Zvonimir Boban: ‘I always felt I was created to play football’
Zvonimir Boban has been more than a footballer ever since May 13 1990, when he played a starring role in the collapse of his native Yugoslavia. That day, the 21-year-old was captain of the Croatian team Dinamo Zagreb, who were supposed to play Red Star Belgrade, when prematch violence erupted between Croatian and Serbian fans.
Spotting a Yugoslav policeman beating a Dinamo supporter, Boban felled the cop with a flying kick. For countless Yugoslav TV viewers, he had kicked off Croatia’s fight for independence. He remains a Croatian nationalist icon, despite his mistake in 1998 that cost the Croats a place in the World Cup final.
He has since moved on to peaceful revolutions. From 2016, working for the global football authority Fifa, he helped pioneer the sport’s controversial video assistant referee. This April, just days after he became chief of football at the European association Uefa, he watched aghast as 12 big European clubs launched a breakaway Super League. The plan collapsed within 48 hours amid revulsion from European fans, media, governments and other clubs. Now Uefa aims to bring the big clubs to heel.
With the delayed Euro 2020 championship kicking off on Friday, and Croatia playing England at Wembley on Sunday, there’s nobody better to talk about football, nationalism, the game’s future, and who was the best player ever.
Boban appears on screen with what looks like a cigarillo. “I am smoking, Balkanic style!” he guffaws, flashing his gleaming white celebrity’s teeth. The object swiftly disappears. Still, “Balkanic style” is our lunch plan: Boban in his brother’s Zagreb restaurant Vinodol, and me in Paris with a haul of former Yugoslavian comfort food from the working-class émigré Serbian grocery Globus Star. (Paris’s fancy ex-Yugoslavian restaurants weren’t offering takeout.)
Behind Boban, who is sitting alone inside, smartly dressed waiters serve business types on Vinodol’s terrace. “It’s a real traditional restaurant of Zagreb,” he says in English, his third language after Croatian and Italian. “We bought this company in a correct privatisation, because in the times of the privatisation of the new capitalistic system, some people made incredible and dishonest gains.” Vinodol remains state-owned; his family rents it.
His sister runs a local Italian spaghetteria called Boban, a homage to his brilliant decade playing for AC Milan. “All my family’s doing this business for 30 years, if not more. Obviously in the pandemic it’s terrible. But in Croatia, terraces have been open, I would say, all the time. Which at least gives you some idea of normal living.”
His menu will feature one course from each of northern, central and southern Croatia. His starter arrives, a Zagrebian strukli puff pastry. “And the wine is this one,” he holds a bottle of Dingac to the screen. “It’s from Peljesac, a peninsula in southern Croatia. It’s a very tough one: 16!” he chuckles, referring to the alcohol percentage.
I brandish a Slovenian sausage and a bottle of Vladika, a Montenegrin red. We toast across the screen. My sausage is unremarkable, but the bottle proves decent — I will finish it over subsequent days.
Even in his Yugoslav hometown of Imotski, in southern Croatia, the Bobans fed people. “Our house was always open, and my mother would be cooking for everyone in the place, so it’s natural that my family is in this business.”
What did his father do? “Smuggling,” Boban laughs again. “He was selling shoes in a shop called Bosna — which is Bosnia. He would get Adidas sneakers with some flaw, and he would be selling them under the desk, as we say in Croatia.” Meanwhile, Boban’s phone rings frequently, a norm of footballing culture, and sometimes he answers.
“They left for Germany for two years. My father was a mason, my mother was cleaning hospitals in Germany. They left us with grandparents. My father was always trying to get something more. In the end we built a house, all together, the uncles, my grandpa and our friends.”
He absorbed Yugoslav football culture. “Our football school is based a lot on freedom of creativity, talent. ‘Feel the ball!’ is a refrain from my childhood, what our coaches were saying. We are less good on the tactical side.”
What would he have done if he hadn’t played football? “I think I would have become a journalist. I love newspapers. When I was younger, I was reading the comic strips and fell in love with the journalism.”
His formative comic strip was an English one, about the boy footballer Nipper Lawrence. “His club was called Blackport Rovers. In my imagination, that club was Liverpool, because that was also a port,” he says. “So I was a Liverpool fan from my childhood! Dinamo Zagreb and Liverpool.”
