Ever since the establishment of the Premier League in 1992, there have certainly been more players from abroad that were considered as a flop than those quick-to-settle pilgrims. The subject of this piece doesn’t belong in either of these two categories. His Pandora’s box was full of torn ligaments and bone fractures. Once opened, it restrained him to shine in his fullest. With all the silverware you could imagine in his bag at the age of 29, this complete striker would be a great addition to any team in the world. However, his injury record was overlooked. His transfer to Riverside in 2000 was indeed an interesting move by the immoderate Boro board. With all the money that went down the drain the previous season, they knew exactly what was at risk. But was it worth taking it? Ladies and gentlemen, Alen Bokšić.
Bokšić was born in 1970, in the coastal town of Makarska, Croatia, where he started playing football for the local club Zmaj (the Dragon) in the lower divisions. His speed with the ball in his feet, accompanied with a natural strength and poaching abilities brought Hajduk‘s attention. Add 6′2″ to the equation, and the result is a complete forward.
His boyhood dream came true in 1987 when he moved to Split, where Bokšić was slowly introduced into the first team. During his first season at Poljud stadium, the 18-year old scored just two league goals. Hajduk knew that this was not an ordinary player, so they took their time with the youngster. So did Yugoslavia’s mighty U-21 squad, which had won the Youth World Cup the previous year. In spite of his slim goal record, he earned his place among the country’s most promising players the same year. He went on to represent them eleven times, scoring three, before being promoted to the seniors.
In his second season with Hajduk, he had shaken the net 7 times. As Yugoslavia qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, then 20-year old Bokšić made it into their squad. However, he couldn’t break through to the first team and watched the whole tournament from the sidelines. His time was yet to come. In Split, however, he had cemented his number 9.
In total, he wore the white shirt across 4 seasons on 95 occasions, scoring 27 times. It may seem average, but he had already suffered a 5-month absence due to injury. It was a subtle start of something which will prove to be his burden for most of his career. However, when in form, his goals always came at the right moment, breaking the game and pulling the team when needed the most. His magnificent goal in the tension-fuelled final of the last ever Yugoslav Cup brought Hajduk their sweetest trophy to this day.
The newly-formed Croatian football league became too small for a player of his quality, and the suitors waited in line. He made a big move to the then champions of France, the famous Olympique Marseille. Although he was sent immediately out on loan to Cannes, he was brought back to the injury-ravaged OM mid-season. The young striker knew: it was his time to shine.
From one riviera to another
You will not see Bokšić in the media often. He keeps his life to himself. In his most recent interview, he said:
“Olympique Marseille was an avant-garde of football at the time, alongside AC Milan. I enjoyed it there, especially when that crazy Waddle was around. Those were the best days of my life.”
Although not standing on his momma’s porch, those were certainly the best days of his life. During his time in the temperament south of France, this witty forward blossomed. He was voted 4th in the European Footballer of the Year awards, with just Roberto Baggio, Dennis Bergkamp and Eric Cantona remaining out of his reach. The consolation came in view of the Croatian Player of the Year award. He was part of that team that conquered both the domestic and Champions League in 1992/93, although a stain will always remain.
Bokšić led his side to this double, implementing an astonishing number of 29 goals along the way. Left, right, header, powerful shot, placed shot… You name it. He had everything, except the nickname. But the part I like the most about Bokšić’s style of play were the lobs. You need to be a certain type of character to even try, not to mention put it above the goalie’s head and shoulders, knees and toes every now and then. And he did it often. It’s the moment of pure brilliance, manageable only by a chosen few. Matt Le Tissier, Ariel Ortega and now Messi have had that tendency in the back of their minds as well. There’s no greater way to outsmart the opponent(s) than by chipping. Being that bold takes a great sense of beauty as well. Why bother piercing your way through the keeper? Why, oh why bother playing countless one-two’s around the pitch, waiting for the perfect moment, when you can simply go above all that mess? It aves time.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
After the scandal which saw the club relegated to the Second Division, a number of players left Marseille. Bokšić also packed his bags and went to Italy. He was welcomed in the sky-blue part of Rome. The first year saw him scoring just 4 times in 21 games. His playing style of stepping deep into the midfield, often dictating the pace was the real reason he wasn’t involved in the scoring as much as expected. Although he was as tall as a tree, defenders couldn’t chop him down easily. Lazio finished just behind Juventus in the 1994/95 season, which was their best result in the last 20 years.
Years passed, and during his three seasons with the Biancocelesti, the Croatian striker won nothing except respect. The goal book of his was pretty modest for a striker, but it didn’t bother Juventus’ boss Marcelo Lippi. Italian strategist thought he could revive Bokšić’s glory days in France, and he made it official in 1996.
