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Best Croatian soccer players of all time

Tue 27 April 2021 | 13:30

From Bernard Vukas to Luka Modric, in this article we take a look at the most famous Croatian football players in history, stay tuned.

In Croatia, football is the most popular sport. Both in official and friendly matches. After the success in the 1998 World Cup, Franjo Tuđman, then president of the Croatian republic, said that football victories shape the identity of a nation as much as wars. As early as 1873, football was already being played in Croatia by English workers in the coastal town of Rijeka. Its first official match was arranged by English seamen in Zadar. Afterwards, an increasing number of Croatian youngsters began to play football under the guidance of Englishmen.

This small European country always had some great talent in football. The country has produced a number of players since independence who have performed well in most European leagues and led the national team to a third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup and a runner-up finish at the 2018 World Cup.

Best Croatian football players ever

There are many outstanding Croatian footballers who fill the nation with pride and glory when it comes to top-level football. Here, we will talk about some of the best Croatian soccer players of all time, sharing information about their careers and the momentous events that catapulted them into the Croatian hall of fame. Stay tuned.

Vladimir Beara

Regarded in the 1950s as one of the greatest goalkeepers of his time, today Vladimir Beara has become a little-known keeper. However, his story, which began in 1947, is an important one. Soviet legend Lev Yashin is reported to have said after receiving the Ballon d'Or in 1963 that Beara, not him, was the best goalkeeper in Europe. Vladimir was born in 1928 in the village of Zelovo in the Sinj region to a Serbian Orthodox family and started his career at home with Hadjuk Split, the leading Croatian club in Dalmatia's largest city. He played for eight seasons, making 136 appearances and winning three titles in the former Yugoslavia.

Beara was the leader of the best club at the time, together with Vukas and Zebec. His style was inimitable and he played quite differently from other goalkeepers. He had an unmistakable kick, cleared the ball from goal to goal, dived at the feet of the strikers. He was fearless. The falls and shocks gave him confidence. In 1955, he decided to change teams. He left and signed for the rival Red Star Belgrade. The "elastic man" or "the dancer with the iron hands" was treated as a traitor by all those around him in Split. Some devoted fans erased the renegade's name from their arms with knives and razor blades.

Although he was suspected of having joined the capital to make political arrangements for the benefit of the ruling club, he actually left for the love of a Serbian woman. Luckily, he won four more league titles with Red Star and his only two Yugoslavian cups. He also achieved some fine European victories. In 1958, Vladimir Beara was on the pitch during the match between Red Star Belgrade and

Manchester United

(3-3) in the quarter-finals of the European Champion Clubs' Cup. The game was the last one played by the 'Busby Babes' before the crash in Munich on the way home. He will always be remembered as one of the

best Croatian footballers in history

.

Stay tuned for more in our list of

best Croatian soccer players of all time

!

Domagoj Vida

The first defender in our list of

top Croatian football players ever

is Domagoj Vida. He was trained at NK Osijek and joined the professional team in the 2006-2007 season aged 17. The next season, Vida improved and performed well for his club. Dinamo Zagreb was interested in him. Nevertheless, on 29 April 2010, he signed for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. Vida was mainly used in the Europa League where he made 8 appearances.

He joined Dinamo Zagreb on 14 June 2011 for an undisclosed fee. Vida became a regular starter in defence and earned his place in the national team. He stood out during the preliminary rounds of the 2012-2013 Champions League, scoring his team's qualifying goal in the final minute of stoppage time against Bulgarian side

Ludogorets Razgrad

. In January 2013, Domagoj Vida signed a 5-year contract with Dynamo Kiev for 6 million euros, before transferring to the Turkish side Besiktas in 2018.

He is a

Croatia

national team player. His debut came in a friendly against Wales, where he replaced Darijo Srna. He was called up for Euro 2012. He was named in the 30-man preliminary squad that would represent Croatia at the 2014

World Cup

in Brazil on 14 May 2014, only to be confirmed in the final 23-man squad on 31 May. Head coach Zlatko Dalić selected him in the 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup. He played as a first-choice starter and was instrumental in leading Croatia to become a World Cup finalist. Many consider him as one of the

greatest Croatian soccer players of all time

.

