In the world of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; in the last decade, it was hard to overshadow two of the most iconic football figures of their generation. The Ronaldo vs Messi debate is still going on despite the end of a glorious decade of football, where we witnessed the rise of some of the games most influential characters.
Some of them had shared the same platform with Ronaldo and Messi, while there had been those, whose hard work, match-winning abilities and dedication earned them the underrated tag only.
Mario Mandzukic of Croatia was one of those players who, in my opinion, never earned the accolades he deserved throughout his remarkable football career.
The early days
Mandzukic experienced those times of war after the breakdown of great Yugoslavia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the wind of change blew over Eastern Europe and the newly independent nation Croatia had to go through a very tough time.
After his hometown of Slavonski Brod, located near the Bosnian border, came under attack in the War of Independence, a German town called Ditzingen, located around 10km from Stuttgart – became the new home of Mandzukic.
It was in this town that the youngster found solace away from a nation that was ravaged by war.
In 1992, he joined German club TSF Ditzingen, near Stuttgart. Upon returning to his home country, the newly independent Croatia, he spent the period between 1996 and 2003 at NK Marsonia before spending a season at the city minnows NK Zeljeznicar.
The next season, he returned to Marsonia and in the summer of 2005 he made a move to NK Zagreb.
Starting the journey at Dinamo Zagreb
In the summer of 2007, Mandzukic was bought by the Croatian powerhouse Dinamo Zagreb for €1.3 million, which included Luka Modric for the modest fee of just €1.3m, as a replacement for their Arsenal-bound star striker Eduardo da Silva.
Upon his arrival, he managed to secure his spot in starting eleven, playing mostly in the position of the second striker.
At 22, his first season at the Maksimir would see him as a lively presence up front and helping the likes of Modric get more involved in the game. While he would suffer from a few disciplinary issues, his will to win and professional attitude immediately endeared him to the fans – His approach to the game defined his struggles of the past. The Mandzukic family had to sacrifice so much for such little, like many from the region at the time. It was graft or fail in the eyes of the striker – and the choice was obvious.
He finished his first season at Dinamo with 12 goals and 11 assists throughout 29 matches, but also had a poor discipline record, collecting eight yellow cards.
Mandzukic was the league’s top goal-scorer, bagging 16 goals in 28 appearances. He also scored three goals in the season’s UEFA Cup. This was the season of his rise in the Croatian national team as well, as he collected eight caps in 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches.
After the 2008–09 season had finished, he was linked with German side Werder Bremen, but the €12 million offer was rejected by the Dinamo board, who were of opinion that Mandzukic’s worth was at least €15 million.
He started the 2009–10 season by scoring a goal in a Champions League play-off match against Red Bull Salzburg. Mandzukic received a red card in the last minutes of the game. After he told the referee that he got hit by the bottle that somebody threw from the stands, he gave him his second yellow card and ruled him out of the game.
After Dinamo lost 2–0 at home to Anderlecht in Europa League in 2009, Mandzukic was controversially fined €100,000 after being accused of poor effort.
It was the first time in the history of the club that a player was financially fined.
Mandzukic donned the captaincy arm-band and led Dinamo to a 6–0 victory against HNK Rijeka in Prva HNL.
In a post-match interview, Mandzukic rejected any speculation about him leaving the club after the fine, stating that it was his childhood dream to captain the Dinamo side and that he gives his best in any match he plays for the club.
During that season, he appeared in 24 league matches, scoring 14 goals. He appeared in five Europa League matches as well.
A move to Bundesliga – VfL Wolfsburg
Mandzukic signed for VfL Wolfsburg for a fee believed to be around €7 million and at Wolfsburg, he was not playing as a striker but left-winger because coach Steve McClaren used Edin Dzeko as a lone striker.
But after Dzeko left for Manchester City and former German legend Pierre Littbarski became the interim coach of Wolfsburg because Wolfsburg experienced a poor season under McClaren and was sacked, Mandzukic started to score goals in the Bundesliga and after the arrival of manager Felix Magath, Mandzukic was played in his natural position as striker.
In his two years at Wolfsburg, he scored 20 times in 56 appearances, establishing himself as one of Wolfsburg’s best players during his stay and quickly becoming a fan favourite due to his goalscoring ability and attitude.
