Grabovac: "People still call me 'Singaporean' back in Croatia!"

Kenneth Tan caught up with the S.League legend to talk about his best playing memories in Singapore, representing the Lions and the decision to renounce his citizenship back in 2008...

He came, he saw and he conquered. Arriving in Singapore in 1999 at the age of 28, not many could have predicted the kind of impact Mirko Grabovac was about to make on Singapore football.

Team championships and personal accolades – you name it, he won it. Spearheading the attack for the clubs like SAFFC (now Warriors FC) and Tampines Rovers, he won four S.League titles, three Singapore Cups and one ASEAN Club Championship. His list of personal accolades is impressive as well: Five Top Scorer of the Year awards, Player of the Year in 2001 and named S.League Player of the Decade (1996-2005) in 2005.

Scoring goals was Grabovac's forte, with a 244 total making him as the second-highest goalscorer in the S.League till today.  The only blemish perhaps was his failure to score a competitive goal in 12 appearances for the Singapore national team after taking up citizenship in 2002.

The 43-year-old duly left for his native Croatia in late 2008, renouncing his citizenship in the process. Hanging up his boots after 20-odd years of professional football, Grabovac has now moved into coaching.

Recently he was back in the Lion City as a guest for the 2015 RHB Singapore Cup draw and FourFourTwo caught up with him at the Peninsula Excelsior Hotel, where he was staying.

Welcome back, Mirko! How does it feel to be in Singapore once again?

It feels really good! This is the second time I have come back here – the first time was in 2012 when the Warriors invited me back. A lot of memories for me, especially on Friday night when I watched two of the best clubs play (Tampines Rovers and Warriors FC), which also happens to be two clubs which I’ve played for. It’s a special feeling because I come to the game, see so many people who still remember me and come over to wish me well. I’m really surprised they still remember me after seven years.

I had a really nice time in Singapore. Over the last few years, I kept in touch with many friends in Singapore and some of them even came to Spilt to visit me as well. Now I'm back, I don’t feel any different – I still feel like a Singaporean. I know where to go in Singapore and people still call me ‘Singaporean’ back in Croatia!

How’s life after retirement treating you?

I coached HNK Imotski in the Croatian second division for three and a half years and now I’m I've been at HNK Mosor for about three years now. We’re fighting for first position in the third division, which is surprising because we are considered a small club. There's a big difference between being a player and a coach. Last time I only think about me and my own condition, but now I have to think for 25 to 30 people.

Actually I have some problem with my boss now because I told him about this trip to Singapore and he’s not happy about it! Two days before I left for Singapore, he told me not to go but I told him not to worry, I’ll be back in four days’ time. Now he’s angry with me because there’s speculation that I have come here to take [a job at another] club, but I’m just here to enjoy a few days with my friends. Now all the papers in Croatia are writing about this.

We just have to go back a little in time... What made you choose to come to Singapore in 1999 at the age of 28?

I have played professional football since the age of 18 and I always had offers. There were some coming from Austria, but the clubs thought it was too expensive to pay me; there was one Italian Serie B club, another club in Chile and also in the Croatian first division, but I had heard many good thing about Singapore. Everyone who comes to this country say that it is beautiful so I decided to choose Singapore. In the end, I made a good career in Singapore and everyone back in Croatia was really happy for me.

You achieved so much success in your time here. What are some of your favourite memories? 

There were so many good moments on the field for me and I cannot choose a particular one. The first special moment for me was my first trophy in Singapore – the 1999 Singapore Cup when we beat Jurong FC 3-1 in front of around 30,000 fans at the old National Stadium – Sundram (V.Sundramoorthy) was still playing at that time and it was a really nice feeling.

The second one was playing against Liverpool with the national team. We lost the game 2-0, but it was a nice experience. I remember playing against (Emile) Heskey, (Igor) Biscan and especially (Jamie) Carragher whom had some problems dealing with me; I dribbled past him two or three times!

It was also special to play against Japan in 2004 in the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the one in which Indra Sahdan scored. I played against players like (Hidetoshi) Nakata and many of those from that squad went on to draw 0-0 against Croatia at that World Cup. I’ve a few friends in the Croatian national team and they were shocked when I told them I played against these players before.

Not forgetting the S.League title with Tampines Rovers in 2004 because they did not win anything before that and most of the people thought I was too old (to achieve something like that) after I left Warriors. I was really lucky because I had so many good teammates around. 

You found the net consistently during your time in Singapore, scoring almost 20 goals every season. What’s the secret to being so deadly in front of goal? 

I was in Hadjuk Spilt as a youth player and that was like the second best football school in Europe, after Ajax. I learnt from the best coaches there and I scored about 50 to 60 goals for them.                   When I was around 18 to 19, I was the best player at some tournament in Hadjuk. My secret is that I feel that I can dribble past anyone, you can see from the way I play. I remember before my first game in Singapore, some of the opposition players were saying they could handle this old Croatian player and can beat us, but we tore them apart 6-0 and I scored two goals.