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Dejan Lovren interview: "When Croatia went into extra time against England in the semi-final, we felt more powerful"

Dejan Lovren, Croatia
(Image credit: Getty)

This interview with Dejan Lovren first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now!

When England and Croatia take to the field at Wembley for their first match at Euro 2020, thoughts will inevitably return to one place: that balmy night three summers ago, when the Three Lions’ World Cup hopes melted in Moscow.  

Both countries have met so often on big occasions that the fixture has become something of an international rivalry over the years – this will be their 10th meeting since 2003. But the biggest of all came in that almighty semi-final, won 2-1 by Zlatko Dalic’s side after extra time. 

Dejan Lovren will always remember that monumental night. For him and his country, it meant a maiden World Cup final, having been heartbroken by hosts France in 1998’s last four. Les Bleus would strike again in Russia, but it hardly diminished Croatia’s gutsy achievements. 

This summer, the Zenit Saint Petersburg centre-back is ready to go against Gareth Southgate’s men once more, conscious of how Croatia’s past struggles have forged this resilient generation of players. In a revealing interview with FFT, Lovren talks Euro 2020, but also opens up about life fleeing war and, more recently, helping stricken families back home recover from a tragic earthquake he experienced first-hand. This is the stopper like you’ve never seen him before… 

How did you turn that 2018 World Cup semi-final in your favour?
England could have scored more in the first half, but then we made it 1-1 at the right moment. When we went into extra time, we felt more powerful. We were actually more fatigued than them because we had gone to penalties against Denmark and Russia, but we just felt so powerful on the pitch – it was unbelievable to see how much we were running. 

Beating England meant you could play in the biggest match football has to offer...
Everyone was saying, “This generation has much more quality than previous ones – in 1998 they went to the World Cup and finished third, so why don’t they go further now?” After 20 years, we got there feeling like, ‘Wow, we made it’. In the final it didn’t happen for us, but playing that game has been the highlight of my career. There aren’t many players who’ve been lucky enough to do that – even a lot of top ones.

Do you think Croatia could do something similar at Euro 2020?
We do have that feeling – but we’ll definitely miss players like Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic. We still have a hugely talented squad with loads of energy, but they need to prove themselves, especially in these tournaments. It’s on us, the older ones, to push them a bit more, then hopefully we can have a good mix between the generations.

Dejan Lovren, Croatia

(Image credit: PA)

Can Croatia win the tournament, then?
Look, our primary focus is to get through the group. Do we have the capacity to do that? Yes, because we have the talent. If we click and have the right mood and atmosphere among us, then I think anything can happen.

You’ve been part of many strong squads since your debut in 2009. What would you say are Croatia’s special qualities?
We play with the heart – it’s what we have. We know what it means to struggle. When everyone is together, we’re fully focused on the pitch. Trust me, it’s really difficult to play against us. If you’re 100 per cent on top of things, then one key moment can be decisive. If you’re lucky and brave enough to take this crucial moment, then everything is possible. 

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If there’s one England expert within Croatia’s ranks, it’s Lovren. He spent seven seasons in Blighty, having joined Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton from Lyon in June 2013 and become a Liverpool player for £20 million just a year later. At Anfield, he was part of a Reds team that blossomed under Jurgen Klopp and eventually conquered Europe, though many on Merseyside remember him best for his last-gasp clincher at home to Borussia Dortmund in the 2015-16 Europa League quarter-finals. 

The 31-year-old started all but one game as Liverpool reached the 2018 Champions League Final, before falling down the pecking order and calling time on his Reds career to join Zenit in 2020, after 185 appearances. 

Let’s just say he wasn’t the one with any regrets in the end, however… 

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When you look back on your career with Liverpool, was there a key moment?
[Thinks for a while] Hmm… let’s say when Klopp took me off after half an hour against Spurs, when we were 2-1 down [in October 2017]. I was shocked, but that moment was decisive for me to change something in my mind and work even harder. From then, I was flying until the end of my stay at Liverpool. After that, of course, the [two] trophies we won were big achievements. There’s always something that ignites a little fire and that’s when Liverpool’s started burning. Nobody else would see that, but I’m looking at it from my way. From that moment on – and even Klopp knows it – I started to play well.

Describe your relationship with Klopp.
We had really fair communication. Naturally, he was the manager and I was the player who should deliver what he was saying, so sometimes we didn’t have talks in the best mood – especially when I had an injury and he wanted me. But we said goodbye to each other as friends. We said that whatever we needed, we could phone each other. It was a very good, open talk. Sometimes we still chat. Once, he said that he was missing me in the team... but I didn’t reply. [Laughs]

You moved to Zenit six years to the day after joining Liverpool. You wear the No.6 shirt and won Liverpool’s sixth European Cup. So, what’s in a number?!
I believe in destiny – like what is written for you will happen. I believe it was meant to be to leave Liverpool last summer. I was also close to leaving the season before, but it just wasn’t meant to happen. I’m so happy now here at Zenit. [FFT: Before, there was talk of Roma…] Yeah, I had some negotiations with them – I can’t go into the details – but it was pretty close. In the end, I decided to stay.

