Welcome to a continuation on the regular series on The 94th Minute, called “Starting XI”. This is where I ask various people, who are fans of football, a number of questions to get to know them better! The first few questions will differ for each person, but the final question will always be:
“Who would be in your all-time, favourite starting XI?”
This is a question where anyone can be put into their starting eleven, whether they are famous footballers, football legends, past or unknown players who had an impact on their childhood, or even players they have played with or coached. Anyone is acceptable in their XI providing they give a reason for their inclusion!
The eighteenth instalment of the series is with K League United‘s, Jeju United and Asan Mugunghwa columnist, Branko Belan. He is a journalist, published author, educator and amateur photographer, who is based on the South Korean island of Jeju, and is also an expert on Croatian football as well as football happening on Jeju. I wanted to know more about how Jeju United’s season is going in K League 1, what is happening with the football in his native Croatia, how the national team has been playing since their World Cup 2018 heroics, and finally his all-time favourite eleven players.
To read Branko’s latest piece on the K League United website, where he previewed Jeju United versus Incheon United, it can be found below:
Q. Thank you for being part of Starting XI. Firstly as K League United’s correspondent on Jeju United (as well as a fan of them), how would you describe the Islanders’ season this year, and the possible reasons behind it?
Jeju’s season has been a complete disaster. The problems began right from the end of last season when it was announced that Jeju would keep Cho Sung-hwan as manager following their top six finish despite enduring a fifteen match win-less streak midway through the season. Cho stayed on for the first nine matches this year and the team opened win-less in nine before a change was made.
Choi Yun-kyum hasn’t done much better. The team is very much looking like relegation material at this point despite having their next two matches at home. They are poor defensively and have dropped points from winning positions too often this season to warrant them staying in the top flight next year. Poor management has also played a role – too much rotation with the starting eleven, too often a shift in tactics, poor selections all around. Players have not been used effectively. On paper, this is an AFC Champions League quality side, but they have been so poorly coached that it wouldn’t surprise me to see at least half of them go at the end of the season.
Q. During your tenure as Jeju United writer, what has been the best game you have watched?
There are not too many matches to choose from, but there are two which come to mind, the first being a 4-2 win over Incheon United last April and a 1-0 win over FC Seoul last October to clinch the top six.
In the match against Incheon, an own goal from Lee Yun-pyo opened the scoring on twenty minutes for Jeju and Kim Hyun-wook doubled the advantage fourteen minutes later. Moon Seon-min would cut the deficit in half before the break, but Tiago Marques and Lee Chang-min added two more in the second half, with the latter scoring in injury time after Stefan Mugosa pulled back a goal to make it 3-2 with only six minutes left on the clock.
Tiago clinched the win against Seoul with a goal inside the final ten minutes and Jeju managed to hold on for the win.
Q. Where would you say is the best ground or place you have visited in South Korea for football, and is there a ground you would love to visit in the future?
The best stadium to watch football is definitely Daegu. A brand new stadium, specifically built for football with a capacity of 12,000 but that can be bumped up to 18,000. I went to two matches there this season, when they played Jeju and won, and also their first match against Pohang Steelers in April when the visitors were reduced to ten men and beaten handily by a count of 3-0. Watching the likes of Cesinha, Edgar, Kim Dae-won and Jo Hyun-woo up close was a real treat. Other stadiums visited include Musnu in Ulsan, the World Cup Stadium in Seoul and the Gudeok in Busan.
As for a ground that I would like to visit in the future, it would be the World Cup Stadium in Jeonju. Jeonbuk have played a very entertaining style of football for a number of years, and are always a fixture in Asian club competitions, so, providing the timing is right, it is definitely a ground I would like to visit in the future. Yi Sun Shin Stadium is also on the list, as I would like to watch Asan play at home providing they can successfully transform into a citizen club starting next year.
Q. Switching to Croatia, where do you think are the best places or grounds to watch football there?
That’s an easy one to answer. The Maksimir in Zagreb where Dinamo Zagreb plays is also home to most of the national team’s qualifiers. With Dinamo looking good to progress in the Champions League, providing they can beat Shakhtar Donetsk at home on Matchday Four, it’s sure to be a packed house. Support for the national team is peaking again since the World Cup success last year under Zlatko Dalic in Russia, so it is not an easy place for opposing teams to play. There was a time over about a period of a decade when the national team went undefeated at home and it’s starting to feel like that again. Croatian fans are some of the most passionate in the world, and they are not shy to throw their support behind the “Vatreni”.
