When it came to delivering the unexpected, Robert Prosinecki was without equal. Just ask Arthur Numan, the Dutch defender who was left bamboozled by the Croatian playmaker as he spun and struck a sublime goal in the match for third place at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™. Every bit as surprising as that piece of skill is the fact that Prosinecki played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona without winning a title, but managed to lift the European Cup with Crvena Zvezda.
No-one will have been more surprised by Prosinecki’s career, however, than Miroslav Blazevic, his first coach at Dinamo Zagreb. Blazevic chose to release him as a youngster, declaring that “if this lad makes it as a professional footballer, I’ll eat my coaching certificate”. The blond maestro would, in fact, go on to play and score at FIFA World Cups with two different national teams – Yugoslavia in 1990 and Croatia in 1998 – scoop the Best Young Player award at the former tournament and win the accolade of Best Player at the FIFA World Youth Championship Chile 1987.
It is not clear what became of Blazevic’s certificate, but one thing is certain: Prosinecki, who took over as coach of Crvena Zvezda in December 2010, is now considered one of the greatest players in Balkan football history. FIFA.com sat down with him for an interview and did not regret it.
FIFA.com: Robert, after a year and a half as a coach, how is the role suiting you?
Robert Prosinecki: Very well. The role was new to me but I knew what I was getting into. I had some great times at the club as a player, and it seemed like the best thing for me to do: to try to repeat that experience as a coach. This year we won the cup. The next objective is to win the league and take the club to the Champions League. I can certainly do better, but it hasn’t been such a bad start.
What kind of playing style are you trying to establish?
It’s difficult to come up with a style and say, 'I want to play like this', if I don’t have the squad for it. If you really want to have a particular style and be able to impose it, you first need to have players who are among the best in the world. This is ‘only’ the Serbian league, after all. We try to line up in a 4-3-3 and play a technical style of football, which has always been the hallmark of this club. Winning is important, but winning and playing well is even more so. It’s the club’s philosophy and mine too. It’s not the most original thing to say, but all coaches who aspire to that try to take inspiration from Barcelona. We obviously can’t do the same as them, because what they do is unique. But we can certainly try.
Does having a name like Robert Prosinecki give you instant respect from the players?
(Laughs) Well, my name isn’t completely unknown to them, but most of them never saw me play! My past as a player carries a certain weight, and people expect a lot from me. But it also gives me a great deal of motivation to take Crvena Zvezda back to the same level, at least domestically, as when I was a player. I realise every day, however, that it’s a much more demanding job than being a player. When you’re a player, the pressure lasts for 90 minutes and, whether you win or lose, it fades away again until kick-off in the next match. As a coach, it’s continuous. Win or lose, the week is just as difficult and there is always something to prepare: you have to think of everything, not only for yourself but also for 30 players, who need to know as much as possible about their opponents. A coach has sleepless nights so that his players can rest easy.
How many [international] goals had Lilian Thuram scored before that match? None. How many did he score afterwards? Not a single one! But that day, he went and scored two. That’s football for you.
Is there still just as much talent in Balkan football, or was your generation a one-off?
The talent is still there. But the problem isn’t having talented players: it’s being able to keep and exploit those talents. Players aged 18 or 19 no longer think about where they can best express their talent, but rather which club will pay the most for it. It’s a problem common to all Balkan clubs, and they have to sell players to survive. But the raw talent still exists, in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. The proof is in the fact that their national teams qualify for the big tournaments.
What role did the European Cup victory over Marseille in 1991 play in your career?
It was probably the greatest moment of our careers. Not only had we won the European Cup, but we’d won it with a team of Yugoslavian players. It might not have been the best match to watch (Crvena won on penalties after a goalless draw), but, 20 years on, who remembers that? Nobody talks to me about the way I played in that game, or tells me that we were lucky. But everyone does know that we were the champions of Europe. It opened the doors for Yugoslavian players to move abroad - I signed for Real Madrid, while Sinisa Mihajlovic, Vladimir Jugovic, Darko Pancev and Dejan Savicevic went to Italy.
Do you regret the fact that the team didn’t play together for longer?
We didn’t know it, but a few months later the war would change everything – both in terms of our relationships and the future the team should have had. We didn’t have time to realise what we had just achieved and build on it. If that team could have gone on for a few more years with the same players, it could have dominated European football. That’s why I always stress the importance of continuity in a club.
When the war started in the former Yugoslavia, how did you cope with the situation on a day-to-day level?
I personally experienced it all from afar. I had left to join Real Madrid. I was young, I was only 21 or 22 years old, I had just arrived and I was far from home. It was difficult to talk about the situation with those around me, not knowing Spanish, in a dressing room full of people who had no idea what was happening. Especially as we had no idea that it would reach such proportions. At the time, there was no internet or mobile phones. If I wanted to find out how things were in my country or with my family, I had to wait for the news or a phone call. Imagine what kind of frame of mind a person is in when they go to training, or to play in a match, knowing that their country is at war. I tried to keep telling myself that I was a professional, that Zagreb wasn’t too badly affected, and that my family were out of danger. But it was really tough.
