Prosinecki, Croatia's prodigal, returns

A nation at the crossroads welcomes back a favourite son
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Robert Prosinecki must have given a wistful shake of the head when the images of riot police on the streets of Belgrade flickered across his television this week.

Robert Prosinecki must have given a wistful shake of the head when the images of riot police on the streets of Belgrade flickered across his television this week.

Nine years ago Prosinecki witnessed the brutality of Slobodan Milosevic's baton-wielding force for himself. Not on the streets, but on a football pitch. They struck out at his friends, but left him alone. The famous stripes of Red Star Belgrade ensured that Prosinecki was one Croatian who was guaranteed safe passage.

The man who crossed thedivide and became an idol in both camps is back once more on national service. Yugoslavia may be at the crossroads, but Croatian football is too.

Failure to qualify for Euro 2000 was hard to take following that third-place medal in the World Cup. A young country is now very unsure of itself, and failure to beat Scotland in Zagreb on Wednesday night would heighten those fears.

It is little wonder, then, that coach Miroslav Blazevic has buried his own pride and recalled Prosinecki, with whom he has over a decade of enmity. Prosinecki is 31 now, though the beard makes him seem older. Certainly, his part in Red Star Belgrade's European Cup triumph in 1991 seems to belong to a different era, if not in football then certainly politically.

The break-up of that team preceded the break-up of Yugoslavia. The whole volatile cocktail of rival republics exploded, in part, due to a football match: the 1991 Yugoslav cup final between Red Star and Dinamo Zagreb. The game was abandoned after riot police attacked Dinamo fans and players, of whom Zvonimir Boban (now at Milan) made himself a Croatian folk hero with a flying kick which laid out a policeman.

Boban and Prosinecki had been friends at Dinamo before the indifference of the coach, a certain Miroslav Blazevic, saw the gifted teenager walk out and take his talents to Red Star. But the cup final violence forced him to slip out the stadium on his own rather than with his Red Star team-mates, and out of Belgrade soon after to the haven of Real Madrid.

"I had four years at Red Star and lived in Belgrade without any trouble," he reflects. "The fans accepted me and life was normal." That was partly due to his background - Croatianfather, Serbian mother - but also his talent. The playmaker's six years in Spain, where he crossed another divide, from Real to Barcelona, are testimony to that. Yet it is Belgrade that stirs the Croat's pride more than anywhere.

"We had an excellent side, with players from different ethnic backgrounds," he reflects. "If the war had not come along, then maybe the team could have stayed together and ruled European football the way Milan did."

He was lured home by the promise of president Franjo Tudjman that together they could help build Croatia Zagreb into one of the continent's top club sides. The dream remains unfulfilled: Tudjman died, the money dried up and CroatiaZagreb are now just plain oldDinamo again. Frustrated, Prosinecki baled out two months ago to join Standard Liege in Belgium for £1m.

"We sold Mark Viduka [to Celtic] and Silvio Maric [to Newcastle] and we never bought players like Davor Suker or Boban back home. We have always produced good players, but I think, for the sake of the national team, it is better we play abroad."

Prosinecki walked out on the national side after France 98, vowing never to play under Blazevic again. Yet it was the coach who came crawling, after Boban and several others retired in the wake of the failure to make Euro 2000.

Craig Brown knows Prosinecki's gifts well, recalling: "He was in the Yugoslav side who won the World Under-19 Cup in 1987. They beat the Scotland team that I coached in the quarter-finals and Prosinecki ran the show."

Prosinecki is convinced that his real country, Croatia, have not lost their way. "Beating Germany in the World Cup was a big step," he reflects. "We were too naïve at Euro 96, we were still feeling our way. But now we have grown up and we know what we are capable of."