Suker: Messi must win things with Argentina

Croatia's Davor Suker celebrates his goal against Germany in 1996
© Getty Images

Fifteen years have now passed since Croatia wrote the finest chapter in their short footballing history, when seizing bronze at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™. A golden generation including the likes of Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and Mario Stanic was spearheaded by the goalgetting genius of Davor Suker, who also claimed the adidas Golden Boot as the competition’s top scorer.

Long retired and now working as the President of the Croatian Football Federation (CFF), the former Sevilla, Real Madrid and Arsenal player discussed a host of topics with, including those feats at France 1998, the war in the Balkans and playing with Diego Maradona. Davor, it is exactly 15 years ago that you starred at the FIFA World Cup in France. Do you think about that tournament on a daily basis or is it already a distant memory?
Davor Suker: It might seem distant time-wise, but it’s certainly not that way in my mind or in the memories of Croatian football fans. We made history by finishing third, which is an incredible feat for a country of four million people which had only recently been through war in the Balkans. We’re very proud to have been part of that team. And I’m proud on an individual note too, as I achieved every footballer’s dream of playing at a World Cup and finishing top scorer.

If you had to pick one memory from that competition, what would it be?
The goals! All six that I scored. The last one came against the Netherlands (in a 2-1 win in the match for third place), and the day after that we headed for home. I can remember watching the Final between Brazil and France on TV: at that point I was leading [the scoring chart], but Ronaldo only needed one goal to draw level. I knew that if he didn’t score during those 90 minutes, I’d be on top of the world. But just one goal could have changed everything! And I can’t not mention all those Croatians who travelled to France to support us. They proved that we’re a small but great nation.

Messi and Cristiano are out of this world – they’re so far ahead of the pack. They can be compared with the likes of Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Beckenbauer.

The war will have been very fresh in the minds of that generation of Croatia players. Did that fact help generate a special spirit within the squad?
Of course, for us it was a good opportunity to show what our country was about. Prior to 1998, very few people knew about Croatia. Everyone knew it was a small nation that had previously been part of Yugoslavia, but nothing else. It’s very important, and very difficult, to gain recognition as a country, but I think that we achieved it.

How important can football be to people who’ve been through a situation like that?
Very important. I’m very proud of having played in 1998. Being there wearing your country’s badge, their colours and representing your nation, as well as experiencing the symbiosis that’s generated between the players and fans. Just as some people had fought within our country, there we were, battling it out on the pitch.

Turning to the modern game, and given the goalscoring feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, can strikers still be prolific without being quick?
First and foremost, it has to be said that Messi and Cristiano are out of this world – they’re so far ahead of the pack. They can be compared with the likes of Pele, Maradona, [Johan] Cruyff, [Franz] Beckenbauer – this era belongs to them. As for the others, speed is part of the game but you also need talent, control, footballing intelligence and effectiveness in front of goal. If you don’t have those, you’ll struggle to score.

Is there a striker like you in football nowadays?
I think the one that’s most like me is Karim Benzema, who’s got a real talent for keeping the ball under control. Yes, I’d say he’s the most similar.

You played for clubs in Germany and Spain, two countries that are currently on a high in footballing terms. Could you see this trend emerging even back then?
Yes, absolutely. Germany always invest for the future, which is something we should all learn from them. And as far as Spain are concerned, when I arrived in the '90s they’d started investing in everything: football, basketball, handball, even water polo! The thing is, it’s hard to get results on a short-term basis, as you need ten or 15 years to get results, and who wants to wait so long nowadays? But that’s the key to success.

Diego Maradona is a friend of yours, you were team-mates at Sevilla and you even played in his farewell match. As you know him so well, do you think comparisons with Messi are reasonable?
It’s difficult, as the game changes so much every decade. You remember Pele, Maradona, but how do you compare them? Back then you’d have a couple of cameras filming matches, whereas now you’ll have 24 recording the warm-up! Even so, I think Maradona is better. Messi’s time will come though: he’ll score loads of goals, break even more records, but he needs to win something with Argentina. He’s very young and his time will come – I wish him all the best.

Can you tell us any anecdotes about your time alongside Maradona?
When I was at Sevilla with him, Carlos Bilardo and Diego Simeone, there’d generally be between 3,000 and 5,000 people watching us train. I remember one morning Diego arriving late and in trademark fashion: behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Immediately, all the people watching us disappeared and ran off to mob him in the car park. That shows how popular he was. And there’s another story I like to tell. When I was a kid I used to watch Diego on TV in my room. But suddenly I found myself having breakfast with him, training with him and sharing a dressing room – it was incredible. I just waited for him to speak to me, to say something, and finally one day he called me over. He just said, ‘Davor, I don’t want you looking out wide or anything. Just get your head down and run towards goal and I’ll put the ball in front of you, ready for you to knock it in.’ There aren’t many players in the world who can say something like that, but he was one of them. And if you watch the goals he set up for me with Sevilla, that’s what happened. It’s something that will stay with me forever.

When you see your former Real Madrid team-mate Clarence Seedorf still playing in the Brazilian top flight, does it make you think you could have carried on a bit longer?
I’ll be honest: the issue isn’t just about playing. When you’re a goalscorer you’ve got to keep scoring year in, year out – you’ve got a lot to lose. Midfielders and defenders have got more chance [of having longer careers]. And football’s not just about playing matches, having a Ferrari, a nice watch and meeting pretty women. To succeed you need to train every day. You need a lot of ability, but it’s also a lot of hard work.

In our final question, we’d like to know why you opted to become President of the CFF rather than a coach or an analyst, like many of your former colleagues?
Even if you’re a great goalscorer or the best player in the world, it doesn’t automatically make you a great coach. It’s not something I’m suited to. I haven’t even done any coaching courses. I’m aware that the wages can be good and it’s a good job, but it’s also tough. Especially when you’ve already been in football for 20 years, when you’ve missed out on all those weekends and holidays, without even being able to go to church on Sundays (laughs). And on top of that there’s another change to consider: when you’re a goalscorer you’re always making headlines in the newspapers, but when you’re starting out as a coach you’ve got to get used to being hidden away on the inner pages. Personally speaking, I feel like I can do more for my country’s football this way, thanks to my gift for languages and all the friendships I’ve made in the game. I want to give as much back to football as it’s given to me, and that’s what I’m working towards.

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