“It was obvious we had a classy player on our hands, and I initiated the contract proceedings right away…” – Dragan Džajić
He was part of Croatia’s “golden generation” of players during the 1990’s and somewhat a journeyman across Europe, his technical ability and masterful manipulation of the ball earning him an accredited reputation for being a talented player. Although he is not continentally-acclaimed, Robert Prosinečki was arguably one of the most talented and brightest stars Europe.
Robert Prosinečki, brought up in a Yugoslavian-orientated family where his mother was Serbian and his father Croatian, was born in the city of Villingen-Schwenningen in the former West Germany, on 12 January 1969. His father Đuro hailed from the village of Gornji Čemehovec near Kraljevec na Sutli and his mother, Emilija, from the village of Ježevica near Čačak. Robert would not move back to the country in which he would represent until the age of ten with his family in 1979 and leave the club that he had joined a few years before, Stuttgarter Kickers. It would be upon returning to his father’s country that he would then join national giants GNK Dinamo Zagreb. Dinamo Zagreb are one of the most prestigious clubs in Croatia and laden with a rich history of silverware and tournaments, much like Stuttgarter Kickers in Germany, who have also won multiple titles throughout their history since forming in 1899.
After spending several years in the youth ranks at Dinamo Zagreb, at the age of 18, Prosinečki would earn a chance in the first team during the 1986-87 season under the veteran Miroslav Blažević – a man highly respected in Croatia and often depicted as “the coach of all coaches”, given his extraneous CV and numerous amount of jobs that seem to link him back to the same club, Dinamo Zagreb. The club would finish sixth in the league that season ahead of several other Yugoslavian clubs and ahead of fierce rivals Hajduk Split. Prosinečki only played a few times including a debut goal but didn’t really play an integral part.
His father however was keen. Reported scuffles with club officials and questioning the management of the club, Robert’s father, Đuro, campaigned for his son to be signed onto a professional contract, being eligible since he was eighteen years of age at the time. The club and, more important Blažević, refused, leaving the possibility of Robert being released on a free transfer. Clearly his father was adamant on that being the last thing to happen and so therefore moved his son elsewhere, the city of Belgrade, in search of a new club willing to take him on. Blažević infamously claimed that he would eat his coaching diploma if Prosinečki would ever become a professional footballer. It’s funny because in the summer of 1987, the same summer in which Robert was released from his youth contract at Zagreb on poor terms, Red Star Belgrade came calling and gave him and his father the answer that they were looking for. Prosinečki signed for the club and became a professional footballer, amid the claims made by his former manager that he would seemingly ‘eat’ his coaching diploma had he become one, leaving him little option but to eat his own words with it.
Dragan Džajić, the-then club director at Red Star Belgrade remembers Prosinečki’s transfer to the club very well. So well in fact he reminisces about the first time he met his uncle as they searched for a new club to join. Being so impressed by the youngster’s talent and evident abilities, the contract was sorted out with Robert’s father “in five minutes”.
“On one of our visits to Zagreb we stayed at Hotel Esplanade where I got approached by a man who introduced himself as Robert Prosinečki’s uncle. He told me his nephew wasn’t happy at Dinamo and asked me if we could arrange a tryout. I told them to come to Belgrade in a couple of days and they did. At the tryout I saw this kid do wonders with the ball and I immediately asked our head coach Velibor Vasović to schedule an afternoon practice session at the main stadium so that I could see the kid one more time. It was obvious we had a classy player on our hands, and I initiated the contract proceedings right away. Our lawyer informed us that we wouldn’t have to pay a transfer fee to Dinamo so Robert’s father Đuro and I agreed everything in five minutes.”
Even upon arrival Prosinečki proved that Blažević’s words earlier that year were nonsense. He emerged into a starting role for the club and became notably one of the country’s best young talents and formed a prime partnership in midfield alongside Dragan Stojković, Žarko Đurović and Goran Milojević, going on to win the league and improve on the last couple of seasons that saw them finish third, second and fourth respectively, and not having won the league since 1984 under Gojko Zec. In that year he was also part of the Yugoslavian youth squad that would win the FIFA Youth World Championship (renamed to the FIFA U20 World Cup) in Chile, defeating the country of his birth, West Germany in the final 5-4 on penalties after two late goals in the 85th and 87th minutes respectively sent the match into extra time and then penalties before Zvonimir Boban netted the decisive penalty. It would be the Yugoslavia under-20 team’s first (and last) championship as they went on a string of failures to qualify for the championship up until 1993, where Yugoslavia slowly started to cease existence.
