From Real Madrid and Barcelona, this is the story of how Croatian, Robert Prosinecki, found his home in Portsmouth.
Football has been through some drastic changes in the last 20 years. A mix of commercial interests, sports science, and hegemony of nations and clubs has killed off many of the opportunities for unlikely characters to make names for themselves. Maverick personalities like so many of the 90s are unlikely to be unearthed in the modern game. So we look back in fondness at some of the old guard and their stories. One such figure went by the name of Robert Prosinečki.
Prosinečki was a nomadic talent who not only journeyed between clubs throughout his career, but also nations. A West-German born Yugoslav-come-Croat who had transcendent talent with the ball at his feet. At 22 he scored in a European Cup Final penalty shootout, later becoming one of the few men to ever switch Clasico allegiances and reaching a World Cup Semi-Final in the late 90s playing for a country that he was older than.
Yet after all these incredible feats and achievements, he is often best remembered for a singular season in the second step of English football. A season so non-descript, you’d never look twice. But on the South Coast of England, in the tightly-packed city rows of Portsmouth, Robert Prosinečki is remembered as one of the best to ever play.
At the turn of the century Prosinečki was roaming from club to club. Persistent muscular injuries had prevented him from achieving the greatness he had once promised just a decade ago. He was a key part of Red Star Belgrade’s incredible 1992 European Cup winning side, even scoring the opening penalty of the shootout.
A big-money move to Spanish giants Real Madrid followed, but injuries saw him miss almost his entire first season at the Bernabeu. The two seasons following showed promise, but after failing to impress the Real board, he was shipped off on loan to see out his contract. Whilst proving he still had talent, a failure to agree a new contract saw Prosi become a free agent. In typical rogue style, Prosinečki drew headlines by joining Real’s arch-rivals Barcelona.
His time with the Blaugrana was, in all honesty, a failure. His legs were shot, and neither Johann Cruyff nor Sir Bobby Robson saw need of his services. After Barca, Prosi became a wandering player. A season here, a season there, never truly bedding down with a single club.
For the 2000/01 season, he found himself plying his trade in Belgium. After putting in some impressive performances against SP Charleroi, a shareholder by the name of Milan Mandaric took interest.
Garry Barfoot had started as Portsmouth correspondent for a local paper in 2001 and remembers the Prosinečki signing well: “Mandaric had shares in Charleroi, and through some correspondence they got in touch and [Prosinečki] said he’d be happy to join. It was a bizarre one. He just sort of rocked up.”
“[Graham] Rix wasn’t happy because he’d started building this young core of players … but the problem was as soon as soon as [Prosinečki] played, you realised that he was too bloody good to leave out.”
He joined Portsmouth at 32 in summer, 2001. The club were First Division (Championship) strugglers and only avoided relegation the prior season on the final day. Promotion to the Premiership was Mandaric’s hope after buying the club in 1998, but with poor performances and attendances dropping, he felt a big-name talent was just what the club needed to bring back the attention of a growingly apathetic fanbase.
Lifelong Pompey fan Paul Whiteaway remembers his thoughts on the signing: “I was very interested to see him play but concerned he was going to be past it. Pompey had built a reputation for buying players coming to the end of their careers and saw Fratton Park as one last pay cheque. I was cautiously optimistic.”
Prosinečki’s reputation preceded him, and fans had valid reason to be guarded about their excitement. He left a distinct impression on Garry as a young journalist when first seeing him around the club: “You could tell when you saw him at training, he’s the kind of guy that just wants to play for the fun of it.”
“He had this beat up old car. It was an old Eastern European thing, looked like he’d driven the thing over from Yugoslavia. And the boot he just had Marlborough cigarettes and football boots in. He’d be smoking at the start of training. He didn’t do much of a warm-up, and only got involved in the set pieces. But he could put the ball wherever you wanted it. He’d be walking off and smash one off the top of the crossbar, then another, just absolutely effortlessly.”
He apparently didn’t speak a lick of English, but he didn’t need to. Prosi let his game do his talking.
Journalist and Portsmouth fan Garry Tipp remembers his introduction to the midfielder: “I saw him play at the 1998 World Cup. France vs Croatia in Lens. Due to some Pompey connections, I was rooting for a Jamaican win. When the Croatians started knocking the ball around, my allegiance quickly switched. Prosinečki was pulling the strings in midfield. He was mesmerising to watch, capping his performance with a great, individual goal.
The second time I saw him play was in a Worthing Cup game against Colchester at Fratton Park. Pompey lost 2-1 and were truly appalling. Prosinečki, on the other hand, was still mesmerising.”
Given his broken body, and low work rate, Prosinečki was not your standard squad veteran. And yet, the way you hear Pompey fans talk about him, you’d think he was on track for a Balon d’Or.
Vaughn Medway was a Fratton End season ticket holder during the 2001/02 season and remembers the gap in skill between Prosinečki and his teammates: “He would dictate the players around him and knock the ball into space, but the players were too slow of thought to make the most of it. They would lose an awful lot of possession just because they couldn’t operate at the same level as him. This went on for a few games. Then I think the message got through to him and he started playing the ball more direct to players. They started to improve, and the team started to gel.”
When asked what made him stand out, Vaughn said: “His close control. The ability to trap a ball dead and then spray it out to a player or space for a player to run it. To be able to dribble or move the ball away from a defender and open up play by dropping a shoulder or dummying.
He was just playing a different game to the player. He wasn’t fast footed, but his brain was far quicker than anyone else on the pitch.”
This gulf in ability between the team became more apparent throughout the season and was most apparent in their February match against Barnsley at Fratton Park. Pompey had a 4-2 lead, thanks in no small part to a Prosinečki hattrick – the only one of his career. However, in the closing stages of the game, the team capitulated. A red card, and 2 late Barnsley goals meant the match finished a four-all-draw.
Barfoot said: “I remember seeing him walk off the pitch as [Barnsley] got the fourth goal. I imagine he was thinking: I’ve done my job – what more can I do?”
Gary O’Neil – a staple feature for Portsmouth that season – remembered how angered Prosi was: “He threw his boots down and just looked at us in disgust, as if he was thinking ‘you lot are rubbish. I’ve scored a hattrick at home and we still can’t even beat Barnsley’.”
That was the story for a lot of Portsmouth’s season. Many results got away from them. That combined with poor away form, an awful second half of the season, and a late change in management, left the side finishing in 17th place.
Prosinečki had only signed on a one-year contract with the Blues and didn’t see the need to stay, moving onto the next of his short stints elsewhere. Whilst the season itself was a forgettable one, the memories he left Pompey fans were not.
Gary Tipp summed it up best, saying: “There had never been a player like Prosinečki before he joined and there hasn’t been one like him since. His dead-ball ability was off the scale, his dribbling skills a class apart and his ability to run the game from midfield mind-blowingly exceptional. Not only that, but he made it all look so effortless. Pompey ended up a dismal 17th that season, which, with the passing of time, is merely an incidental detail, but the enduring memories Prosinecki gave the crowd are priceless.”
If you want to find out more about this remarkable season, Gary’s book ‘Prosinečki In Blue: A Season Of Uncommon Artistry’ comes out next year.