Mateo Kovacic and Real Madrid's love of Croatians

Charles Ducksbury recalls five previous Balkans to have donned the famous white shirt, following the signing of their compatriot from Inter...

Mateo Kovacic’s £21 million move from Inter to Real Madrid certainly caught most people out, completed surprisingly rapidly in an era of transfer sagas. Amid endless will he/won’t he stories featuring dozens of players worldwide, nobody had tipped the Croatian to move to Madrid; indeed it was Liverpool being linked with the 21-year-old before he signed for Los Blancos

Kovacic becomes the sixth Croatian to pull on the white shirt (remember that the state only became recognised in 1992), with his predecessors having enjoyed varying degrees of success. At one stage in the 1990s, Madrid became synonymous with signing players from the old Yugoslavia, much like Barcelona’s hoarding of Dutch players under Louis van Gaal, or Inter’s fascination with Argentines in the mid-2000s.

1) Igor Jovicevic (1991-95)

The first Croatian to sign for Real Madrid is a relative unknown. Labelled the ‘new Boban’, Igor Jovicevic trained for Dinamo Zagreb before moving to Madrid for a fee of $1.8m as a fresh-faced 17-year-old back in 1991. He stayed in Real Madrid’s B team under the management of a young Rafa Benitez, but never represented the first team due to a clause owing Dinamo another $3.2m should he ever play a full game. Soon after leaving Madrid, Jovicevic suffered a knee injury and never truly recovered, spending the rest of his career globe-trotting, taking in Brazil, France, Japan and China. As for the more illustrious others...

2) Robert Prosinecki (1991-94)

Robert Prosinecki

Robert Prosinecki also played at Portsmouth for a season in 2001

Perhaps the most famous Croat to play for Madrid is Robert Prosinecki, who joined Los Merengues in the summer of 1991 soon after winning the European Cup with Red Star Belgrade.

His performances alongside team-mates Sinisa Mihajlovic and Darko Pancev made him one of Europe’s standout players, so it was no surprise he headed to Spain for a massive £10m. With Serb Raddy Antic as coach, Prosinecki was expected to lead Madrid after a disappointing third-placed finish in La Liga and surprise elimination to Spartak Moscow in the European Cup.

It was no surprise he headed to Spain for a massive £10m

Injuries limited the playmaker to just three appearances in the first campaign, causing tension with supporters unhappy at the huge price paid for a seemingly crocked player. The following season was a little better, especially after he netted a free-kick against Barcelona, but injuries again restricted his playing time in his final two seasons in the Spanish capital.

Madrid didn’t win the league during his time there, even managing to lose the title on the final day at Tenerife in successive seasons. After stinging criticism from former Real president Ramon Mendoza, the Croatian spent a year on loan at Oviedo before crossing the great divide to sign for Barcelona in 1995.

Reflecting on his spell at Madrid, Prosinecki said: “My time at Madrid could certainly have been better, seeing as people only remember the titles you win. I established myself there at a time when foreign players were limited, and I discovered a different type of football, despite injuries and lost titles.”