Prosinečki went on to win the individual accolade of Golden Ball and increase his reputation to a continental level. In fact, Prosinečki was so important to Red Star Belgrade that the club went on to try and bring him back from Chile early so that he could participate in their UEFA Super Cup tie against Belgians Club Brugge in the second knockout round. However, his national team-mates protested to FIFA official and the organisation’s João Havelange, whereby he intervened and stopped Prosinečki from leaving Chile, to which he would therefore go on to win the tournament itself and a personal award. During his time in Belgrade, he won three league titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991, the Yugoslav Cup against his former club’s rivals Hajduk Split 1-0 and famously the 1991 European Cup against French club Olympique de Marseille in Bari, Italy. The match could not be decided in normal time, much like the FIFA Youth World Championship, and so it too an extra thirty minutes and penalties before Robert would convert his penalty much like his team-mates and for the club to go on and win the European title. With it for his country, Yugoslavia would finish runners up to the Soviet Union, losing both legs 3-1 and 4-2 respectively for the USSR to win 7-3 on aggregate.
After scoring twelve goals in 29 games during what would prove his final season at the club, Robert would go on to join Spanish moguls Real Madrid. Belgrade may have said goodbye to their young starlet, but Madrid would say hello to one of Europe’s brightest stars. Real Madrid hadn’t done very well the season prior to signing their-then 22-year-old, finishing third in the league to rivals Atlético Madrid and FC Barcelona, knocked out of the Copa Del Rey in the last sixteen and eliminated by Spartak Moscow after being held to a 0-0 draw at the now-named Luzhniki before suffering a surprised 3-1 defeat at the Bernabeu in front of a 90,000-seater capacity. To los Galacticos’ credit, they did defeat eventual league winners Barcelona in both legs of the Supercopa de España and didn’t necessarily go trophyless, but the season before proved to be much more fruitful. Prosinečki joined Radomir Antić at Madrid, a former Yugoslav international, where he was appointed in March 1991, for €15 million. Such a heavy price tag at the time demanded some big things from the young Croat, with eyes on him already firm and set.
However this was to be quite a time of frustration for everyone involved: Prosinečki’s debut season was scuppered by injuries and missed the first couple months of the season. Torn muscles and strains led to physios and coaches and the club advising a strict diet and regime in order for him to regain his fitness and reduce the recurrence of injuries. This changed his life completely and not particularly for the better as he had to give up a lot of lifestyle choices that were affecting his football. Of course his father Đuro made everything possible for his son to get back on track and show how worthy he is of the money Real Madrid had paid for him in the first place. It wasn’t until October 1991 that Prosinečki would score against the Catalans in the infamous El Clásico from a dead-ball situation, his first season with Real ended with just three appearances and that goal against Barcelona.
The next would prove to be a small improvement on the last, but one nonetheless as he racked up more minutes on the pitch. Radomir Antić was sacked in January 1992, being replaced by Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker before he was axed in the summer of that same year. Robert went on to make 29 appearances this time, scoring twice as the club finished runners up in the league again to Barcelona, this time by a point and four goals as Atleti came in third, also by a point, but fourteen goals off on goal difference. Real Madrid would go on to be shockingly eliminated by then-Serie A side Torino, a club that would then finish runners up to Eredivisie giants AFC Ajax, who won the tournament altogether on away goals.
Ironically for the then-25 year old Prosinečki, his best season at Real Madrid was his last as he scored six goals in the 23 appearances he made as Real finished in fourth for the first time since 1973. Eventually time ran up for him and club officials had become fed up with the frequent injuries picked up with their waning Croat. With Real Madrid he won the Copa Del Rey and Supercopa de España in 1993, as well as the Copa Iberoamericana the following year.
