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The player destined to be one of the most talented, and yet frustratingly vulnerable midfielders of his generation was born in Schwenningen, in West Germany to a family of ‘guest workers’ resident at the time, and didn’t move to the country where he would make his name until he was ten years old. A dozen years later, after hoovering up multiple domestic titles and a European Cup triumph with Red Star Belgrade, Real Madrid secured the services of the player deemed to be one of the stellar European talents. Like so much of his career though, hope and outcome were distant bedfellows during his time in Spain.
Joining Los Blancos for a sum equating to €16 million, the club had both high expectations and demand on their new arrival having endured a frustrating time during the previous season. Unfortunately, such aspirations were quick to be confounded. Injuries put Prosinečki out of the first team picture for most of the season, and coupled with concerns about his general fitness due to a less than strict lifestyle meant his initial period in the Spanish capital was all but a write-off. He would make a mere three league appearances, although there was a typically brilliant, but tantalisingly brief, taste of the talent awaiting to be delivered when he netted a free-kick in October 1991, against Barcelona in El Clásico. Despite the frustration caused by his absence, such achievements are enough for the Madrid crowd to offer a little solace and grace.
Such fans’ moratorium on deciding a player’s worth was tested further during his second term. Despite suffering more niggling injuries, across all competitions, he played 36 times, offering more glimpses of his delicious ability. Again, they were few and far between, echoed by his return of just four goals. Any consistency was conspicuously absent and when his third season played out in much the same way, although he returned his best goal tally, netting six times, the club decided there was little prospect of things improving sufficiently to justify continuing his stay, and they decided to offload the rapidly fading star in a loan deal to Real Oviedo.
Ironically, the move meant a reunion with Radomir Antić who had been in charge at the Bernabéu when Prosinečki had joined Los Blancos. Whether it was that, a release from the pressure cooker demands of Real Madrid, finding a comfort zone in Cantabria or some other reason, the player who had excelled at Red Star enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. Playing in 30 league games, although his scoring rate didn’t improve markedly – returning just five goals – his performances did. Oviedo finished in a highly creditable ninth position, thanks in no small part, to the role of Prosinečki in the Carbayones midfield.
The uplift in fortunes convinced the player to affirm that he would not return to Real Madrid, and when Antić joined Atlético Madrid at the end of the season, a move to Los Colchoneros looked a likely destination, if an always tricky deal with their city neighbours could be struck for the transfer. It was however Barcelona who stepped in. A three-year deal was agreed and Prosinečki moved to Catalonia.
The 1995-96 season, under Johan Cruyff, turned into a mirror of the Croatia international’s first season in Madrid. Again, a series of injuries punctuated his time on the pitch, meaning he only appeared 19 times for the Blaugrana. If for the following season, with Bobby Robson now ensconced in the manager’s chair, Prosinečki hoped for more game time, he was to be disappointed. Whether his style, attitude or lack of consistency was the major reason, Robson seemed to have little faith in the midfielder, and he never played a league game under the Englishman. By the end of 1996, it was clear there was no future for him at the Camp Nou, and a €1.67 million move to Sevilla was agreed. On each move around Spain, Prosinečki’s value had fallen. It was a reflection of his perceived success – or lack of it.
His time in Spain ended the following year when he moved to Dinamo Zagreb, then on to Hrvatski Dragovoljac and Standard Liège for short periods before landing at Portsmouth in the second tier of English football. Playing under Graham Rix, as with the move to Oviedo, again out of the harsh glare of the spotlight, Prosinečki seemed to rediscover at least an element of his talent. The club were locked in a relegation battle for much of the season, but Prosinečki’s displays were a rare exciting distraction for the Fratton Park faithful. Controlling the club’s midfield, he turned out in 33 league games, and enjoyed one of his most prolific terms netting nine goals, including a hat-trick against Barnsley. It would be a brief stay on the south coast of England, but one fondly remembered by Pompey fans. He would later move to Slovenian club Olimpija and end his career, back in Croatia, with NK Zagreb.
For a player seemingly blessed with outstanding talent, the ongoing tale of Robert Prosinečki’s career never seemed to match that ebullient time with Red Star. Was it a case of failing under pressure? With Oviedo and Portsmouth, arguably lesser clubs, he flourished to some extent. Or was it merely that the required standard was lower. Whatever the case, it’s a lament for football that the Croatian midfielder who promised so much, eventually delivered so little. It’s a story of a budding talent that never truly flowered.