Kranjcar, reborn playmaker, awaits dramatic last act

His father was national coach, his agent was shot dead: what comes next? By Jonathan Wilson
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You wonder whether Niko Kranjcar ever regrets his comment that "I've never seen football as a profession, more as a love." When he first said it, he probably meant it. He was a teenager of prodigious talent coming through at Dynamo Zagreb, their youngest-ever captain, and football must have seemed great fun.

It was the kind of remark that instinctively gets the public onside – naïve and charming and devoid of the cynical undercurrent that runs just below the surface of Croatian football. It nodded to the great tradition of the Croatian playmaker, to the joyous trickery of a Robert Prosinecki or a Zvonimir Boban, or even, heading further into the past, of a Marko Mlinaric, and if it echoed the famous opening to Ferenc Puskas's autobiography – "I shall write my life in football as a love story, for who is to say it is not" – so much the better.

Maybe Kranjcar still thinks that now, but if he does it represents a remarkable triumph of idealism over experience. The backlash against the golden boy was ferocious. When he said after Croatia's defeat to Macedonia on Saturday that they had to show the same honesty against England on Wednesday as Israel had shown against Russia, he was ending a year-long refusal to speak to the Croatian media. Slaven Bilic has achieved many things since taking over as coach of Croatia after the World Cup, but among the most remarkable has been resurrecting Kranjcar's reputation.

Croatia had an awful World Cup. It was not just that they went out in the group stage having failed to win a game; it was the manner in which they underperformed. They were brutish and physical, impossibly far from the imaginative creativity of legend. Croatian football was supposed to be about such moments as Davor Suker's chip over Peter Schmeichel in Euro 96 or Stjepan Bobek's impishness for Yugoslavia against the Soviet Union in the 1952 Olympics, and it had become about packing seven men behind the ball, thumping it long and hoping for the best.

The resentment had to find a focus, and it homed in on Kranjcar. It did not help that his father, Zlatko, was the national coach. "Niko gets no special treatment," Kranjcar Snr always said. "He is just another player." But he wasn't: how could he have been? No matter how even-handed Zlatko tried to be, his motives regarding his son would always be called into question. It did not help that Niko was the playmaker. There was very little play being made, so he got the blame. That he barely got the ball, and when he did it had usually been telegraphed; that Dado Prso and Ivica Olic were forwards of little imagination; and that Ivan Klasnic, who played ahead of Olic in the opening two games, was woefully out of form, was never taken into account. The team was built around Kranjcar, and he was expected to perform.

It did not matter that it is absurd in the modern game for the whole creative burden to fall on one man, that, in order to accommodate such a figure Zlatko Kranjcar had had to resort to two holding midfielders in front of his three centre-backs, because Niko had already been singled out as a potential scapegoat. Even before the tournament certain elements of the press had dubbed him "Debeli" – "Fatty" – because of his supposed lack of fitness: some fall from grace for a player who, because of his height and grace had once been compared to Zinedine Zidane.

Things began to go sour for Kranjcar midway through the 2004-05 season when he made the shocking decision to leave Dynamo Zagreb, the club for whom his father had played 556 times and scored 98 goals, to join their arch-rivals Hajduk Split. He had fallen out with the club hierarchy, and most observers expected his agent, Dino Pokrovac, a business partner of Suker, to negotiate a move abroad. Instead, Pokrovac got in touch with the former Derby defender Igor Stimac, who was then the sporting director of Hajduk. They agreed a ¿1.5m (£1.1m) fee, at the time a Croatian record. That immediately ostracised half of Croatia's fans and, just as importantly, a significant section of their media.

The other problem was Pokrovac was not just an agent. He was not even just the owner of a cafe and a carwash, the two businesses he used as fronts. He had also been working with a gang that stole cars in western Europe and smuggled them into Croatia to be resold. He increased his profits by loaning money at high rates of interest. Many of his clients were connected to football; one of them was the Hajduk club itself. Pokrovac was a fan, but it is probably the financial motive that explains why he encouraged Kranjcar to move to Split rather than making what would almost certainly have been a more lucrative move to western Europe.