The 1994 summer transfer window saw him shipped off to Real Oviedo in the very north of Spain and start again at a club that had just finished inside the top half of the table since 1991. It would only be for a season, however, as he went off again, but this time to FC Barcelona. Again, time would not be on his side and neither would the injuries be as he moved for a third time, Sevilla this time round. The club were consequently relegated from the top division, sitting 20th out of twenty-four teams in a 42-game season alongside C.F. Extremadura, Hércules C.F. and C.D. Logroñés. The same competition he won at Real Madrid, the Supercopa de España, he won again in 1996 to wrap up his silverware in Spain.
All in all the time spent in Spain didn’t prove to be very productive as his best years were eroded through injuries and dips in form because of it. Undoubtedly all three clubs would have loved him to stay without the injuries and their recurrences, but his physical fragility was clearly a problem and so therefore required him to go elsewhere – unfortunately.
Prosinečki eventually returned home in the shape of the club that saw him leave on bitter differences, GNK Dinamo Zagreb (at that point they were under the name Croatia Zagreb before retaining their original name) and spend three seasons at the club up until the turn of the Millennium, before moving to Hrvatski dragovoljac in the same division. Back in Croatia he helped his club win the league three times in a row and obtain both the Croatian Cup and Super Cup, whilst in Slovenia he won the Slovenian Cup in 2002.
The following summer Robert moved abroad to Belgium, Royal Standard Liège, spending just a season there up until moving to England at the age of 32 and signing for Portsmouth in the English First Division, now renamed the npower Championship for sponsorship reasons, in the second tier. The times spent in the south of England proved to be better than any of the years spent in Spain or Croatia as the Croatian built up a great rapport with the Pompey faithful. Playing 33 times and scoring nine goals, Portsmouth finished in seventeenth whilst Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City all achieved promotion to the top division, the Premier League. Portsmouth fans probably wished they had signed him sooner because his goals stopped the club from finishing much closer to the relegation trap door. As a result Prosinečki was inducted into Portsmouth’s all-time best eleven despite just playing one season with the seaside club.
The following year of 2002 Prosinečki announced his retirement from the Croatia national team, finishing on 49caps for Vatreni and scoring ten goals. With the success of the 1987 FIFA Youth World Championship, he went on to play for Yugoslavia at the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italty, before representing Croatia at the 1996 UEFA European Championships held in England, the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups hosted by France and co-hosts Japan and South Korea respectively. Croatia finished third in the 1998 FIFA World Cup, among a generation of highly talented players hailing from Croatia, in the likes of Davor Šuker, Krunoslav Jurčić and even Slaven Bilić. Since the success of 1998, Croatia have not reached past the group stages of the World Cup and recently didn’t even qualify. Being relatively new to major international tournaments since the digression of Yugoslavia, Croatia have gone on to make it as far as the quarter finals in the European Championships, looking to go even further and possibly win it some day.
A stint in Belgium before once again returning to NK Dinamo Zagreb in order to play out the lasting days of his professional club career, Prosinečki racked up 400 club appearances in the five countries he played in and scoring 82 goals, moreover, scoring in every single season. Retiring from professional football at the age of 35 in 2004, Prosinečki would go on to then join former team mate Slaven Bilić as part of his coaching staff with the Croatia senior national team among others, and, qualifying for the 2008 UEFA European Championships in Austria and Switzerland. Now the manager of the club that catapulted him into stardom, he retains the same iconic figure around the club, as well as being the sixth star of Red Star (sixth Zvezdina zvezda) of the 1991 “golden generation” in youth players in Belgrade.
Among that individual accolade he has more: he won the annual Bravo Award in 1991, handed out by Italian magazine Guerin Sportivo to the most outstanding European young footballer in Europe, the Franjo Bučar State Award for Sport back-to-back in 1997 and 1998, recognising extraordinary sporting achievements in the country in which help develop the sport nationally, the Yugoslav and Croatian Footballer of the Year awards respectively in 1990 and 1997. Moreover, he is the only player ever to have scored in the FIFA World Cup finals for two different national teams and the fifth non-Spanish player to have played for both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
Though he may not have reached his pull potential as a world class player, Robert Prosinečki enters in at no. 97 in The Tireless Midfielder’s library of a midfield select – past and present, young and old, the library continues to develop until it reaches number one. Croatia is represented already in one part of their “golden era”.
(continued) “Our lawyer informed us that we wouldn’t have to pay a transfer fee to Dinamo so Robert’s father Đuro and I agreed everything in five minutes.” – Dragan Džajić