I was learning how to talk when Croatia played their first international tournament. A side full of players that conquered Chile back in 1987 now came to England. Reaching the quarter-finals on their debut, Croatia showed that they indeed are a footballing nation, and Bokšić was an integral part of it. He played almost every minute possible throughout the qualification process but was left out in the group stage of the Euros due to his injury. A mere 76 minutes in England. Terrible luck.
He came back from Euros to Turin and won 3 titles in his single season with Juventus. His modest goal tally maybe doesn’t speak enough for himself, but his style of play brought variety to the team, which is the reason he was so applauded. He was the club’s top scorer in their CL campaign, assisting for their only goal in the final which they eventually lost 3-1. But he didn’t feel at home.
Roman roads to glory
Serie A in the 90s was unarguably the strongest league of the decade. It was in its prime and lured the best of the best to prove themselves. Amazing football was played there and everybody wanted a slice of the cake. When Sven-Göran Eriksson took over Lazio in 1997, he knew what he had to do. His first signing was Bokšić, and the romance could continue where it had left off. Bokšić didn’t insist on leaving Lazio the first time, but he fell out with then manager, Zdenek Zeman. This move was praised by the Lazio’s faithful, as their hero came home. During his comeback season, Bokšić netted 10 goals in Serie A.
They finished in a disappointing 7th place but managed to reach the UEFA Cup final, losing against their fellow Inter Milan. However, Lazio ran riot in the Italian Cup. Bokšić and Giuseppe Signori reformed their old partnership again, combining for 10 goals in their cup run. Demolishing AC Milan in the final, Lazio won their first trophy in 24 years. Celebration times, indeed. But there was more to follow.
Worst summer ever
This was the worst season in Bokšić’s career. He suffered a serious injury which put him out for the most part of the 1998/99 season. He missed Croatia’s legendary 1998 World Cup show, and played only 3 matches in Serie A. Lazio were good, but couldn’t go all the way without Alen. They finished second in the league, but they won UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Mallorca. They added the Italian Supercup to their cabinet as well. That was Erikson’s third trophy in 2 seasons with Biancocelesti, but the most important silverware was still out of touch. Fans dared to dream.
Dare to dream
In Bokšić’s sixth and last season with Lazio, they went all the way. They won the UEFA Super Cup in a final against Manchester United, and added another Italian Cup. However, the precious title was yet to be conquered. Lazio were leading Serie A for the most part of the season, with the title slipping away in the second half. They had beaten Reggina in the last match, and needed a slip up from Juventus. As if it was a script from a fairy tale, Perugia shocked Juventus by defeating them at home. Lazio brought back their second ever Scudetto to Olimpico, on the club’s 100th birthday. What a celebration that was! Bokšić recovered slowly into the team, scoring 4 during the campaign. In the following months, he would say goodbye to Italy.
Big fish and chips
Same time Bokšić was winning titles around the continent, Middlesbrough FC went up and down like a yo-yo between the English league tiers. When the experienced Bryan Robson took over as a player-manager in 1994, Boro’s fans had every reason for optimism. Big money was introduced, and international stars found their way to North Yorkshire.
1996/97 was a season to remember and forget, as Boro reached FA and League Cup finals for the first time, lost both and were relegated. Things were far from acceptable, with the bad boy Fabrizio Ravanelli raging around Teeside. Middlesbrough were promoted again the following year, and remained in a secure mid-table position. Things then got heated at the Riverside, and an unsuccessful spending spree continued. Robson knew: they needed a champion.
Bokšić was transferred for a hefty £2.5 million fee, and was arguably the highest paid player in the league. He proved his worth immediately in a dream start against Coventry. With two goals and an assist, there is hardly a better way to introduce himself. Although failing to fully recover, he managed to score 12 goals in his first season, therefore keeping Boro’s Premier League dream alive. Fans loved him, and he loved them. He was also voted the Player of the Season. Robson then departed, but Bokšić stayed. In his second season with Middlesbrough, he scored 8 goals as they finished 12th. His knee came to haunt him yet again. Things didn’t look good.
No trophies, no fun
The season of 2002/03 saw Alen Bokšić’s debut appearance at the World Cup in Asia. It also saw him departing Middlesbrough on a mutual termination. Alien said farewell with style, scoring in a memorable 3-1 win against Manchester United, on Bokšić Day. Retiring aged just 32, his medical file speaks for itself. It seemed that he had lost the hunger for the game at some points, although his quality was still evident. Maybe he expected more competitiveness from Middlesbrough? The knee was just too much to bear? Or he just took the money?
The guy won eight titles in three different countries, climbed to the top of Europe twice, alongside winning six individual prizes. To conclude the question from the beginning, he was definitely a risk worth taking. Whether you like him or not, Steve McLaren, who was Robson’s successor on Middlesbrough’s bench, summed it up perfectly:
“Alen was the only reason we survived in that first season. He was a heavy character at times, but he was the only one who could actually score goals.”
However, I’m definitely sure Alen Bokšić will always be remembered in Middlesbrough, one way or another.