Niko Kranjcar: 'My father believes he can beat any side – including England'

The Spurs midfielder tells Sam Wallace why his dad Zlatko, Montenegro's new manager, is relishing his chance to take on Capello on Tuesday
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The Independent Online

Niko Kranjcar would usually support England, his home for the last four years, as long as they were not up against his native Croatia. But Tuesday will be different. On Tuesday the Tottenham striker's father, Zlatko, will be on the away bench at Wembley.

As the manager of Montenegro, whom England face in their third Euro 2012 qualifier, Zlatko has again proved himself a master of outstripping expectations. If Montenegro avoid defeat against Switzerland on Friday they will go into next week's game against Fabio Capello's team as the leaders of Group G, largely thanks to a manager whose career was forged in eastern bloc Yugoslavia and, later, the Balkans war of the 1990s.

When Niko speaks about his father, one of the greatest players in the history of Croatian football, he does so with great affection. We are talking at White Hart Lane on the same day that children under the care of the club's home borough of Haringey are receiving awards at the stadium. "I was very privileged to have the upbringing I had with my dad," Niko says. "Back home [in Croatia] there are a lot of kids who lost their parents during the war. It is a big thing because of the issues we have back home."

There are only a few current international managers who were the equal of Capello as a player, but Zlatko is one of them. As a player at Dynamo Zagreb he was the star of the team that won the 1982 Yugoslavian championship – regarded as a monumental achievement, given the favouritism towards Belgrade – despite spending half the season on military service. He moved late in his career to Rapid Vienna, where he won two Austrian championships.

But it was what Zlatko achieved as a Croat that gives his son the most cause for pride. He turned his back on a comfortable career in Vienna – he played against Everton in the 1985 European Cup-Winners' Cup final – to return to Croatia during its war for independence in solidarity with his countrymen. He was the first captain of the independent Croatia football team in 1991. It is this conviction that he brings to Wembley on Tuesday with his bright young Montenegro team.

"What really characterises him is that he believes his team is good enough to beat anyone and he channels that belief into the players," Niko says. "He never says that any team is better than his until they prove it on the pitch. Going into this group, the comments back home [were] that they have too difficult a group to go through – his response was that, 'Yes, it is a difficult group, but I believe we can challenge for the second spot.'

"He is looking forward to the game and to leading out a team at Wembley. It is every international manager's dream. After six points from the first two games they [Montenegro] know if they win that game against Switzerland it will be a big win and being first in that group will be a big sensation. He and the team are really focused on that game. England is like a big bonus."

Niko reached Tottenham after three years at Portsmouth that included the FA Cup win in 2008. For his father, the route to a professional career was not quite so easy. Under the socialist regime players were not permitted a transfer to a foreign club until they were 28. When the war broke out between Croatia and the former Yugoslav regime in 1991, Zlatko moved home and brought his family back a year later.

"My father came back [to Croatia] in '92," Niko says. "He did it because we are taught to be really proud of the country you come from and he always showed that even in the times when we were not allowed to show that during the Yugoslavia days. That is why that championship in 1982 was so important. It was not just Dynamo Zagreb fans that cherished that title, it was all Croatian football fans and nationalists.

"He was the first captain and he was patriotic-minded. I was brought up the same way. To be fair, most of us are. We are a very proud nation and proud of where we come from. Before we came back I was privileged. My first memories are of Vienna. I went to an American school. When we came back to Zagreb during the war he started his coaching. And my happiest childhood memories are in Zagreb, playing football on the streets. I will never forget it and I would never change it."

After he won titles as a coach in Croatia, Zlatko's finest hour in international management was steering his national team, with Niko in the side, undefeated through qualification for the 2006 World Cup finals where, in English style, they went out in the first round. The performance did not meet the expectation and he was forced out of the job.

"Of course it was hurtful," Niko says. "He was a real proud manager. He believed he did everything that he could to get us further but, unfortunately, we did not have luck on our side. We missed a penalty against Japan and hit the crossbar twice. The Australia game could have gone either way. The only game we lost was to Brazil and that was 1-0.

"There was so much bad stuff in the press [in Croatia]. They can be very aggressive. They try to be like you [in England]! That is why he is even more proud to be proving a point with this Montenegro team that everyone has written off. Even if he stayed on six points it is still not bad to have beaten Bulgaria and Wales. It is more than anyone would have given him before the qualifiers but I am sure they will get more.

"Montenegro is very small, the population is about 650,000. In the team everyone knows Mirko Vucinic [of Roma] and he is the main man. He is a great talent and a great goalscorer. [Stefan] Jovetic [of Fiorentina] is another one who is unfortunately injured. All the rest play in leagues across Europe."

Niko traces his own love of the game back to the days when his father would take him along to training sessions at Rapid Vienna like a latter-day Brian Clough with Nigel. His father also stood by him when he caused a sensation in Croatian football by leaving Dynamo Zagreb as a teenager and joining their rivals Hadjuk Split in 2004 after a falling out with the club's hierarchy.

It is difficult to imagine an English parallel and Niko smiles at my attempts. Kenny Dalglish's son Paul joining Manchester United gets close but only if Paul had been the best teenage talent in England at the time. "Of course it was difficult because firstly it was happening to his son. It was not straightforward. There was a lot of things said by people at Dynamo. It was a hard time for us.

"Of course I needed someone to talk to about it. I value his opinion and I learnt growing up from all the attention around him and his relationship with the media. I breathed football and grew up with it. Once the spotlight was changed to me it wasn't such a sudden thing. I learnt it all through him. It was so much easier for me when I got into the spotlight."

Kranjcar denies that he was angling to leave Spurs, having lost his place in the team since a sparkling end to last season was curtailed by injury. "I am waiting for my chance," he says. "The squad is probably one of the best in the Premier League. I have to work hard." As for giving his father advice he says, "My last experience [a 5-1 defeat at Wembley with Croatia] wasn't that great". And he knows that Zlatko is one manager who will not be put off by Capello or England's reputation.

Niko Kranjcar was speaking at the 2010 Haringey Educational Achievement Awards hosted by Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in partnership with Haringey Council