"Every Croatian has a place for Russia in their heart," Zvonimir Boban assures us. And he is a man who knows what he is talking about.
Russia and Croatia have always been particularly close in footballing terms as well. Ivica Olic, Stipe Pletikosa and Vedran Corluka are just a few stars of the Croatian national team to have left a big impact in the Russian Premier League. The bond between the two footballing nations grew even closer in 2007 following Croatia's shock 3-2 victory away against England in a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier that meant Russia and not England made it to the finals of the tournament.
Boban, the legendary former Croatia and AC Milan midfielder, was in Moscow recently alongside FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Boban has been up to a lot since since finishing his playing career. He has a masters degree in history and is currently getting his doctorate in comparative literature in Zagreb. Aside from that, he writes for Croatian newspaper SN (Sportske Novosti) and writes columns and football articles for Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. He's also been in front of the camera working as a football analyst for Sky TV in Italy.
*FIFA.com *spoke to the Vatreni legend about the future of both Croatian and Russian football.
FIFA.com: Mr. Boban, you have spent two days in the Russian capital visiting the Luzhniki Stadium which will host the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Opening Match and Final. So what can you tell us about the city itself?
Zvonimir Boban: I think every Russian should be proud of Moscow. It's awash with history and there are unbelievably beautiful buildings everywhere – a real treasure. The Luzhniki Stadium left a big impression on me, I loved gazing at it from the viewing point, plus the sight of the stadium against the backdrop of the park and the river just takes your breath away. In a way the stadium reminds me of the old Wembley. I don't doubt that the 2018 World Cup will be one of the most memorable in history.
*Croatia beat Russia 3-1 in a friendly recently. What did you think of Russia's team?
*Croatia dominated throughout the game. We scored three but, honestly, it could've been more. I hope Russia are able to improve their performances. They need pace in defence and more well-rounded play in midfield, but let's not forget that the current Croatia side are a serious prospect for any team.
*Do you think this Croatia side can hit their peak at Russia 2018?
*This generation definitely has a lot of promise but is yet to achieve anything at a big tournament. It could be the last chance for many of them, Luka Modric for example. If you take each player individually, they've got football intelligence and bags of character. Yet Croatia as a team are always missing something on the big stage. Our time may come in 2018.
I also value other memories, like shaking hands with the opponents or giving a hand to the player who fell on the ground. When I was young I didn’t make much of such moments, but I do now.
*Could they surpass Croatia's success at France 1998, when your team finished third?
*I really hope so, but there's every chance that 1998 was just a special and unrepeatable year for Croatian football. Unfortunately, that success weighs heavily on the team which is unfair because every generation lives in its own era. You can't demand that the current crop matches the achievements of a prior generation that once managed to achieve some success.
*Luka Modric named you his World Cup idol. What can you say about Modric?
*I'm really proud to hear that because he's a fantastic player and a fantastic guy. Luka has remained humble, despite his success, and that's extremely rare to see. He's so normal, which is such an important word in the crazy world we live in. As a player, Modric is unique because he sees what's going to happen on the pitch before anyone else. You might say that individually he could produce more than he does at the moment, but playing for the team is everything to him. He gives everything for the team, perhaps even too much, and that's what sets him apart.
You’ve won many titles with AC Milan. But was the success at France 1998 your brightest football memory?
1998 was really something special. When we returned home, it was madness in Croatia. We didn’t quite understand what we had achieved. Croatia was in the World Cup finals for the first time and came third immediately. This can happen once in a lifetime. Perhaps we could have achieved even more, but my mistake in the semi-final against France cost us. These things happen. But I also value other memories, like shaking hands with the opponents or giving a hand to the player who fell on the ground. When I was young I didn’t make much of such moments, but I do now.
*Who are the favourites for the World Cup in 2018?
*The winners always come from one of the big teams. The top national teams don't always play the best football, but they always compete better than the rest. Competing is in their genes. If a lesser national team gets to the knockout rounds, they already have an excuse because they've already exceeded expectations. The players celebrate as if they've won a trophy. For Brazil, Argentina, Germany and other big national teams, getting out of the group is just the first step. They're set on winning the tournament. When they win the next stage, the players go straight on the bus with serious faces and start thinking about the following game. That's why they always win.
Germany, Brazil and Argentina are always favourites. I wouldn't include Italy in this bracket: they don't have the quality they had before. But even now, the Italians are always the Italians. You can't write them off completely.