The rosy days in Bayern Munich
In the Euros, his brilliant performance caught the attention of Bayern Munich think tank and he joined the German Giants after the tournament.
It was a time when Bayern Munich had lost their cutting edge and the rise of Jurgen Klopp’s energetic Borussia Dortmund side, which had won the Bundesliga for the previous two campaigns – took the limelight off from Bayern.
Die Roten had also failed to win the Champions League in the 2011-12 season, losing to Chelsea in the final on penalties.
Thus, by signing Mandzukic, Bayern looked for the assurance of more goals, wanting to take the load off, Mario Gomez.
Gomez had been Bayern’s top-scorer in 2011-12 but more was needed to dethrone Klopp’s Dortmund.
It was felt that €13m represented a good deal for Bayern – the third time in his career that the Croat had moved for a modest fee. It highlighted how underrated he still was.
Mandzukic scored the highest number of goals for Bayern that season in the Bundesliga.
While Dortmund were affected by the loss of Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United, Bayern lost only one game, finishing the season on 91 points and winning it by 25.
Dortmund’s shifting of priorities to the Champions League saw them reach the final of the competition and it was another Der Klassiker affair.
Mandzukic scored in the showpiece event, with a late Arjen Robben strike giving them the glory.
Bayern also won the DFB-Pokal that season, beating VfB Stuttgart in the final.
While he had delivered the goods, Mandzukic‘s biggest encouragement was that he was now seen as indispensable by many within the walls of the Allianz.
His passion, hard work and professionalism suited Bayern, something alluded to by many ex-legends at the German giants.
At Bayern Munich, Mandzukic evolved into a deadly forward and played role in various positions upfront.
Unorthodox, uncanny, hardworking and versatility had been the hallmark of his game.
He played as a winger, second or main striker, dropped to midfield and excelled at the attackers in front of him. And, he even improved his defensive abilities and had been involved in some crucial tackles.
He was even given the nickname Đilkoš by Miroslav Blazevic, which means brash and unsophisticated, referring to the striker’s physical strengths, powerful physique and seemingly endless stamina, rather than his technical ability; his other nicknames include Mandzo and Super Mario.
Known for his high work rate and defensive contribution, Mandzukic’s former manager at Wolfsburg, Felix Magath, noted his endurance, stating that the striker is “so fit that I think he could play two back-to-back games without stopping even for a minute.”
The La Liga challenge
When Pep Guardiola was appointed Bayern manager in 2013, Mandzukic‘s days were inevitably numbered. Perhaps lacking the fluidity and style with which the Spaniard wanted to fill his team, he still managed 18 goals in 30 games, winning the respect of Guardiola, if not his desire to keep him.
Indeed, in a candid interview with Sportske Novostki, Mandzukic said, “Let’s be honest, I can’t play to my strengths under Guardiola’s style no matter how hard I try.”
Mario moved to play under the supervision of Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid and relish the challenge of facing Messi and Ronaldo.
Following his move to Atletico Madrid, Sky Sports analyst Adam Bate wrote that he was the perfect fit for manager Diego Simeone’s style as Mandzukic is, “often the instigator of the press with his energetic running, Mandzukic battles defences, driving them back to create space for teammates as well as preventing opponents building patiently without pressure on the ball.”
Bate further added that the Croatian “…is both a physical and mobile striker who does much of his best work without the ball, seemingly doing the work of two players and thus allowing an extra man in midfield.”
Expert Michael Cox has also praised Mandzukic for his excellent teamwork, highlighting that while he presses his opponents energetically when they attempt to play the ball out from the back, he is also extremely diligent and disciplined in the manner in which he drops back into his own half to defend behind the ball if his opponents manage to bypass his team’s pressing.
In 2014, Aleksandar Holiga commented on Mandzukic’s playing, stating that, “He stretches the defences with constant movement and seemingly endless stamina, opening space for others to come from behind or cut inside from the wing; his pressing on the ball has proven decisive on a number of previous occasions and he is, of course, one of the best strikers in the world when it comes to aerial power. So even if he does not score himself, his presence could be key for the team’s chances.”
From 43 appearances in Atleti he smashed 29 goals including a brilliant show in the Madrid Derby.
The Italian days
After a frustrating World Cup in Brazil, where Croatia were eliminated from the Group Stages despite playing better, Mandzukic moved to Italian Serie A giants Juventus.
