I finally accomplished something that I had wanted to do for a very long time. Meet the superstar of the 1998 World Cup for the upstart Croatian National Team that finished in 3rd place just behind France and Brazil. Davor Šuker is arguably one of the greatest if not the greatest talent to come from the war torn country during the years just after the conflict that left many dead on all sides during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
The famous number 9 who also played for Sevilla, Real Madrid, Arsenal and others greeted me with a strong handshake and looking fit like a fiddle. Šuker looked as if he could still lace them up and take his position on the Osijek pitch where Israel kicked off in a friendly against Croatia just last week.
The small town is where the Croatian Football Federation President grew up, taking his first steps as a footballer as the silver haired striker began reminiscing about his childhood and upbringing: “All nice memories are going through my mind and they are very important when I walk, drive and see old teammates and schoolmates as well as seeing my professors or even visiting the street that I grew up on. Every morning when I wake up in Osijek I see the Drava River which is something very special for us. During the summer we swim and we play football here. I love to visit all of the stadium workers and my old coaches to keep up with all of my relationships. The lessons I learned from these coaches have been ingrained in me.”
Suker who had taken over the Presidency back in 2012 spoke in depth about the importance of the youth squads within the federation and the importance of helping others reach their goals: “If I had one suggestion for the youth of today I would say that if you have ten different coaches learn a lot from every single one of them. At that end of your career you must help everyone. It doesn’t matter if you were a player with Real Madrid of NK Osijek or a National Team player you must help others and help your friends. Remember you can’t play football alone. You need to have a minimum of two against two, but the best is of course is 11 versus 11 when you have two full teams. And most important of all is that you need to have relationships with others, that’s the key.”
During his formative years as he continued to develop as a footballer, Suker explained that he didn’t really have any role models when growing up: “That’s a really difficult question. When I was a child there was only two TV channels with very little football on. Today you have PlayStation, iPhones and all kinds of sports in your pocket. There were so many people then who were just waiting to watch the European Cup which is now the Champions League League or the Cup Winners’ Cup now the Europa League. I really enjoyed seeing some of the stars from around the world like Karl Heinz Rummenigge and later Maradona.”
Suker continued about the importance of jersey numbers back during his playing years as well when watching the footballing super powers of Europe: “The big fight during those days within the teams was who would have number 9 and who would have number 10. For me number 9 represented success. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Juventus were so strong during these days.”
After playing with his local club NK Osijek, Šuker moved west across the then Yugoslavia to play for powerhouse Dinamo Zagreb where he eventually moved on to Spain and Sevilla just two seasons later. During his five years with Sevilla he would go onto play in 153 matches while scoring 76 goals. Luckily for Šuker he would also have the opportunity to play with one of the greats he had witnessed on TV: “I enjoyed playing with Diego Maradona most of all. In 1992 he signed with Sevilla and when the rumors began flying that he would play with us, I said that when I see him or when he is having lunch and dinner with us or when he will be warming up with us, then I will believe that he is actually with us.
I watched Diego play in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and I thought that every child around the world would be dreaming to just see him play. But I had the chance to actually play with him. He would say to me, ‘Davor run, don’t look left or right. I’ll put the ball right in front of you and then you will score the goal. And really, I scored the goals. There were a couple against Valencia and many of the teams in La Liga in Spain.”
Israeli international Haim Revivo was playing in Spain for Celta Vigo at the same time Šuker had just moved to Real Madrid in La Liga: “Revivo played with Celta Vigo at the time and was a huge star. We have a great relationship. I’ve never been to Israel but next year I hope that we will be able to visit as we are playing two matches between the countries with the first game in Croatia and the second in Israel.”