Branko Zebec

Branko Zebec was born on 17 May 1929 in the Croatian city of Zagreb, which was then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. He began playing for several teams in his hometown, but in 1951 he received a call-up from FK Partizan Belgrade, a powerful team in the capital. He soon showed his exceptional qualities, to such an extent that the Yugoslavian national team called him up, where he won a total of 65 international caps.

It was in 1952 that he had the opportunity to wear the national shirt at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, where he eventually won the silver medal. Unfortunately for Yugoslavia, that tournament marked the birth of the fantastic Hungarian national team of Czibor, Kocsis and Puskas. Nevertheless, Branko Zebec was the top scorer of the tournament with 7 goals.

Zebec was a very versatile player, able to make the difference thanks to his skill and unusual physique, allowing him to play both as a central defender and as a winger on the left flank, and many people agreed in those years that he could play in any position on the pitch. In addition, he was tremendously fast, as he was able to run the 100 metres in 11 seconds in the heavy boots of the time. He will be always remembered as one of the best Croatian football players ever.

Darijo Srna

In 2016, Darijo Srna retired from the Croatian national team, after 134 appearances and 22 goals, which made him the player with the most appearances in history and also the fourth-highest scorer for the Croatian national team. Like Jarni, Srna was able to play as a full-back or winger, but he always played on the right flank, to the point that he was even compared to the Brazilian Cafu.

He played in six international competitions for Croatia (four Euros and two World Cups) and was captain of the national team before Luka Modric took over the armband. At club level, the Metkovic-born player played almost his entire career with Ukrainian club

Shakhtar Donetsk

(2003-2018), where he won countless titles (27), notably the 2009 UEFA Cup.

A natural right-back, he was considered to be one of the best in his role and was frequently used as an outside midfielder or even as an offensive player. He is known for his crosses and penalties and definitely deserves a place in our list of famous Croatian football players in history. Stay tuned for more in our list of best Croatian soccer players of all time!

Bernard Vukas

One of the legends of post-war

Hajduk Split

, alongside Davor Šuker and Luka Modric, Bernard Vukas is widely regarded as one of the best Croatian soccer players of all time. He was a gifted ball player, fast, technical and intelligent. He lost twice in the final of the Olympic Games in 1948 against Gunnar Nordahl's Sweden (losing 3 goals to 1) and in 1952 against Ferenc Puskas'

Hungary

(losing 2 goals to 1). Several media experts from the Croatian daily "Večernji list" voted Bernard Vukas the best Croatian player of all time in 2000.

His football career began in the youth ranks of one of the oldest clubs in present-day Croatia, Concordia Zagreb. From 1945 to 1946 he went to play for Amateur Zagreb and the following year he moved to a top club like NK Zagreb, playing only one season. He was bought in the summer of 1947 by a club in which he was to become one of the strongest strikers in those years in Yugoslavia, Hajduk Split, in whose ranks he managed to win three Yugoslav league titles (1950, 1952, 1955). Quickly he became the captain of the team and in the 1954/1955 season, he won the title of top scorer with 20 goals.

Following that memorable season, he was voted Yugoslav sportsman of 1955. Sepp Herberger, head coach of Germany's 1954 World Cup-winning team, said of Vukas: "He is one of the greatest football artists, he has a unique skill, and he uses it for the benefit of his team. He is the prototype of the modern player. Vukas is not only the best football player in the world, but he is also an example to be admired by all sportsmen. He deserves a place in our list of best Croatian footballers in history.

Ivan Perisic

One of the players in our list of top Croatian football players ever who is still playing football is Ivan Perisic. He started his career as a junior with Hajduk Split. He then left for the youth team of French FC Sochaux-Montbéliard in 2006. In early 2007 he was included in the reserves, where he spent the next 2 years. He was loaned to Belgian KSV Roeselare in January 2009. He debuted in Eerste klasse on 17 January 2009 in a 1:2 loss against KV Kortrijk. In a 3:1 win against Royal Charleroi on 24 January 2009 he scored his first goal in the Eerste Klasse. He played for six months on loan in Roeselare.