A second ground is the Poljud in Split, home to Hajduk, Croatia’s second biggest club. It is also home to the oldest fan chapter in Europe, the Torcida, who go all the way back to 1950. They are some of the most fervent fans in Europe, and with the club doing much better this year in comparison to recent years when they struggled quite badly, the “Eternal Derby” is meaningful again, and that’s what everyone wants. Hajduk won the first match between the two in Split earlier in the season with both teams seeing red before the end of the match.
Q. How do you think the Croatian league season is going so far, as well as their performances in European competitions?
Dinamo and Hajduk are the top two right now and separated by only a point, with NK Rijeka in third on 22 points, so it could be a three horse race for the title this season, which would be great. But the main thing is that the country’s two biggest clubs are really having a go at it this season, and I would love nothing more than to see it go down to the wire. It has been ages since Hajduk won the league title, and with their current form, they might just have a shot this year.
Dinamo is the only Croatian side in Europe this year, and they have been doing well. They currently sit second in Group C and if they can manage to win the return fixture against the Ukrainians, they will have assured themselves a place in Europe in the spring, be it in the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League or the Round of 32 in the Europa League if they do fall to third.
Nenad Bjelica is a really great coach for this group, and they’ve really started to play an attractive, attacking style of football that is turning some heads even outside of Croatia. Former Ulsan Hyundai man Mislav Orsic is in the form of his life right now, earning him his first ever call-ups to the national team as a result. He’s really enjoying his football right now, and for him to play for Dinamo is a dream he always had and I’m thrilled to see him taking such good advantage of the opportunity.
Q. Who do you think are the next big Croatian players? Which players should we be keeping an eye out for in the future?
Josip Brekalo has already served notice to everyone in the Bundesliga thanks to his performances for VfL Wolfsburg. He’s already been capped with Croatia, and it won’t be too long before he becomes a regular for the senior side. He plays with tenacity and has really good pace and a good offensive mind.
Borna Barisic who plays under Steven Gerrard at Rangers is another guy who is really starting to come into his own. A really good option at left back, he just has to keep working on his game – a solid, tough defender who can even score a goal or two.
Dominik Livakovic is a regular for Dinamo Zagreb, and has also taken on the number one duties for Croatia recently. He’s a really good shot stopper and his positioning and reflexes are also quite strong. He has great size for a goalkeeper and his length makes him hard to beat between the sticks. He will be Croatia’s number one for years to come.
One player in particular who we are all excited about is Nikola Vlasic, who plays for CSKA Moscow at the moment. He has “star” written all over him. He has just recently seen more action under Zlatko Dalic for the national team, and many think he is more than capable to be a starter right now. If he manages to avoid injuries, he will have a stellar career ahead of him.
Q. How do you think the Croatian national team are getting on in their Euro 2020 qualifying group? Are you confident that they can qualify and have a good tournament next year?
We have one qualifier left against Slovakia at home, so it should be a win and three points, but Croatia have been known to slip up, like they did against the likes of Hungary and Azerbaijan. They have played some big matches as well, defeating Slovakia 4-0 in Bratislava and Hungary 3-0 in Split, and it would be nice to see them have another good run out to close out matters and secure automatic qualification. The playoffs are not a sure thing, so they need to get a result at home, preferably three points.
As to whether they can have a good tournament next year, that will be determined by a number of factors, such as form, fitness and of course, the draw. If they can manage those things well enough, maybe they will be able to go on another run like the one they had in Russia last year. They certainly have enough quality talent to make a run, but they also have to ensure that their psychological preparation is on the same level.
Q. How big an achievement was reaching the World Cup final for Croatia, and what impact has it had on Croatian football in general? Has there been a positive or negative reaction from it?
It’s all been positive for the most part. Reaching the final was a monumental achievement, and something the players and all of us to be honest will never forget. Croatian footballers have been sought after for years, and our guys are always playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world. That isn’t going to change any time soon. Dinamo Zagreb has one of the best football academies in the world, and has produced some marquee talent, with Luka Modric being the prime example.
I still have that injury-time winner by Mario Mandzukic to beat England in the semis on replay in my brain. It’s still unbelievable to this day that it actually happened. I still think the generation we had in 1998 is better, but what this group achieved in becoming the smallest country to play in a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950, it’s an immense sense of pride and something I will cherish for the rest of my life. I just hope we won’t have to wait another twenty years for it to happen again.
Q. Being a small country, in terms of population, how important is the national football team for everyone in Croatia?
There is no question that the national team is a great source of pride for everyone in Croatia. However, for a very long time, it was also a great sense of frustration, as it took twenty years between appearances in the knockout stages at the World Cup. Consequently, Croatia finished amongst the best on both occasions, third in 1998 and runners-up last year.
