catalysed before their independence was announced, it was this.

An unofficial Croatian team made an international debut against the United States on 17 October 1990 at Maksimir Stadium. Croatia went on to win 2–1. This was one of three games played under caretaker manager Dražan Jerković, who first introduced the modern, checkered jersey. The team served as a de facto national side due to Croatia’s liberty not being formalized until June 1991.

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While 1991 signposted Croatia’s sovereignty from Slobodan Milošević brutalist Yugoslavia regime, it didn’t come without its violence.

“Imagine someone bombing Seville Cathedral. That’s what’s happened in my home,” said a distracted Šuker as he was announced as a Sevilla player in the summer of 91. As he spoke, the coastal town of Dubrovnik was being bombarded by Serbian forces, in an act that provoked widespread condemnation in the international community. 

Nevertheless, Šuker found a gateway to further success in Spain as Croatia sought the sunrise of their own inventive football. Finally, Hrvatska could focus on the development of Croats as opposed to a group of nations. Unfortunately, this did mean that a lot of talent from the other countries that made up Yugoslavia went wasted, but Croatia were just getting started.

Euro 96 – Croatia’s first major international tournament & Šuker’s indelible summer 

Croatia was finally granted UEFA membership in 1993. Fittingly, Šuker would score two goals in their first match against Estonia in Tallinn. The Sevilla man would then help his country qualify easily for Euro 96, finishing above Italy in second place.

In the tournament itself, the Croats had built on their fine endeavours under the Yugoslav title to draw in spectators from across the continent to their breathtaking football. Particularly, Šuker was critically acclaimed throughout, with his aforementioned chip against Schmeichel labelled as one of the best goals in European Championship history.

Despite arguably not performing as well as their Yugoslav selves in the 1990 World Cup, they had to bare in mind that a lot of their system was new. Miroslav Blazevic was their new operator at the helm, and they weren’t used to playing with each other, although much of the core group of the 1990 Yugoslav side was retained.

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Nevertheless, the best thing to come from the squad in their first-ever tournament as a sovereign nation was their pride to play for the red and white chequered emblem of Hrvatska. For once, the players involved felt loyalty and affiliation towards their country.

“When I used to play for Yugoslavia, it meant nothing,” admitted centre-back Igor Štimac. “Now the feeling is incomparable.” The Croats became infatuated with playing for their country of residence, something that resonates perpetually today. True patriots.

The summer tournament wasn’t the only highlight of Šuker’s 1996. As a youngster, having been mesmerised by the circuitous, meandering football of Real Madrid, He decided then that he, too, would play for the team of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás at some point in his lifetime.

In 1996, his dream came true. He was joined at the time by a quiver of top-tier talent. Clarence Seedorf and Roberto Carlos arrived from Serie A, with Predrag Mijatović nabbed from Valencia after a strong goal tally the year before. With youngsters Raúl and Guti breaking into the first team, Los Merengues were pregnant with an attacking threat. 

This certainly had some sort of impact on Šuker’s rise to his prime year in the forthcoming 1998 World Cup.

1998 – Šuker’s Golden Boot apotheosis 

Heading into what would become Croatia’s most successful campaign until 2018, Šuker was filling his boots with goals, medals, trophies, and whatever else you’d find in a successful Real Madrid frontman’s pockets. After a 32-year wait for their next European Cup, in the months leading up to France 98, he added a Champions League medal to his name.

His left foot was frightening as ever, but it wasn’t just him that made up an excellent 1998 Croatian setup. The southern European country could call upon Aljoša Asanović, Boban and Robert Prošinecki from deep. Under Ciro Blazević’s 3-5-2, Robert Jarni and Goran Vlaović were given ample licence to get forward. Croatia were talented and seasoned, but they were no surprise. 

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In his first two matches of the tournament, Šuker protruded as a man on a mission, scoring two smartly-taken goals in victories against Group H opponents Jamaica and Japan. Hrvatska’s only speck in the group stage was their 1-0 defeat to Argentina, who were managed by Daniel Passarella – Argentina’s captain during their 1978 World Cup triumph.

As if there was any ever doubt, Šuker’s goalscoring proclivity returned in the Round of 16 in the shape of a coolly-placed penalty conversion against Romania – the only goal in a 1-0 victory that sent the Croats duly on their way to a quarter-final date with reigning European champions Germany.

Die Mannschaft were strong favourites to brush past Croatia to move within two matches of international glory. But when Christian Wörns was sent for an early bath, the Balkan country could dare to dream.

In fact, they could do more than that, as they would make it to the semi-finals as superb goals from Jarni and Vlaović saw Croatia gain a two-goal lead before Šuker bobbled the ball past Andreas Köpke to hand his country a comprehensive 3-0 win.

