Football and politics – it is said, go hand in hand, and perhaps no player better illustrates this than Croatian midfielder, patriot and freedom-fighter Zvonimir Boban.
Ask any Croatian what single incident prompted the beginning of the bitter Balkans conflict in 1990, and the chances are that they’ll choose a kick by then 22-year-old Dinamo Zagreb captain Boban – not a kick of a football, but of a policeman. When the clash between hated rivals Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade descended into chaos on 13th May 1990, Yugoslav police struggled to deal with fans invading the pitch, with one officer in particular dealing out his own brand of rough justice to an unarmed Dinamo fan.
Seeing this, Boban raced over and aimed a volley at the policeman’s chest. Had he connected with a football, the chances are he would have scored one of his most famous ever goals, but the contact he made with the officer at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb that day would prove to be much more important. Boban was suspended by the Yugoslav FA for six months, and criminal charges were filed against him, but he became an instant hero amongst his fellow Croatians, and was viewed as the symbol of the country’s conflict with their hated overlords.
The four year War of Independence began a year later, by which point Boban had attracted the attention of AC Milan, and while many Croats and Serbs of his age where heading off to war, Boban was packing his bags for Serie A in an £8m deal. Milan immediately loaned him to Bari, where, despite several encouraging displays, he couldn’t save the Galletti from relegation to Serie B. Playing in a midfield alongside Bari’s other big signing of the campaign, Englishman David Platt, Boban showed that he possessed the vision and qualities to mark him out as a top Serie A performer, and there was little doubt that Milan would install him as a prominent member of the first team squad upon his return.
Coach Fabio Capello did just that, giving Boban his debut in a 6-2 win over Ternana in September 1992, a result that showed Milan’s determination to successfully defend the Scudetto. This of course they did, eventually finishing four points ahead of city rivals Inter and winning their 13th title thanks in no small part to Boban’s midfield probing alongside the likes of Demetrio Albertini, Roberto Donadoni and Ruud Gullit, in a campaign that saw an ankle injury to Marco van Basten end the prolific Dutchman’s golden Milan career.
Title number fourteen soon followed in 1993/94, a watershed year for the club that saw Gullit and Frank Rijkaard move on, but also saw Milan at their mean best – conceding just 15 goals in their 34 league matches. The campaign was best remembered for the remarkable European success, in which Boban starred. FC Aarau, Copenhagen, Anderlecht, Porto, Werder Bremen and Monaco were all swept aside as the Rossoneri marched to the Champions League Final with Barcelona in Athens in emphatic style. Lining up in his all-white Milan no. 9 shirt in the Final, Boban was heavily involved in his side’s first goal, teeing up Dejan Savicevic before the Yugoslav’s miscued cross-shot was turned in at the back post by Daniele Massaro. Further goals from Massaro, Savicevic (sublimely) and an ecstatic Marcel Desailly completed one of the greatest European Cup Final performances of all-time, winning Milan the trophy for the fifth time.
Boban settled into the side in the following years, winning a further Scudetto in 1996, a year after losing out in the Champions League Final to a late goal from Ajax’s future Milan striker Patrick Kluivert. As a natural leader, Boban was the obvious choice to captain his country at both the European Championships in England in 1996 and the World Cup in France two years later. In France, Croatia produced a stunning performance to reach the semi-finals, where an uncharacteristic Boban error led to the first of Lilian Thuram’s goals in the hosts’ 2-1 win.
He returned from the World Cup to play a key role in new Milan Coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s side. Recruited from Udinese, Zaccheroni played Boban behind the exciting front two of George Weah and Oliver Bierhoff, with successful results. After a slow start, Milan were second-favourites for the title behind Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Lazio, but a terrific run in 1999 saw Milan pip the Biancocelesti to the trophy by just one point – the club commemorating their centenary year with their 16th title, Boban’s last of four with the club.
Key to the success was the Croatian, who, now elevated to the status of one of the elder statesmen of the squad, carried out key duties in a range of midfield positions, scoring important goals and creating chances with his vision and excellent technique.
The following two years were a comparative disappointment for Milan and their Croatian star, despite the emergence of another hero from the East, Andriy Shevchenko. Boban’s influence on the team waned, as Milan struggled both domestically and in Europe, for which Zaccheroni paid and was replaced by Cesare Maldini.
In August 2001, as the club broke their transfer record for Fiorentina’s Portuguese ace Rui Costa, Boban found himself out of the Diavolo Tacticians plans. He left for a brief loan spell at Spanish side Celta Vigo before, with typical frankness, announcing his retirement in October. Zvonimir Boban played 251 games and scored 30 goals for AC Milan. Regarded a symbol of a generation’s struggles in his homeland, the Croatian is fondly remembered as one of the greatest foreign players in recent Serie A history. Even by Italian policemen.
Past Lessons in Calcio