Is it now considered ‘normal’ for a Croatian coach to work in Serbia?
No, not yet. But a lot of time has passed and things have improved. Croatia is still my country, but I live in Serbia and I’m happy here, which would have been impossible to imagine as little as ten years ago. Time, and sport, can make a big difference. In Belgrade, I feel at home. I played here, I fought for Crvena on the pitch and I won the European Cup – all of which allows me to feel at ease. I returned a year and a half ago and I’ve never had the slightest problem or second thought. People made me feel at home here, which gave me a lot of confidence to work in peace. But I’m a special case, and it’s probably different outside of football.
At Real Madrid, you twice missed out on winning La Liga on the final day of the season, and you were often injured. Do you still manage to remember your time there fondly?
(Laughs) That’s true, but I don’t see it as bad luck. When things don’t go your way, there’s not a lot you can do. My time in Madrid could certainly have been better, seeing as many people only remember the titles you win. But I’m happy with what I achieved there. I established myself there at a time when places for foreign players were limited. I discovered a different type of football and lifestyle and, despite the injuries and lost titles, I never felt that I didn’t belong there.
Do you feel the same about your spell at Barcelona?
All players dream of playing for Real or Barça - I played for both of them! And I have wonderful memories of it all. Above all, I feel as if I left the people there with good memories of me. I don’t think there are that many players who have worn both shirts and left good impressions at both clubs. These days, when I see the welcome I get at both Madrid and Barcelona, it makes me think that my time at the clubs can’t have been completely wasted.
Real and Barça are two of the best teams in the world at the moment. Which side would you have felt more comfortable playing in?
Barça’s play in recent years has been simply phenomenal. They may have lost a few matches and missed out on La Liga and the Champions League, but their achievements in this period have been exceptional. When I was at Barça, under Johan Cruyff, the same style was already in place. So I think that, as a player, I would feel very good in the current Barça side. But I’m a Real Madrid man! And even though I appreciate the playing philosophy and style of Barcelona, I would prefer to play for Real again.
As a coach, who do you resemble most in terms of your methods and approach: Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola?
Mourinho is a really great coach, without doubt one of the best in the world. You only need to look at the results he’s had wherever he’s been. He wins and his players progress. But Guardiola represents more the idea of long-term investment and continuity. He focuses on what he was himself: a child of Barcelona. In terms of my style and vision of the job, I feel I have more in common with Guardiola.
You were born in Germany, you beat Bayern Munich with Crvena in 1991, and you defeated Germany with Croatia at France 1998. Was it a special feeling to shine against the country of your birth?
I was born in Germany and lived there for ten years, as my parents were working there, but I never felt anything special when I played against German teams. On a football level, though, you have to understand what German sides represent in order to fully appreciate the things we achieved with much smaller teams. It’s Germany! A team that has no weaknesses, that is always the favourite, and that always goes the distance in every competition. When you come up against Bayern Munich in a semi-final, or face Germany in the quarter-final of a tournament, it’s pretty much mission impossible. Nobody is ever the favourite against Germany. If you can imagine, it would be like a small club beating Real Madrid or Barcelona today. But we won in Munich in the semi-final of the European Cup, and we beat Germany in the World Cup quarter-finals.
Imagine what kind of frame of mind a person is in when they go to training, or to play in a match, knowing that their country is at war.
After that victory against Germany, Croatia lost 2-1 to France in the semi-final. What was missing for you on that particular day?
We had the best team in Croatia’s history. But there’s a simple reason why France won that match at the World Cup: they were a fantastic side. We had our chances, though. We had everything we needed to win the match, but then something happened that occasionally occurs in football: the impossible. How many [international] goals had Lilian Thuram scored before that match? None. How many did he score afterwards? Not a single one! But that day, he went and scored two. That’s football for you. Croatia had a team that could have won that World Cup, particularly as the Brazil side that reached the Final was not the greatest. Sometimes you need a bit of luck and, that day, it was with the other team.
As it was when you and Yugoslavia lost on penalties to Argentina in the quarter-finals of Italy 1990…
Exactly. We also had a great team that was capable of going all the way, but sometimes you need just a little bit more than talent alone to win a match. That little extra something eluded us each time. I played in two teams that could have won the World Cup, but people ultimately remember that I didn’t win it.
Finally, which current player would you like to have in your side to play your former role?
When I see Lionel Messi these days, I can’t recall ever having seen another player do what he does. But the player I’d choose for my side – a player who really has that something extra and can make the difference in a team – is Andres Iniesta.