Making the quarter-finals at their first ever EURO in 1996, in England, was also seen as a major achievement seeing as it was Croatia’s first ever international tournament, but again, it took twelve years to reach that stage again, only to be left heartbroken following a penalty shootout loss to Turkey after conceding an equaliser after it looked as though they were set to advance having scored very late in extra time through Ivan Klasnic.
When the team is playing well, everyone is happy, but when they are not, Croatia is famous for having four million managers in the country, equal to its population. Everyone has an opinion, and is not afraid to voice it. The November squad list was just recently released for the final qualifier against Slovakia, and you can be sure that there was some criticism regarding a few of the selections. They may only need a draw to seal qualification, but with the final match being at home, anything less than a victory would be considered unacceptable.
Q. Finally, who would be in your all-time, favourite starting eleven, and the reasons for your picks?
All-Time Croatia Starting XI (Formation: 4-2-3-1)
Goalkeeper: Drazen Ladic
Ladic was an iconic ‘keeper for the national team and was part of their earliest successes. He was guilty of a howler or two during his national team career, but came up big in a lot of tournament matches and later became part of the coaching fabric of former internationals looking to develop future generations of Croatian footballers. He is perhaps most remembered for his performances against Germany and the Netherlands at France ’98.
Defence: Darijo Srna, Robert Kovac, Slaven Bilic, Robert Jarni
It is difficult to choose a better back four based on the talent that Croatia has had at the back through the years.
Darijo Srna – Was captain of Croatia for a number of years and is also a member of Croatia’s century club. He also had a successful club career, mostly with Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine, who he captained to the UEFA Cup in 2009.
Robert Kovac – One of the best centre backs Croatia has ever produced. Capped 84 times over the span of a decade, he played in two World Cups in 2002 and 2006 and two European Championships in 2004 and 2008. He went on to become a coach with his brother Niko, both for the Croatian national team and now currently at Bayern Munich.
Slaven Bilic – He can be considered somewhat of a cult figure not only in Croatian football but also in terms of club football. He was perhaps the most sturdy defender Croatia had in its early years, and was always a fan favourite for his tough style of play and overall character. He very much embodied the sort of rock star image the team developed under coach Miroslav Blazevic, at least where the defenders were concerned, and went on to also become coach of the national team in 2006, leading Croatia to the quarter-finals at EURO 2008.
Robert Jarni – Jarni was one of the most influential players for Croatia ever. Capped more than eighty times for the national team, he is best remembered for his bombing runs on the left flank from the fullback position and will forever be etched into Croatian football lore for the sublime strike he put past German ‘keeper Andreas Köpke in the quarter-final match against Germany which Croatia would eventually win 3-0. He later went on to become a coach in the youth ranks of the national team.
Midfield: Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Zvonimir Boban, Niko Kovac, Robert Prosinecki
Luka Modric – He is a household name in world football today. He made his debut for the national team back in 2006 in a friendly against Argentina in Switzerland which Croatia won 3-2 and it was immediately known what sort of talent he would become. As captain, he led Croatia to a runners-up finish at last year’s World Cup in Russia and scooped up every possible award including the Ballon d’Or for his performances not only for the national team but also for Real Madrid, as he was an integral part of their third consecutive Champions League triumph.
Ivan Rakitic – Rakitic has been a key member of Croatia’s national team for the past twelve years. He is also one of Croatia’s century contingent, scoring fifteen goals over that time. He has played in three EURO tournaments as well as two World Cups, and was instrumental in the run to the finals in Russia, converting two critical penalties, first against Denmark, then against Russia to seal both shootouts and progress to the next round. He has also been a key factor in FC Barcelona’s success through the years, winning numerous league and cup titles, as well as the Champions League in 2015.
Zvonimir Boban – Croatia’s first ever captain. One of the most skilled midfielders of his time, he had a vision to see play developing on the pitch, knew how to make a pass to create space and chances for his teammates, and played with a tenacity which made him one of the best players on the old continent in the last decade of the 20th century. He scored his only tournament goal for Croatia at EURO ‘96, helping Croatia defeat then defending champions Denmark 3-0 in the group stage, to this day, one of the greatest matches the national team has ever played. He spent the best part of his club career with AC Milan during their dominant run in the 1990’s.
Niko Kovac – One of Croatia’s captains during his time with the national team, he became known for his work ethic and leadership. One of Croatia’s most capped players, he went on to become manager of the national team following his playing career, leading Croatia to an appearance at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He is the current coach at Bayern Munich and last season became the only man in German football history to capture both the league and cup double as a player and manager, all the while doing it with the same team.