He signed a three-year contract with Club Brugge on 26 August 2009. He joined the Belgian club for 250 thousand euros. He debuted on 13 September 2009 in a 1-1 draw with KRC

Genk

, in which he scored a goal. He confirmed to the press on 23 May 2011 that he signed a 5-year contract with Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund bought the player for an estimated €5 million. His first match was in a 3:1 win against Hamburger SV, replacing Chris Löwe in the 76th minute.

Perisic was bought for €8 million by

VfL Wolfsburg

on 6 January 2013. By the end of August 2015, Perisic joined Inter Milan. Bayern Munich announced a one-year loan of the player on 13 August. He eventually returned to Inter after his loan ended at Munich. Perisic has (as of April 2021) played 99 matches and scored 27 goals for the Croatian national team, which he debuted for on 26 March 2011 in an away European Championship qualifier against Georgia. He has represented his country at the Euro 2012, the 2014 World Cup, Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.

Mario Mandzukic

Another striker to appear in our list of

best Croatian football players ever

, without a doubt, he is the best centre-forward to emerge from Croatia in the last decade. In addition to being capped by his country, he has also played for some of Europe's top clubs such as Bayern Munich, Juventus and Atlético de Madrid. Mario Mandzukic went on to score 228 goals in 578 games during his entire club career in all competitions.

On the international level with Croatia, "Super Mario" scored 33 goals in 89 games. He played in two World Cups (2014 and 2018) and two European Championships (2012 and 2016). Together with Gerd Müller and Zinedine Zidane, Mandžukić is the only player in history to score goals in a Champions League final (in his case, in two: 2013 - Bayern - and 2017 - Juventus) and in a World Cup final (

Russia

2018).

An aggressive centre forward, well suited to the counter-attack game, he is physically strong but also agile, quick and resilient. Gifted with excellent technique, he is good at aerial play and scoring goals. A generous, tenacious player who presses opposing defenders, he is adept at cutting out the direct marker and serving assists to his teammates. Early in his career he was compared to his compatriot Alen Bokšić and is a player of class and vision, tactically intelligent and able to be decisive at any time - often in big matches - thanks to his unpredictability. Many consider him among the greatest Croatian soccer players of all time.

Stay tuned for more in our list of best Croatian soccer players of all time!

Zvonimir Boban

He is another player on our list of

best Croatian soccer players of all time

. Zvonimir Boban is best remembered as one of the driving forces behind the great

AC Milan

during the 1990s, as well as the Croatian national team, with a World Cup adventure that ended in the semi-finals, defeated by the host country, France. He made his debut at the age of 16 with

Dinamo Zagreb

, where after a few games he was already a great leader and a promising young player in Europe. Although he was a controversial footballer, as much adored and respected in Croatia as he was hated in the other countries of the former Yugoslavia, he left many memories wherever he went.

Between 1985 and 1991, the playmaker continued to delight at his club, scoring 45 goals in 109 matches. When the war started in the former Yugoslavia, he moved to Italy, first to Bari, then to AC Milan. By the time he had adjusted to Italian football, he had become the midfield playmaker with the Italians Demetrio Albertini and Roberto Donadoni. He played as both a midfielder and a playmaker, contributing to AC Milan's finest moments and winning their main titles with them: Champions League and UEFA Supercup in 1994, four Italian league titles and two Italian Supercups.

He had an outstanding career with the Rossoneri, where he became a legendary player, playing 251 matches in nine seasons and scoring 30 goals. The Yugoslavian (7 caps) and Croatian (51 caps) international was forced to leave the club in 2001 and tried his luck at Celta Vigo. At the age of 34, the midfielder eventually decided to hang up his boots in 2002. He will always be remembered as one of the best Croatian footballers in history.

