It is the stuff of footballing dreams, stepping out onto the sacred Arena de Sao Paulo turf in front of a frenzied crowd of over 60,000 in the Opening Match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ against no less a team than five-time world champions Brazil. An unforgettable moment like that would be the pinnacle of most professional careers.
But every coin has a flip side, and there can hardly be anything worse for a pro than missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime event, especially if you knew you would certainly have been in the thick of the action if circumstances had not conspired against you.
Against that background, Mario Mandzukic and Danijel Pranjic rate as the most unlucky men in the Croatia squad. Suspension and injury meant neither played any part in the 3-1 defeat to A Seleção last Thursday. "Being forced to watch from the sidelines was genuinely tough. You gear yourself up for the World Cup but the dream dies just before it starts," Pranjic confessed when he spoke to FIFA.
But despite the disappointment life goes on and the pair are now hoping for World Cup debuts against Cameroon. "It's all-or-nothing for both teams. The losers will pack their bags and go home. We have to be ready for everything and play like it was our last match," Pranjic continued.
In the Opening Match against the hosts, the Croats sorely missed the player nicknamed Mandzu, who plays his club football for German double winners Bayern. The striker was a key figure in his country's successful qualifying campaign, not only posing a constant threat in the penalty box but also keeping opposing defences busy and bothered for the full 90 minutes. "He definitely makes us stronger and you can't replace him like-for-like. He's prepared to go out and ‘die’ for the cause. Lajic [Nikica Jelavic] did really well against Brazil but Mario is Mario. We need him. We’re a totally different team without him," Pranjic remarked.
The utility man and Mandzukic came within an ace of belonging to the same club, but Pranjic left Bayern in 2012 only days before the big striker arrived in Munich. The pair are now set to play on the same team for the first time should both be selected for the Cameroon clash.
Back from banishment
The wheel is about to come full circle for Pranjic who has had a bumpy ride in the national team and was banished to the international wilderness until recently. He won his first senior cap in 2004 and was a non-playing member of the Germany 2006 squad before featuring at UEFA EURO 2008. But his frustration boiled over and he later went public with criticism of the team management, causing coach Slaven Bilic to throw him out of the squad in 2011. Bilic’s successor Igor Stimac was in no mood to forgive.
By contrast to top striker Mandzukic, who appeared in all 12 qualifying matches and scored four goals, the 32-year-old midfielder was ignored for the duration of the regular ten-game qualifying campaign. A change of coach meant a dramatic upturn in Pranjic’ fortunes: Niko Kovac had by no means forgotten his former team-mate and summoned him back into the squad for the play-off double-header against Iceland.
Pranjic started both legs of the clash with the Scandinavians and looked a regular in the making throughout the Croats’ pre-tournament preparations. Kovac is a big admirer of the former Bayern player’s determination and versatility, as he is equally at home in defence or tirelessly pounding the left flank in midfield.
The World Cup starts in earnest for Pranjic and Mandzukic on Wednesday in Manaus. And should the eastern Europeans win their first match at the finals since 2002, it would at least in part compensate for the pain and frustration of missing out on the Opening Match.