Davor Šuker: Croatia’s First Football Superstar

Croatia’s ‘Golden Generation’ reached the World Cup final in Russia last year before losing 4-2 to France, with soon-to-be Golden Ball and Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric in imperious form, but the Real Madrid midfielder cannot claim to be his country’s best-ever player.

That honour belongs to ‘Suker Man’, the controversial Davor Suker.

Named as his country’s Golden Player at UEFA’s Jubilee anniversary in 2003, he enjoyed a 19-year-long career in which he scored 241 goals in 523 games for clubs including Sevilla, Real Madrid and Arsenal.

In his 69 international caps, he helped to turn a fledgling Croatia side into a genuine force, laying the foundations for Modric, Ivan Rakitic and co. today, by taking the Golden Boot at the 1998 World Cup in France as his six goals fired Miroslav Blazevic’s side to a third-placed finish on debut.

He made his professional start at 16 playing for his local team, Osijek, in 1985 to become the youngest professional player in the Croatian game’s history. In his fourth and final season there, he finished top scorer with 18 goals in 26 Yugoslav First League games.

There are many horror stories of young players such as Alen Halilović not making the grade, but Suker delivered on his early promise: in 1989, he moved to Dinamo Zagreb and scored 34 times in 60 matches. He earned his fast cap for Yugoslavia in 1990 as a result, and attracted the interest of Europe’s elite clubs.

He decided on a move to Sevilla in 1991. He began slowly, scoring only six times in the 1991-92 La Liga season, but went on to score 71 goals across the next four campaigns, including 13 in 1992-93 partnering Diego Maradona and 24 in 34 games the following season.

After Croatia’s fierce battle for independence, Suker scored his country’s first competitive goal as he struck twice in a 2-0 victory against Estonia in a European Championships qualifier in 1994 ahead of the 1996 edition of the tournament in England.

He finished with 12 goals in 10 matches in qualifying and scored three times at the tournament finals, including an audacious lob over Peter Schmeichel as the holders, Denmark, were beaten 3-0. He was powerless to stop a 2-1 defeat to Germany at the quarter-finals stage, though.

Suker moved to Real Madrid prior to the 1996-97 season. In a victorious debut campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, he scored 24 La Liga goals, finishing as the third-top goalscorer behind Barcelona’s Romario and Real Betis’ Alfonso, as the league title was regained from city-rivals Atletico Madrid.

He lined up in a formidable three-pronged attack with Raul and Predrag Mijatovic and came off the bench in the 1998 Champions League final against Juventus which Jupp Heynckes’ side won 1-0 thanks to a Mijatovic goal.

At the 1998 instalment of the World Cup in France, he scored six goals as his team came within two Lilian Thuram goals of reaching the final.

He scored in a 3-0 win against Germany in the quarter-finals, and scored to put his side 1-0 ahead in the semi-final before the aforementioned Thuram’s goals – his only two in international football, in fact – sent the hosts to the final to face Brazil.

Suker scored the match-winner in a 2-1 win against the Netherlands in the third-place playoff and finished with the tournament’s Golden Boot and Silver Ball, awarded for being the second-best player behind Ronaldo.

Despite his World Cup heroics, he struggled for game time in the Spanish capital during the 1998-99 season – he appeared only 19 times and scored just four goals in La Liga.

He left Spain, after scoring 114 league goals in 239 appearances, to join Arsenal in the Premier League for the following season. He scored eight goals in 22 appearances but his time in North London is remembered largely for his missed penalty in the 2000 UEFA Cup final shootout, which Arsene Wenger’s side lost to Galatasaray.

After only a season with the Gunners, he moved across London to West Ham United. He featured only 11 times, despite scoring against Manchester United, before leaving England behind to join 1860 Munich of Germany ahead of the 2001-02 season.

In his two seasons in the German capital, he was largely restricted to substitute appearances but was a welcome addition to Peter Pacult’s side, as a stellar fourth-place finish in 1999-00 preceded qualification for the Intertoto Cup in 2002. He also scored three goals in five DFB-Pokal appearances before announcing his retirement.

His time after playing has not come without its controversies, however. In February 2011, on a flight from Milan to London, he found a collection of valuable antique coins that had been left behind by a fellow passenger. Instead of handing them in, he was found to have kept them and fined €8,000.

In 2014, ahead of the World Cup in Brazil, he was slammed for defending Croatian international Josep Simunic, who had been banned by FIFA for leading a fascist chant after a match with Iceland in November 2013.

The football zealot should remember Suker on the pitch: he has established the Davor Suker Soccer Academy, with camps in Zagreb and other Croatian cities, and he is the President of the Croatian Football Federation, a post he has held since 2012.