Even before the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ in Italy, Robert Prosinecki was already marked down as 'one to watch'. The youngster had caught the eye as the outstanding playmaker in a Yugoslavia side that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Chile three years earlier.
Mirko Josic's men had a fantastic run in that tournament, Prosinecki forming part of an eye-catching attacking quartet with Predrag Mijatovic and future Croatia colleagues Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker. He was even awarded the Golden Ball as best player for his pinpoint passing, helping create many of Yugoslavia's 17 goals in their six matches.
At Italia 90, however, the 21-year-old Prosinecki had it less easy, facing strong competition for a starting role in Yugoslavia's midfield from more experienced players such as Dragan Stojkovic, Zlatko Vujovic and Srecko Katanec. Yet when he was on the field, he was able to show flashes of the ability that made him one of the world's most promising young players at the time.
He made his tournament debut as a 55th-minute replacement for Dejan Savicevic in the 4-1 opening defeat by West Germany but after sitting out the subsequent win over Colombia, made his mark in the last group game against the United Arab Emirates, coming on to score the final goal in a 4-1 victory.
An unused substitute for the second-round win against Spain, Prosinecki got the nod from coach Ivica Osim for the quarter-final against Argentina, featuring as one of three playmaking midfielders alongside Stojkovic and Safet Susic. He came as close as anybody to breaking down the Argentina defence, collecting a crossfield pass from Stojkovic and rifling a shot against the post in the 22nd minute, but Yugoslavia were hindered by the dismissal of Refik Sabanadzovic and the game ended in stalemate. Prosinecki scored in the deciding shoot-out but to no avail as Yugoslavia went down 3-2.
The following year Prosinecki had better luck in a penalty shoot-out as his Red Star Belgrade team beat Olympique de Marseille to win the European Cup. Spells at Spain's big two clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, followed and in 1996 the now independent Croatia's appearance at the UEFA European Championship in England gave him first taste of a big international competition since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. There was even better to follow.
Eight years after Italia 90, Prosinecki returned to the game's biggest stage as Croatia qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals in France. Now 29, he shone there, scoring two goals – in wins over Jamaica and the Netherlands – as Croatia surprised planet football by finishing third.
In the process, he and team-mate Robert Jarni, who had also represented Yugoslavia in 1990, joined the small group of players to have turned out for two different teams at the FIFA World Cup, following in the footsteps of Luis Monti (Argentina 1930 & Italy 1934), Ferenc Puskas (Hungary 1954 & Spain 1962), Jose Santamaria (Uruguay 1954 & Spain 1962) and Jose Altafini (Brazil 1958 & Italy 1962). Both Prosinecki and Jarni returned for a third final tournament in 2002 but the former's contribution was limited to nly the first 45 minutes of Croatia's opening defeat by Mexico.
Ironically, Croatia's coach at France 98, Miroslav Blazevic, had once said of Prosinecki when he was a youngster at Dinamo Zagreb: "If this lad makes it as a football player, I'll eat my coaching certificate." According to Prosinecki, "when Blazevic told me that I had no talent and sent me packing from Dynamo, that stung me". He found the right response, however, and all those years later Blazevic became a welcome beneficiary.