Boban says that quite young he began asking himself “big questions”, inspired by his “very book-oriented” family. The Brothers Karamazov was a favourite, and he paraphrases, from memory, Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor: “‘Sometimes we are driven by strange forces, which we should always question, even if they are part of our life, our culture and our tradition.’ This opened my head a lot.” Boban began questioning Yugoslavia, a crumbling state in the 1980s.
How did he reconcile football with his intellectual passions? “Because the game is beautiful,” he replies. “I always felt that I was created to play football. Even now I can watch the fourth league, searching for some kind of beauty in every moment.”
A waiter serves his main course. Boban narrates: “Glittered sea bream with vegetables and potatoes. It’s from Dalmatia — Mediterranean fish dish. So yes, it’s fantastic.” Less fantastically, I have heated up Sarajevan cevapcici beef sausages and made a side salad.
Vinodol (for Zvonimir Boban)
Ulica Nikole Tesle 10, Zagreb 10000, Croatia
Strukli (pastry roll with cottage cheese) 52 kuna
Dalmatian sea bream with potatoes and vegetables 125 kuna
Gibanica (puff pastry with cottage cheese, poppy cream and au gratin apples) 35 kuna
Bottle of 2016 Dingac wine 220 kuna
Total 432 kuna (€57.60)
Globus Star (for Simon Kuper)
50 Rue du Simplon, 75018 Paris
Dry Slovenian sausage from Kras €3.80
Sarajevo cevapcici beef sausages €7.60
Kras chocolates €5.60
2017 Vladika wine, Montenegro €16.80
Every time his wonky Zoom connection freezes, I worry he’ll find something else more interesting to do — a hazard of footballer interviews. But each time he returns fully engaged, his eyes darting. Footballers who want to talk are wonderful interviewees. They fizz with energy and are fascinated by what they do.
By 16, he was starting for Dinamo Zagreb. In 1987, he captained Yugoslavia at the youth World Cup in Chile. In the final against West Germany, he scored the decisive penalty. A “what if” of football history is what that generation might have achieved had Yugoslavia survived.
The country’s symbolic end came that May 13 1990 in Zagreb. When fans fought in the stadium, many Croatians suspected the police of favouring the visiting Serbians. The scene seemed an allegory of what Croatians saw as their own disadvantage in Yugoslavia.
In past conversations, I’ve found Boban reluctant to discuss May 13. He remains a Croatian patriot, but dislikes being “instrumentalised” as a star, and feels connected to fellow former Yugoslavs of all backgrounds. Before our lunch, he sent me a newspaper article about his reassuring visit to friends in Red Star’s changing room that day. He and the policeman — who turned out to be a Bosnian Muslim, not a Serbian — have met and made up.
How does Boban assess that kick today? “I don’t regret it. At all. It was a fight for freedom against the regime. And it wasn’t against Serbians, it wasn’t against anyone. Is it right to kick somebody? Never, but I was hit [by police] a few times before. I was cursing them in the worst way,” he acknowledges, chuckling.
Even after May 13, he didn’t expect war. “I was too young or stupid to see it.” He thought Yugoslavia might evolve into a loose confederation. In 1991 he signed for AC Milan, then Europe’s best team, and observed the war from Italian luxury. The government had absolved top sportsmen from military service, asking them to promote Croatia’s cause in international media. Boban later declared in the documentary film The Last Yugoslavian Football Team: “I would die for Croatia.”
Did he consider returning home to fight? “Yes, I was thinking about it. Maybe my personal story about May 13, this eased my soul about this question. I’m proud, even if we’ve been privileged. It was crucial that we say something about our Croatian cause. Croatia was some kind of unwanted child of Europe.” Even during the war, he managed to stay friends with his Serbian teammates from the youth World Cup: when they talked, they avoided awkward subjects.
In 1998, independent Croatia, playing its first World Cup, reached the semi-final against France. That game, he says: “I made the biggest error in my life. I was captain, and we scored. I was screaming to everyone: ‘Now, it’s concentration. Now we have to be . . . ’ One minute later, I lost the ball in the red zone, 20 metres from our goal, and France equalised. This I will never forgive myself.” Croatia lost 2-1.
He falls silent. “It’s life,” he sighs. Then his phone goes. He takes the call, then adds: “In those days after the match, I lost two kilos. I didn’t sleep. I just can’t overcome it. Even today. My spirit is not strong enough!” he laughs at himself.
