Master Prosinecki: 'We might just get lucky'

In the Croatian camp
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The Independent Football

Robert Pires was recounting last Sunday's memorable match between France and England when an unshaven, slightly familiar-looking man approached. "Photo?" the scruffy fan enquired. Only once the two men were side by side did it click, quite literally. Pires was not rubbing shoulders with any ordinary souvenir hunter, but one of the most talented midfielders of his generation: Robert Prosinecki.

Robert Pires was recounting last Sunday's memorable match between France and England when an unshaven, slightly familiar-looking man approached. "Photo?" the scruffy fan enquired. Only once the two men were side by side did it click, quite literally. Pires was not rubbing shoulders with any ordinary souvenir hunter, but one of the most talented midfielders of his generation: Robert Prosinecki.

An embarrassed Pires, who had sat only yards from the Croat as the two men watched their teams' semi-final of France 98 from the substitutes' bench, quickly made his excuses. But there was no need. "I'm going around the Euro incognito," a chirpy Prosinecki said, "so I don't expect anyone to recognise me." No matter that he played for some of the biggest clubs in world, including Real Madrid, the 35-year-old genuinely did not seem to care.

The same criticism was often levelled at him during his playing career. "Not just me," the former Portsmouth midfielder pointed out. "I think a lot of the Croatian players get an understandable reputation for being temperamental. It must be in our make-up." The Class of 2004 would appear to support Prosinecki's theory. Dreadful in their opening game, a drab goalless draw against Switzerland, they were then excellent, particularly in the second half, against France four days later.

The word "mercurial" could have been invented for the Croats. "One minute we're up and the next we're down," said Prosinecki, who also represented the former Yugoslavian state during the 1990 World Cup. "Look at the game against France: we were awful for 45 minutes, then great for 15, then average for the last half-hour. It's not good enough." Especially if Otto Baric's men are to secure the win over England they require to progress to the next stage. "The good thing is that the English are not as good as the French," he said. "If we play with real commitment, we might get lucky. But I'm not too confident because this team are not very talented."

The man they called "Glass Legs" because he was so prone to injury is having to tread more carefully than ever. The last thing he wants to do is shatter the national team's shaky morale ahead of tomorrow's Group B decider. "I don't want to be a nasty critic from outside the camp," Prosinecki said, "but the truth is we are not as good as we were."

He is referring to the great Croatia side of the mid-to-late Nineties who reached the quarter-finals of Euro 96 in England and the semi-finals of the World Cup in France two years later. "That was an exceptional crop of players who came together at the same time," explained the man whose chequered career took him from Red Star Belgrade, with whom he won the European Cup in 1991, to Real Madrid and Barcelona. "It was more luck than anything and I don't know if we'll have another team like that for a while."

Prosinecki, who is now a director at his first club, N K Zagreb, and a blossoming sports journalist, added: "Croatia only have a population of 4.5 million people, so in a sense it is a massive achievement that we even reach the finals of major tournaments. We don't have the talent pool and, at the moment, we don't have enough good players or the necessary discipline to make a difference."

One wonders whether he would consider taking over from the unpopular Baric if the team are eliminated by England tomorrow? "No, no," he said. "I am not the managerial type. I am much happier being a reporter these days." So what is his writing style? Smooth and silky like his footballing skills? "Actually, it's much more direct," he said. "The magazine [Rekord] aims to write about sport in a positive way. I am interested in going to all the countries where the big players are and showing the Croatian kids who are reading my magazine what it's like out there. I want these kids to love football.

"I don't care about who David Beckham is sleeping with. Do you understand? I am only interested in who David Beckham is. It is David Beckham the footballer who could beat us on Monday. That is the David Beckham Croatia fear."

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