In a rare and emotional moment of solidarity and collective
warmth, every one of the 42,100 present for the clash of north
German rivals Werder Bremen and Hamburger SV on 1 December last
year rose to applaud the appearance of 81st-minute substitute Ivan
Klasnic. Thus, the Croatia striker was given a heartfelt welcome
back to a world he nearly lost forever.
It was an expression of sympathy and delight the player knows he will never forget. As Klasnic waited on the touchline, the Weser stadium PA system pounded out the strains of Killer by Adamski, instantly recognisable to the home fans as the player's signature tune. Moments later, he felt the home turf under his feet again, the first momentous and moving steps back to normality since undergoing life-saving kidney transplant surgery.
"I never thought it would happen so fast"
Klasnic had in fact resumed his Bundesliga career a week earlier with a brief appearance when Bremen visited Energie Cottbus. Two weeks later, in a first start in front of Werder's home crowd since his comeback, he garnered tumultuous applause with a brace and an assist against Bayer Leverkusen. Three games and nine points represented a perfect start to the second, almost unbelievable new chapter in the 28-year-old's remarkable career. "I was always convinced I'd return, but I never thought it would happen so fast," the ruthless goal-poacher revealed to FIFA.com, emanating a blend of emotions combining thoughtfulness, gratitude and pride.
Fate had dramatically intervened in his life not twelve months earlier. In January 2007, Klasnic's lawyer told a news conference his client was on the verge of kidney failure. The player was left reeling with shock. "All I could think about was my need for a transplant. Everything else could wait. But even then, I set myself the target of making a comeback," the 26-time Croatia international recalls.
Greatest triumph a family affair
Klasnic has proved as good as his word, facing up to the greatest challenge of his life and overcoming it, although the path to success was more fraught than anyone had imagined. Klasnic's mother came forward to donate a kidney, but the player's body rejected the donor organ. Matters only looked up in March 2007 with the successful transplant of a kidney donated by his father. The Croat, born and raised in Hamburg, expresses his gratitude concisely but with the deepest sincerity: "Obviously, I'm just incredibly grateful to my family!"
In the early days of his career, as he clocked up 135 appearances and 42 goals in the German top flight, Klasnic earned a reputation for cunning. Never one to set much store by workrate, he preferred to conserve his energy and be in the right place at the right time to apply his nerves of steel in front of the opposing keeper. Fighting spirit and graft never seemed his stock in trade, but in the post-transplant phase, he came across as a man transformed.
Rigorously pursuing a punishing daily exercise schedule, driven by unshakeable desire and emanating exceptional resolve, he battled his way back to the biggest domestic stage. Werder bosses had not expected to him to reappear until 2008, but the striker comfortably beat the deadline, by such a margin that the Bremen faithful changed his nickname from Killer to The Phenomenon, a previously unheard of development in the top flight.
"Overwhelming feeling of relief"
The man who appeared at the 2006 FIFA World Cup still requires medication to suppress his immune system's naturally aggressive reaction to the donor organ. He has learned to take far more care of his body, but that is by no means all. The Croat has become a calmer and more contemplative personality. It is clear the year 2007 has left its mark. During our conversation, Klasnic spends what seem like seconds over every carefully considered word of his answers.
Out on the field of play, he has lost none of his innate quality and instinctive nose for goal. "It was an unbelievably wonderful feeling, an overwhelming feeling of relief," he reflects as he describes the first goal of the second stage in his career, a trademark finish from close range. At the time, visible to all present at the ground and watching on TV, he shook off his team-mates to revel in the moments of celebration all by himself.
Still effective, newly relaxed
The most extraordinary footballing story of 2007 thus came to a happy conclusion, just nine days before Christmas, and some eleven months after the health problem was revealed. It was also a little over two years since surgery to remove the player's appendix revealed the fragile state of his kidneys. After a long period of yearning, reality had returned, but normality will never be the same.
Klasnic now rejoins the battle with Cote d'Ivoire hitman Boubacar Sanogo, prolific Swede Markus Rosenberg and Portuguese goal-getter Hugo Almeida for one of two regular strike berths in Thomas Schaaf's line-up. Many factors speak in Klasnic's favour, an assessment shared by Croatia coach Slaven Bilic, who has already hinted at a potential call-up for the player in time for the UEFA EURO 2008.
Werder's Phenomenon is content to take it one step at a time: "Let's see how it goes, it's obviously still a long, long way off," he tells FIFA.com, choosing his words with typical care. He knows what he is talking about: a lot can happen in the space of a few short months.