During his time at Juventus under manager Massimiliano Allegri, competition from other forwards has often seen Mandzukic being used in these deeper or wider, more creative roles, in particular on the left flank, in which he has excelled, drawing praise from the media for his consistently high-quality performances, because of his ability to hold up the ball with his back to goal and play off of his teammates or drop into midfield to help win back the ball when his team are not in possession.
He was also required to function as a “wide target man” on the left side of the pitch occasion, due to his movement and work-rate, as well as his ability to utilize his height to win aerial challenges, or use his strength and solid technique to hold up the ball for teammates and create space or chances for them; in this position, he essentially played a hybrid of the roles of a target man, left-winger, and left-back.
In addition to his ability as a footballer, Mandžukić is also known for his determination, leadership, and mental strength, and has been described as a “big-game player” in the media, due to his tendency to score decisive goals in important matches for both club and country.
As such, during his time in Italy, he earned the nickname “guerriero” from the Juventus fans.
His playing style has been compared to that of compatriot Alen Boksić, who also played as a forward for Juventus.
At Juve, he is a legend where he helped them to reach the final in the Champions League of 2016-17 and his bicycle goal in the final is still a fond memory and in the quarterfinals, in the following season, he scored the fastest goal Real Madrid ever conceded.
The glory days were coming to end and as soon as Maurizio Sarri arrived, he went out of the plans of Juve, thus, he moved to Al-Duhail and after spending some time there, he returned to Milan in 2021, but his heydays were over.
Glory in Russia
By the time World Cup took place in Russia, Croatia had built a very strong unit courtesy of the lessons learned in the previous setbacks. Mario was one of the vital cogs upfront while Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulled the strings from the deep.
In the opening game against Nigeria, he caused Oghenekaro Etebo’s own goal and won a penalty, that was successfully converted by Modric, as the game ended as a 2–0 win for Croatia. He was a continuous threat in the match against Argentina where La Albiceleste were thrashed 3-0.
During the side’s round-of-16 match against Denmark, he scored the equalising goal in the 4th minute of play; following a 1–1 draw after extra-time, Croatia prevailed 3–2 in the resulting penalty shoot-out.
In the quarter-finals against hosts Russia on 7 July, Mandžukić provided an assist in the first half of regulation time for Andrej Kramaric’s equalizer.
A 1–1 draw after 90 minutes saw the match go into extra time, and following a 2–2 draw after 120 minutes of play, Croatia once again progressed to the next round in the ensuing shoot-out, winning 4–3 on penalties.
During Croatia’s semi-final match against England, with the score tied at 1–1 after regulation time, Mandzukić scored the match-winning goal in the 109th minute to give Croatia a 2–1 victory, sending the team to the World Cup final for the first time in their history.
In the final against France on 15 July, he became the first player ever to score an own goal in a World Cup final, when he headed Antoine Griezmann’s free-kick into his own net to give France a 1–0 lead; he later scored Croatia’s second goal by chasing down and capitalizing on an error from French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, as the match eventually ended in a 4–2 defeat.
With that goal, Mario Mandzukic became the second player in World Cup history to score for both teams in a single match (the first being Ernie Brandts of the Netherlands in a 1978 World Cup match against Italy) and the first to do so in a final.
He returned home along with his teammates and was greeted in a ravishing manner.
Mandzukic was the legend and hero of Croatia.
After the World Cup, Mandzukic announced his retirement from international football.
At the time of his retirement, he was the second-highest goal-scorer in the history of the Croatia national team with 33 goals.
In his statement, Mandzukic wrote about the 2018 World Cup silver medal:
“We have made our dreams come true, achieved a historic success, and experienced unbelievable support. That month, including the welcome in Zagreb, Slavonski Brod, and entire Croatia, will remain the most important memory of my career. This has been the most beautiful national team journey, and my favourite return to homeland. I am more than happy, fulfilled, and extremely proud of this silver, that has been forged through the years, through pain, effort, work, disappointment, and difficult moments. There is no ideal moment to retire. If possible, we would all play for Croatia until we die, since there is no prouder feeling, but I feel this moment has come for me – now. I’ve given my best for Croatia; I have contributed to the biggest success of Croatian football.”
He fully retired from football on September 3, 2021.
Happy retirement Mario.