It’s part of every young football fan’s rites of passage to sit down with a grandfather and be regaled with tales of how much better the game used to be in his day. The older generation can wax endlessly lyrical about all the wonderful footballers they grew up with and the outlandish things they could do with a round bag of leather at their feet – and how today’s players can’t hold a candle to the ones that went before.
The modern game can occasionally throw up players with a style and approach that seem an anathema to the hard-running athleticism of contemporary football; players like the ’90s Yugoslav and Croatian midfielder Robert Prosinečki, a throwback player guaranteed to cause collective swooning in football-loving grandfathers around the world.
There’s two ways you can choose to remember Prosinečki. The first suggests a maverick who stretched the football cliché of mercurial just a little too far: slow, a smoker, liable to switch off for long periods of a game, not enthusiastic about running, not enthusiastic about even feigning interest when not in possession, injury-prone and never especially dedicated towards getting himself into optimum shape. Oh, and for such a creative and attack-minded midfielder he was never a prolific scorer.
And then there’s the second way, the correct one: a player capable of producing more ‘wow’ moments in 90 minutes than most players managed in their entire careers. Robert Prosinečki was a footballer who could actually do the things on a pitch your grandfather nostalgically misremembered the greats of his day doing. This was a playmaker who, when in the mood, could bend the will of a game entirely to his bidding, rendering all other players on the pitch as mere accessories.
So what could Prosinečki do that set him above other great creative midfielders from the past? Well, his ability to move the ball around a pitch transcended the description of mere passing. His was an extraordinary range, languidly drawing back his right boot to arc a pinpoint accurate six-yard or 60-yard pass onto the instep of a teammate.
Despite that lack of pace, he was an exceptional dribbler who could drift past four or five opponents at a time, simply through his incredible balance and mastery of the ball in tight situations. Similarly, he was a player who when in possession was near impossible to dispossess because of his brilliance at constantly shifting direction in tight areas to put pursuers of balance and protect the ball from even the most determined of opponent.
Take it as read that he was an exceptional and rather distinctive taker of set pieces. He would approach them with a distracted air of half-interest as if mentally composing a shopping list he had to pick up on the way home after the game. Nonchalantly he would then sweep an unstoppable free kick into the top corner of the net past some bemused keeper.
As befits such a wayward maverick, Robert Prosinečki undertook a rambling, peripatetic career in the years that followed his European Cup winning heydey with Red Star Belgrade. He disappointed at Real Madrid who needed him to be both fitter and less fitful. It was a similar story at Barcelona when Johan Cruyff couldn’t resist the opportunity to sign a footballer of such bountiful if fragile gifts. Other Spanish stints with Real Oviedo and Sevilla were more productive, however.
Surprisingly the club that saw probably the best of him apart from Red Star was English minnows Portsmouth. He pitched up there late in his career for the 2001-02 season and managed to stay largely free of injury for its duration. His football was a revelation and his goals and assists were instrumental in saving the club from relegation; indeed, the nine league goals he scored that year was his best ever return apart from that historic Red Star European Cup season.
When Robert Prosinečki started out his career with Dinamo Zagreb in 1986, the club’s famous coach Miroslav Blažević once stated he would eat his coaching diploma if the youngster ever became a real football player. It proved an ill-advised comment, but you could see from where it originated. This was a marvellous player who would go on to dazzle and frustrate with equal measure all the way through his career.
That was the joy of Robert Prosinečki, a wonderful throwback digression from a game that even a quarter of a century ago was veering towards athletic automatons.