Ivan Rakitic

Another fine midfielder makes it into our list of

famous Croatian football players in history

. After winning everything with

FC Barcelona

, Ivan Rakitic is still playing for his beloved Sevilla FC, the club to which he has returned. At Barcelona, he came in for the legendary Xavi and did so in fine style. Moreover, he had the luxury of scoring in a UCL final (2015) and shared the pitch with Lionel Andrés Messi for 311 games.

The Swiss-born player had previously enjoyed his first glorious spell at Sevilla FC, where he won the UEFA Europa League in 2014, having played for Basel and German club Schalke 04. He went on to FC Barcelona, where he won 13 titles (10 domestic and three international), among them the historic sextuple in 2015.

As a dynamic and classy midfielder, Rakitic was named Croatia's Footballer of the Year in that magical 2015. For his country's national team, Rakitic has played in two World Cups (2014 and 2018) and three European Championships (2008, 2012 and 2016). Altogether, he played 106 international matches and managed to score 15 goals. He will be remembered as one of the top Croatian football players ever for many years to come. Stay tuned for more in our list of best Croatian soccer players of all time!

Davor Suker

The next player in our list of best Croatian soccer players of all time is Davor Suker. As one of the most prolific strikers of his generation, Davor Suker's achievements with the Croatian national team have been more impressive than those with any of the clubs he has played for. Suker was born in

Osijek

in 1968, and in 1989 he transferred to Dinamo Zagreb, where he proved so talented that he was called up to the Yugoslav national team by then-coach Ivica Osim in 1991. The young striker was then sought after in Europe, and in 1992 it was Sevilla who finally made a big splash by recruiting him. Soon, Suker became one of the top scorers in La Liga. Suker's career really took off in the 1996 UEFA EURO qualifying campaign.

In their first international matches, Croatia surprisingly beat Italy, finalists of the 1994 World Cup, in Palermo with two goals from Davor Suker. As a result, Croatia qualified for the English Euro. Suker scored a superb lob to Peter Schmeichel in the group stage. He scored another spectacular goal in the quarter-final against Germany, turning in the ball in front of Andreas Köpke. Although Croatia opened the scoring, they were eliminated by the eventual winners.

After five seasons in Sevilla and a superb Euro, the 28-year-old attracted the interest of Real Madrid, a club that looked more suited to a player who had become one of Europe's top players. Following an excellent first year (24 goals and a league title), he struggled to keep up the pace and, relegated to the bench, finally accepted an offer from Arsenal in 1999. During the 1998 World Cup, he made a major contribution to his national team's excellent campaign, scoring six goals and becoming the tournament's top scorer ahead of Italy's Christian Vieri and Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta, both of whom were held to five goals.

Luka Modric

In a tight battle with Davor Suker for the first place in the list of

best Croatian soccer players of all time

, Luka Modric is ahead in terms of his achievements at both club and international level, but especially in terms of individual awards. The Golden Ball at the Russia 2018 World Cup, the France Football Ballon d'Or, the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award and the FIFA Best Award 2018 are just some of the major awards that topped off the best year of his footballing life.

Since his debut in 2003, Luka was soon nicknamed "The Cruyff of the Balkans". Such a nickname for a player who is still an exceptional midfield maestro at the age of 35, although he was far less of a goalscorer than the legendary Dutchman.

Having made his Croatia debut in 2006, he has 136 international appearances to his name, scoring 16 goals. Two of those goals came at the last World Cup, where he led Croatia to the runners-up spot in the World Cup against all odds. After three World Cups and three European Championships with the Croatian national team, Modric does not seem to want to step aside just yet.

Having excelled at Tottenham, he enjoyed the true explosion of his football at Real Madrid, winning 17 trophies. He won four Champions League titles in five years (2014-2018), being a starter in each of those decisive matches. As a result, Europe has surrendered to its feet. In fact, France Football magazine included him in its XI of the Decade (2010-2020), where he formed a midfield of diamonds alongside Barcelona's Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández. He will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest Croatian soccer players of all time.

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