An intangible expectation suddenly prevailed ahead of a semi-final clash against host nation France, but for all their efforts, a star-studded opposition, which included Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff, was bailed out of a rather dismal attacking performance by right-back Lilian Thuram.

Importantly for Croatia, they had lit up the tournament with their exciting football, proving that their small nation should not be underestimated. With a bronze medal on the line against the Netherlands, Šuker scored again to not only lead his nation to a 2-1 win in the third-place playoff but also snatch the Golden Boot from Brazil’s Ronaldo.

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It’s a World Cup performance that has never been forgotten as the current Croatian team acts as an echo of the brilliance on show in the 90s. For Šuker, the 1998 campaign was the cream of the crop in his career, but he had one more World Cup in him – unfortunately, the first World Cup in a series of three that made up a blot on the timeline of Croatia’s 35-year conquest.

2002 – The unremarkable swansong to Šuker’s international playing days

No nation on the globe has a perfect record. And things are no different with Croatia, who began a three-tournament blip when the empowering Miroslav Blažević was replaced by Mirko Jozić ahead of the 2002 World Cup held in Japan and South Korea, despite the former navigating Hrvatska to the top of qualifying Group 6 ahead of Belgium, Latvia, Scotland and San Marino.

Sadly for Šuker, who was selected for the squad, he only played a total of 63 minutes in the tournament, all in the opening 1-0 defeat to Mexico. At the end of the short-lived tournament, he announced his retirement.

The feared talisman won a total of 71 international caps during his senior career, two for Yugoslavia and 69 for Croatia. The forward scored 46 international goals in total. With 45 goals, he is Croatia’s all-time leading goal-scorer. And his 12 goals during the campaign for Euro 1996 was a record that stood for over 10 years, until Northern Ireland’s David Healy scored 13 in 2007.

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By this point, Šuker was at the dusk of his playing career, with his move from Real Madrid to Arsenal in 1999 leading the way to future spells at West Ham and 1860 Munich – the destination of his retirement upon the conclusion of the 2002/03 season.

Alongside his goalscoring record at international level, Šuker finished his career with a Golden Boot, Silver Ball and All-Star team appearance in the 1998 World Cup, an Onze De Bronze, FIFA World Player of the Year, and Ballon D’or runner-up in the same year, the Golden Boot and Golden Player awards at the 1990 UEFA European U21 Championship, and the Croatian Footballer of the Year accolade on six occasions – only Modric, with 10, has more than him.

But while his teammates sought new endeavours outside of football – after his playing days, and still to this day, Davor Šuker remains integral to the evolution of Croatian football, gifting him the metaphorical label of the Godfather.

Though his post-retirement capers hit the headlines more often than we’d like, there’s no denying the current Croatian golden generation can be mapped out back to 35 years ago when Šuker first arrived on the scene.

Croatian football’s Godfather

As Hrvatska failed to go further than the group stage between 2002 and 2014, Šuker worked in the background to forge the next golden generation with the foundation of his own school of football entitled the Davor Šuker Soccer Academy, with training camps located in Zagreb and several other Croatian cities.

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His post-retirement wasn’t glittered without controversy, however. In 2011, Šuker was fined for stealing antique coins left over by another passenger on an aeroplane. Instead of reporting his findings and handing the coins in, he decided to give them to his girlfriend, who tried to sell them.

Furthermore, Šuker’s support of the defender Josip Simunić has also generated outrage. The former Croatia international, who helped fund a 2016 film alleging that the Croatian holocaust was exaggerated, was banned for 10 games in 2013 after engaging in nationalistic chanting after a World-Cup playoff game against Iceland.

Šuker, who by then had been elected as chief of the country’s footballing federation, saw fit to appoint him as a coach for the national team. In 2015, the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND) also accused him of preventing freedom of information and physically blocking journalists from reporting and doing their work.

However, under his highly controversial leadership as the president of the Croatian Football Federation, Hrvatska earned silver at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the highest achievement Croatia ever made since its independence in 1992, twenty years after their third-place finish.

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Without the controversy of his reign between 2012 and 2021, it could be argued that Šukic still did a lot for Croatian football, even after his goalscoring habits on the pitch ended in 2002.

Through the lens of Šuker’s life in football, we are able to map out the fortune of Qatar 2022’s semifinalists back to 1987. A 35-year conquest is still yet to be brought back down to earth as Croatia continue to build a footballing empire out of a nation whose population sits at just over four million people.

Serbia, Montenegro and the other countries that made up Yugoslavia’s federated kingdom have failed to translate their liberty in life onto the pitch, but Croatia has since used their independence to good effect, uniting as a feared opposition in world football.

The Godfather, the poacher, the man who nearly never made it professional in the first place, Davor Šuker has done a lot for the sport in his country of residence, despite his reign as a vilified president.

In Hrvatska’s 35-year conquest to build a footballing empire, Šuker was one of few to experience it all.