Do you have regrets about leaving Anfield? You’d have played a lot this season, given their injury problems...
No, man. Trust me, I’m not that type of guy. I made a decision because I felt it like that, and I don’t look backwards. Even mistakes in my career – situations like, ‘I should have done this or that’ are mistakes with a reason. They are what made me in life. But leaving Liverpool was definitely not a mistake – I’ve already won two trophies in my first season [the Russian Super Cup and Premier League] so I can only be proud.

You were made Zenit captain soon after you signed, then led them to a club-record third consecutive league crown. How does it feel after your past successes?
Amazing, and to do it as the captain makes for a special feeling. I’m extremely proud of the team, because we had to cope with a lot of tough circumstances like coronavirus and injuries. Hopefully we can make even more history in the years to come.

How has it been for you on a personal level in Saint Petersburg?
I’m happy, that’s the first thing. I came here with plenty of energy and had the fortune to win a trophy [the Super Cup] in my first week at the club. After that we had ups and downs, although in the league we’ve constantly been around first place. Of course, it’s not like the level of the Premier League, but it’s still quite tough when you play at Rubin Kazan in late February, -10C on a sandy pitch. That’s when you know you love the game! 

Dejan Lovren, Zenit

(Image credit: PA)

What’s your Russian like?
I understand quite a lot, even from the start when I arrived. I’m still a little shy, although sometimes I don’t care if I say something wrong! At least I’m trying and they know it. But there aren’t any difficulties, as there are some players here who speak French, some German, some English, some Croatian – it’s perfect. I can talk to anyone in any language. 

Something else that’s different is the winter break in Russia. How did you find that as an experience?
First, it was a shock for my body to have a month off. I was like, ‘What is this?!’ My body was kind of shaking, like I needed a Boxing Day in December to play four games in seven days. [Laughs] It was the first time in something like 12 years that I’d had a month’s break, but in the end it was nice.

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Lovren’s ‘break’ turned out very different to how he had first envisaged. Soon after going home to Croatia, his country was rocked by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake which killed seven people and left thousands homeless. Having endured those shocks first-hand – in one of a dozen nations to do so, according to local coverage – the ex-Dinamo Zagreb centre-back stepped forward to help victims personally, offering shelter to the hardest-hit families in his Novalja hotel. 

Lovren, a refugee when he was only three years old after fleeing the former Yugoslavia for Germany in 1992 to escape the Bosnian War, felt their plight keenly. Seven years later, without the necessary documentation to remain in Germany, his family were forced to move on again and ended up in Croatia. Everything he does in life, he now admits, is shaped by those experiences.

Can you remember where you were when the earthquake happened?
I was on the motorway with my father and son. At one point, my father said that he felt something shake. I was like, “It’s the car, I don’t know…” A second later, I received about 10 messages with people asking me, “Is everything OK? Are you all fine?” I had no idea what was going on. My wife had stayed at home with our daughter, and she told me how everyone had suddenly rushed outside – about a million people in Zagreb all on the streets, waiting until the earthquake had finished. It was really, really scary. I tried to get home from the motorway immediately, but it took me an hour and a half to make a 15-minute journey. Everyone was rushing out of Zagreb in a huge panic. My wife and daughter stayed outside for a couple of hours because nobody wanted to go inside. All the phone lines were dead, so it was a disaster. In the end, we heard that Zagreb wasn’t even the epicentre – smaller towns such as Glina and Sisak were hit heavily. Something like 50,000 people were left without homes.

What did you do next?
My wife and I visited our family-owned hotel and helped out a lot of people there. It’s on an island, but connected to the mainland by a bridge. People just wanted to go away, and we could offer accommodation to five or six families who stayed.

For sure I’ve experienced flashbacks at certain moments in my life about what happened to me during my childhood. It’s maybe a fear of insecurity

Dejan Lovren, on life as a refugee

What sort of things were you doing there on a daily basis?
I stayed there with my family, and we had some volunteers who assisted us too – chefs in the kitchen, for example. We were serving food to people every single day; my father, uncle and I washed the plates after lunch and dinner, cleaning the floors, making beds. It was such a good experience in that way.

It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it fulfilled my heart. At least the families had a peaceful time, although it was also difficult for them. We had one family, for example, where the wife was in her eighth month of pregnancy. It was crazy, and the overall situation in the country has been a complete disaster. It was the second earthquake – another large one happened earlier in 2020, and this year there have been several smaller ones as well. The families in my hotel have left now because they’ve found secure places to live, but many of them won’t return to their cities.

How did that terrible situation remind you of your own youth, when you were forced to leave home twice?

This is why I did it, because I know how it is not to have this kind of security in your life. You know, God gave me something and I’ve always believed it’s my duty to give back in the right way. It’s tough to explain, but for sure I’ve experienced flashbacks at certain moments in my life about what happened to me during my childhood. It’s maybe a fear of insecurity, or the fear of not being able to pay the bills for the next day... or something like that. We struggled, especially when we came to Croatia – it was really difficult in the beginning for my mother and father to find jobs. Many of these scars are left inside me, and they are what made me the man I am.

I know what I need and want, and have this willpower, even though I have everything now. I still want to show to everyone thatI can do it, no matter what that is – football or something more personal. If you can get through these struggles, you’ll be a monster in life. There are a lot of players who’ve had to go through bad moments, but that’s why they eventually succeed.

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