• Semi-finalists’ show of support for a demoralised Goran Ivanisevic
  • World Cup and Wimbledon made 1998 a golden year for Croatia
  • Zvonimir Boban discusses that gesture and his friendship with tennis star

The Croatian players in this image were about to play the biggest game of their lives. In their first FIFA World Cup™ as an independent nation, they had reached the last four and were seconds away from battling the hosts for a place in the Final.

Yet at this historic moment, they chose not to think of themselves, their country or even the titanic tussle that lay ahead. Instead, their attentions turned to another sport entirely as they paid tribute to a countryman who had, like them, spent the summer of 1998 making Croatia proud.

While the nation’s footballers were dazzling in France, Goran Ivanisevic had been thrilling Wimbledon, raising hopes of an unlikely title double. "If that happens," the tennis star said at the time, "I think the whole country will be drunk for the rest of the year - including me and the [football] team!”

But instead of seeing those dreams realised, Ivanisevic – just as in his two previous Wimbledon finals - had his heart broken. And so it was that Croatia’s footballers decided on this show of solidarity and appreciation.

“Goran is a hugely popular figure in Croatia and is adored by everybody,” Zvonimir Boban, a star of that 1998 side, explained to FIFA.com. “After he finished runner-up at Wimbledon for a third time in ‘98, the whole country shared his pain. Saying ‘thanks Goran’ was a way of being close to him and was also a way for us to express our great pride in him as fellow sportsmen.”

It was a moment which was very important for our country and it was a symbolic gesture of sporting brotherhood and comradeship.

Zvonimir Boban

It had the desired effect. Ivanisevic had been crestfallen, convinced – wrongly, as it transpired – that he was destined never to win his sport’s greatest prize. When one reporter attempted to raise his spirits with a question about Croatia’s 3-0 quarter-final win over Germany, he responded gloomily: "I cannot cheer anybody now. I can only kill myself."

The gesture made by Boban and Co did, though, restore his trademark smile, and while Croatia lost narrowly to France, Ivanisevic made sure he was on hand at the historic third-place win that followed.

“Goran came to the celebrations - we hugged and he thanked us,” Boban recalled. “It was a moment which was very important for our country and it was a symbolic gesture of sporting brotherhood and comradeship.”

Ivanisevic had been a promising footballer himself, even training with his beloved Hajduk Split before deciding that he was more likely to forge a career in tennis. He was also a passionate supporter of Croatia’s fledgling national team, and well known to members of the squad.

The bond with Boban was stronger still. Indeed, when the AC Milan legend brought down the curtain on his career with a star-studded testimonial in Zagreb, it was Ivanisevic - a long-time friend - he chose to replace him in the game’s closing stages. The 2001 Wimbledon champion duly scored with his first touch and wheeled away, twirling his Croatia shirt above his head - a long-held dream well and truly realised.

Ivanisevic has also returned the favour by sharing a tennis court with Boban on several occasions, albeit with a few strings attached. “Goran and I are still very good friends, although unfortunately we have not been able to find the time to play tennis together for a few years now,” explained the former footballer, who is kept busy these days with his role as FIFA Deputy Secretary General.

“After finishing our respective careers we played a lot though, with the following conditions: a 30-0 start for me and Goran having one serve, playing normal forehand but only backhand slice! I am currently 7-6 up, so I am not sure I will play him again and give him the chance to draw level!”

Did you know?
The unique red-and-white chequered jersey that Boban - and, briefly, Ivanisevic - wore with such pride is a distinctive presence in the ‘rainbow’ of national team shirts at the FIFA World Football Museum’s entrance.