If Hajduk were champions, as they were in Kranjcar's first season, and playing in Europe, Pokrovac had more chance of getting his money back.

In May 2005, he even negotiated a deal for Miroslav Blazevic, the coach who led Croatia to third in the 1998 World Cup, to take over at Hajduk. Three weeks later, Pokrovac was shot dead in the hallway of his home in the Sigecica district of Zagreb in what was clearly a mafia hit. His killers have never been caught.

Quite aside from that, questions were asked of Kranjcar. Had Hajduk won the league because or in spite of him? Their 10 games in the end-of-season play-offs, it was noted, yielded just three wins, and they would not have won the title but for the lead they had built up in the regular season – the vast majority of it before Kranjcar's arrival.

As Hajduk crashed out of the Champions League – losing by a humiliating 8-0 aggregate to Debrecen, of Hungary, in the second qualifying round – Blazevic was sacked and Stimac was forced to resign. Kranjcar managed 10 goals in 32 games, but Hajduk finished just fifth, and when he was sold to Portsmouth five matches into the following season, he was not much mourned. Nor was he forgotten in Zagreb. When Dynamo retained their title last season, fans and players – including the Manchester City full-back Vedran Corluka – celebrated by filling Trg Jelacica, Zagreb's main square, and singing a song mocking Kranjcar, entitled "Fat Pig".

Portsmouth fans were not that disgruntled last season, but equally they saw no great reason to take him to their hearts. He may have made 24 appearances, but only on five occasions did he manage a full 90 minutes. There was the usual talk about a foreign player struggling to adapt to the pace of the English game, but if that was the issue, he has adapted now.

"He's top quality," Pompey's manager, Harry Redknapp, enthuses about a player who has been key to his side's impressive start to the season. Significantly, his role at Portsmouth, cutting in from the left flank, matches the job he is being asked to do with Croatia, as Bilic has found a way of using two playmakers – Kranjcar and Luka Modric – by balancing the midfield with Niko Kovac as an anchor behind them and the former wing-back Darijo Srna on the right.

"He's proved his quality in the national side's toughest games," Bilic said. "He has great technique, a good shot and reads the play brilliantly."

Kranjcar's potential at last is being fulfilled and he seems to be enjoying football again. Whether he still loves it is another matter, but either way, this pig is flying.

Family business: Son on the pitch, father in the dugout

Ondino & Milton Viera (Uruguay)

The first father to pick his son in a World Cup was Ondino Viera. Ondino played in Uruguay's two Olympic wins in the Twenties, and in their 1930 World Cup triumph, but he could not find the same success as manager. He picked Milton at centre-half for the first three games of the 1966 World Cup. Without him, though, in the quarter-final, Uruguay were beaten 4-0 by West Germany.

Cesare & Paolo Maldini (Italy)

Nobody quibbled when Cesare Maldini, having been appointed Italy manager in 1996, continued picking his son Paolo at left-back. Paolo was without question the finest left-back in Italy, arguably the world, but there was no thought that he had got his father the job given Cesare's three world titles as coach of Italy's Under-21 side. Cesare made Paolo captain but in the 1998 World Cup they went out to France on penalties in the quarter-finals.

Brian & Nigel Clough (Nottingham Forest)

It can't have been easy being Brian Clough's son, but nobody believed Clough Snr would have picked "Young Nigel" if he had not thought it right for the team. Neat of both appearance and playing style, Nigel played 311 games under his father for Forest, scoring 101 goals and twice lifting the League Cup. He joined Liverpool as Forest were relegated and his father retired in 1993.

Frank & Frank Lampard (West Ham United)

Frank Snr never managed his son, but he was assistant to Harry Redknapp when he brought Frank Jnr, his nephew, into the West Ham side in 1996. Accusations of nepotism arose: "I remember when I was running along the touchline there'd be people telling me to go and sit with my dad and my uncle because I wasn't good enough to be on the pitch," Frank Jnr said of his treatment at West Ham.