In a career spanning almost 20 years, Josip Simunic has seen it all. Whether at UEFA EUROs, FIFA World Cups™, the UEFA Champions League or Europa League, the Croatian centre-back knows every trick in the book.
Born and raised in Australia, Simunic opted to represent his parents' country in 2001, with whom he has since gone on to earn 99 international caps. Now he has his sights set on reaching the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, as well has gaining more titles with Croatia's record championship winners Dinamo Zagreb.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the 34-year-old speaks about his nation’s Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign, his objectives and a curious situation at the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006, involving three yellow cards in one match.
FIFA.com: In just a few weeks, the FIFA Ballon d'Or will be awarded. Who do you think deserves to win it?
Josip Simunic: Lionel Messi, without doubt. It can't be anyone else. He's been by far and away the best footballer in the world for the last five or six years. He deserves it and I'm 100 per cent behind him. He's the best player of all time and if he stays fit he will continue for the next five or six years. The things he does right now are out of this world. Of course, he doesn't play by himself, but he is simply incredible. He always finds a way and is always a yard quicker than everyone else. Admittedly he plays in a fantastic team, but he always makes the difference. If you have a player like that on your side, you needn't fear anyone.
Who would be in your personal FIFA FIFPro World XI 2012?
I'd have Gianluigi Buffon in goal; Jordi Alba, Carlos Puyol, David Luiz and Darjio Srna at the back; Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in midfield and Falcao and Edin Dzeko up front.
Things are going extremely well with Dinamo Zagreb domestically. In your first year there you won the double and now you have a considerable lead at the top of the table. What are your aims for the season?
Of course, our objective is to defend our title and to do so as quickly as possible. We wanted to pick up points in the Champions League. Last year was a disaster, so we wanted to earn some respect for ourselves this season.
In the current Champions League campaign, Zagreb got knocked out in the group stages. After 11 successive defeats in the competition, you finally picked up a point in the 1-1 draw with Dynamo Kyiv last week.
We've got to be honest, the Croatian league isn't as strong as in other countries and the difference is a big problem. We have lots of young players who still need time. Dinamo Zagreb can't spend millions on new recruits. We have to train the players from our own academy and sell them on later, that's what the club lives from. It's the only way there is right now. Unfortunately, that's the reality of the situation.
The national team has been successful recently, taking ten points from four games in FIFA World Cup qualifying. Are you happy with the team’s performances?
The first two games against Belgium and Macedonia were difficult because we still hadn't found our rhythm. Nevertheless, with a bit of luck, we managed to take four points. Nobody minds how they were earned after a little while. In the third and fourth matches we played some fantastic football and showed what we're capable of. It's gone superbly well so far, but we haven't achieved anything yet. We want to be at Brazil 2014 and our aim is to qualify directly as group winners. In March we have two more games and another one in June. That’ll be decisive and then we'll see where we are.
In spring 2013 Croatia will go head to head with Serbia.
Serbia have a very talented team, just like we do. The match might be given an extra edge in the media, but it’s just a normal game that we want to win.
You currently have 99 caps and should make it a century next year. How proud are you?
It's hugely significant for me, I wouldn’t swap it for the world. It was my aim to reach this milestone and it’s something no-one can take away from me.
Would Brazil 2014 be the perfect place for you to end your career?
Of course it would be a nice way to finish, but at the moment my plan is just to get to the end of this season and to stay fit and healthy. If that's the case then I'd love to see the World Cup qualification through to the end. That's my aim. If it doesn't work out, then I'll stop next summer.
In November 2001 you made your debut for Croatia. You could also have played for Australia after growing up there. Do you consider yourself an Australian?
I'm happy and proud to have been born and raised in Australia and I have their mentality. However, I'm also very proud of my roots. My parents come from Croatia. I always say that if you don't know where you're coming from, you don't know where you're going.
You have a wealth of experience on the international stage, in the Champions League, Europa League, EUROs and FIFA World Cups. What was your personal highlight?
EURO 2008. That was a great tournament for us and at the end we had some bad luck in the quarter-final against Turkey (a 3-1 penalty shoot-out defeat). But that was definitely the biggest highlight of my international career.
One moment that perhaps wasn't a highlight, but certainly must have been one of your most curious experiences was against Australia at the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006.
(Laughs) That was one of the funniest moments of my career. I must be the only player ever to have been given three yellow cards in one game. Maybe it gave me a little advantage, but it didn’t help in the end. It wasn't a good tournament for us in a sporting sense. We had a tough group and didn't get through it.