All meal, he has expressed no interest in his food. His restraint is another norm among footballers, even retired ones: anyone who can meet the physical demands of 1990s AC Milan possesses natural eating discipline.
His dessert arrives: another puff pastry, this one from the northern region Medimurje. “When you come here, you will eat,” he promises.
When I display my cheap box of Croatian chocolates, he guffaws and breaks into Italian: “Grande, Simon, grande! From Kras, from Zagreb. It’s historical chocolate.” I’ve cheated on our Balkan theme by brewing myself a Japanese genmaicha tea. It will prove the highlight of my meal.
Was retiring from football hard? “Was easy,” he shrugs. “I started when I was 16. Playing in Italy for 10 years was exhausting.” Aged 32, he joined Celta Vigo in Spain for a last hurrah. One day, they were practising one-against-one exercises, in which the attacker has to dribble past the defender. “From 10 times, usually I would dribble them eight to nine times. That time, I dribbled them two times. I said: ‘What the fuck? I have to stop.’ I started to live another life.”
He studied history at Zagreb University, writing a thesis titled “Christianity in the Roman Empire”. Maybe, he admits, Yugoslavia’s collapse “pushed me a little bit in that direction, but it is more the wish to know something”. He graduated more aware of how little he knew.
In 2016, he became deputy secretary-general at the global football authority Fifa. There he helped introduce the video assistant referee, which checks important refereeing decisions. VAR, says Boban lyrically, “is a message to society. It’s a message to the world that football wants to be more transparent and honest. Referees’ decisions and eventually anti-doping tests can bring football down, and make it some kind of half-criminal environment.”
He cites academic research: “Every third game, you have one big error from the referee: red card, goal given, mistaken identity and offside. In these four activities, VAR reacts.”
Fans complain about the long interruptions while referees study videos. He challenges me: “How much time do we lose on throw-ins?” Well?
He recites the numbers: “Seven minutes and a half. Ten minutes for free-kicks. Four and a half for corners, five for goal-kicks. So should we not check maybe a super-wrong, super-delicate, tremendously difficult decision from the referee? I believe that people questioning the VAR implementation are not normal people, or they don’t want to admit that they don’t want anything new.” He reckons VAR can reduce major refereeing errors about tenfold.
In 2019, he left Fifa to work for Milan, reuniting with his “fraternal friend” and former teammate Paolo Maldini. He lasted nine months, sacked by Milan’s American owners after a power struggle. This April, Milan was one of the 12 clubs behind the Super League. Boban snorts: “It was a poor business, and greed. I knew it would never happen. Because people from football will not allow it. I have to praise the England football environment. It was crazy how people there reacted, from premier [Boris] Johnson to the last — or to the first — fan. That gave hope to football’s future.”
He thinks the Super League’s failure will reset football’s power balance. Uefa, he admits, had long given big clubs too much leeway, hoping to deter a breakaway. Now, he says, “we shouldn’t humiliate people if they made errors, but they have to understand their errors”.
He expresses gratitude to Uefa’s Slovenian president Aleksander Ceferin for giving him his new role. Ex-Yugoslav networks remain tight, Boban acknowledges.
Boban is relishing Euro 2020, especially the England-Croatia match. “Croatia have more experience, but England team are faster, and physically stronger,” he says, singling out Marcus Rashford as one to watch. There is even some tactical advice for England manager Gareth Southgate: “He has to play four behind [ie four defenders] — then they can be dangerous for everyone. This is in their nature. Three at the back, it doesn’t work for English players.”
When I start thanking him for our two-hour lunch, he interrupts. There’s one more thing he needs to tell me. When former players gather, he says, one subject always comes up: “Who are the best players in history? I believe we can put four: Pelé, Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo ‘Fenômeno’ [the Brazilian Ronaldo, not the Portuguese one]. Brazilians and Argentinians felt the ball more than others. But one is the greatest. It’s Maradona. You know why? If Ronaldo, Pelé and Messi were touching the soul of the ball, we’ve been feeling the leather of the ball, but Maradona took the soul from the ball.” He laughs with delight.
“His free kick for Napoli against Juventus is the best goal in the history. How he kicked the ball, nobody will understand it, never. When we saw that goal, we tried it and we started to laugh.”
Messi could have scored it, I say. Messi can do anything.
“He can’t. I’m not saying he’s worse than Maradona. For me they are more or less the same. But for the story of how Maradona lived, and for this goal — his feel for the ball was superior.”
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
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