The FIFA U-20 World Cup typically sees the emergence of talented youngsters who go on to become household names, and the 1999 edition in Nigeria was no different. Iker Casillas and Xavi won their first major title there with Spain, while Brazilian ace Ronaldinho and Uruguay striker Diego Forlan also announced their arrival on the international stage, as did Mexico’s Rafael Marquez, England’s Ashley Cole and Japan’s Shinji Ono with varying degrees of success.
Less well known is that at the same tournament a young Croatian by the name of Mihael Mikic began to make a name for himself as a ‘Brazilian-style’ right-back. The 32-year-old, who has played for Dinamo Zagreb and Kaiserslautern among others, remains as attack-minded as ever with current side Sanfrecce Hiroshima, for whom he has been one of the stars of FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012 thus far.
We’ll be playing a Korean team, and the rivalry between Korean and Japanese football is well known.
Perhaps that is why, despite his side’s quarter-final defeat to Al-Ahly SC, the Croatian was still upbeat when he spoke to FIFA.com. “The mood in the camp is a mixture of disappointment and pride. We were the better team [against Al-Ahly] and created a lot of chances – we were just lacking when it came to the final ball. That especially applies to me. I should’ve been more precise,” he said self-critically.
His smile is in stark contrast to the nasty looking bruise under his left eye, a souvenir from his side’s opening game against Auckland City FC in Yokohama. Such was his influence in that fixture that the vanquished New Zealanders conceded he had been the key to the home side’s 1-0 win. “I always play the same way. When we’re going forward I have to be up there level with the opposition’s rearguard, and when we’re defending I have to get back and form part of ours. I enjoy it but it requires an awful lot of running and is very tough,” he admitted.
Yet despite some fine displays, Mikic still rued his team’s fortunes here in Japan. “Our dream was to reach the semi-final and we worked really hard to get there, but life still goes on. Now we need to focus on winning our next game so as to leave a good impression of Japanese football. After that we can finally go on leave,” he said.
Mikic, who has spent four years in Japan, knows only too well that the clash with Ulsan Hyundai will be no run-of-the-mill fixture. “We’ll be playing a Korean team, and the rivalry between Korean and Japanese football is well known. That makes this game even more important, as we want to show the watching world that we have the better football. I expect it to be a tough game, as they play hard. I’ll have to watch out that I don’t get a whack on the other eye,” he joked, before adding: “For us finishing fifth or sixth is not the same thing, which is why we’re extremely motivated.”
A Croat in Japan
There is a sincerity to the words of Mikic, a player who is as genuine off the pitch as he is determined on it. He underlined this with a frank assessment of Japanese football and how his attitude towards it has changed: “I honestly didn’t expect the level to be this good when I arrived here, and it continues to surprise me from one day to the next. Every year it just gets better and I’m thrilled to be part of this.”
This ardent admirer of Ryan Giggs would gladly see out his playing days with Sanfrecce, insisting that life in Japan “is beautiful and that the people here are very nice and always willing to help. I don’t think [foreign] people realise the kind of lifestyle we have in Japan or how good the football is. That’s not to mention the fans, who support you through thick and thin and never cause disturbances. They’re part of the wonderful footballing infrastructure that’s been created here,” he said.
Although Mikic never played at senior level for Croatia, it is not something he spends time worrying about. “I don’t speculate why it didn’t happen nor do I intend to look backwards; right now I’m the [national] team’s biggest fan.” The player intends to take his coaching badges once he hangs up his boots but insists he has some unfinished business to take care of before that happens. “I want to win two more titles and thus become the most decorated Croatian player of all time. I have 15 so far but Dario Simic has 16. So I need one more… and then another one after that,” he said laughing.
Once he has achieved that, the full-back, who will now be cheering on Chelsea at Japan 2012, will then dedicate himself to coaching and hopefully extend his time in the country where his wife and two children call home. Asked at the end of our chat if his children were Japanese, the player concluded diplomatically: “Well no, they were born in Croatia, but seeing as they were both conceived in Japan, let’s say they’re half Japanese.”