Robert Prosinecki – Prosinecki was both one of the most talented and most controversial players to play for the national team owing to his rift with manager Miroslav Blazevic, but he was one of the most technically gifted players in the world in the late 20th century. He still remains the only player in World Cup history to score for two countries, and became a part of Croatian football history by scoring one of their three goals in their opening match against Jamaica in France. He added a second goal to his credit by scoring in the third place final against the Netherlands. He has since gone into coaching, first being a member of Slaven Bilic’s coaching staff during the defender’s tenure, then with Azerbaijan and now Bosnia-Herzegovina. He has also held various club positions as well.
Forward: Davor Suker
Suker was named in the FIFA 100 for the 20th century, scoring 45 goals for Croatia in 69 appearances for the national team. He won the Golden Boot as top scorer at France ‘98, scoring against Jamaica, Japan, Romania, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. He was a top notch striker in his day, and also won the Champions League with Real Madrid in 1998.
Branko’s All-Time Favorite Starting XI (Formation: 4-3-3)
Goalkeeper: Oliver Kahn
Arguably the best German goalkeeper ever. Won EURO in 1996 and was a silver and bronze medallist at the World Cup in Korea/Japan and Germany and was a top three finalist for the Ballon D’Or in consecutive years. Also a seven-time Bundesliga goalkeeper of the year.
Defence: Cafu, Franz Beckenbauer, Paolo Maldini & Roberto Carlos
Cafu – One of the best fullbacks ever to play the game. He was a habitual champion wherever he played, but his two World Cups and two Copa America titles for Brazil are what stand out the most. He was known for his pace, agility and ability to make overlapping runs on the right flank which made him one of the most dangerous players ever to play the position.
Franz Beckenbauer – One of only three men in World Cup history to win both as a player (1974) and as a manager (1990). He invented the role of the sweeper, giving a new dimension to defenders moving forward in attack. Also a two-time European Footballer of the Year, named to the Best XI of the 20th century, and member of the World Cup Dream Team in 2002.
Paolo Maldini – The most complete defender Italy has ever had. He spent his entire playing career with AC Milan spanning twenty-five years, winning the Champions League five times. Renowned for his leadership qualities, “Il Capitano” even had his number retired by the club after his playing days were done.
Roberto Carlos – A relentless power runner who had some of the best technical ability at the full-back position. He was one of the most lethal free kick takers the game has ever seen. A World Cup champion in 2002, and runner-up for the Player of the Year in 1997. Also a distinguished member of Brazil’s century club.
Defensive midfield: Lothar Matthäus
He captained West Germany to World Cup victory in 1990, and was the best player in the world at the beginning of that decade. A seven-time Bundesliga champion with Bayern Munich, he is also a member of their all-time starting eleven. He played for Germany a total of 150 times in his career.
Attacking midfield: Johan Cruyff & Diego Maradona
Johan Cruyff – A three-time Ballon d’Or winner, he was one of the greatest players of his generation, not only technically, but also artistically gifted on the ball. He helped revolutionise “Total Football” and his contributions to the game are emulated to the present day.
Diego Maradona – He was the best player to play for Argentina at the international level. Had an illustrious career and was widely regarded for his skill on the ball. A powerful runner who was equally adept from dead ball situations. All of those things in combination led to one of the most memorable World Cup runs which ended in victory for him and his countrymen in 1986.
Forwards: Pelé, Cristiano Ronaldo & Ronaldo
Pelé – The greatest ever to play football. A winner of three World Cups, and one of the most prolific goal scorers the game has ever seen. His attacking prowess was second to none, and he is widely regarded as one of the game’s greatest pioneers. His combination of speed, technique and ability to see the field made him a constant threat when he was on the pitch. He was named ‘Football Player of the Century’ in 1999 and scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 career matches across all competitions.
Cristiano Ronaldo – Arguably the best player in the world right now. His club success was finally matched when he led Portugal to EURO 2016 glory. Before his move to Juventus, he capped off the Real Madrid chapter of his career with three consecutive UEFA Champions League triumphs. He is capable of playing anywhere in attack, and is currently the top goal scorer in UCL and EURO history, having scored over 700 goals for club and country overall.
Ronaldo – He was a compulsive goal scorer throughout his career and ranks second in Brazil history with 62 goals. His ability to create space for himself in the box led to several of his goals, and he had the privilege of playing for some of the world’s top clubs such as Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, and AC Milan. He won two World Cups (although he didn’t play in 1994) and won the Golden Boot with eight goals en route to beating Germany 2-0 in the final in 2002.
A massive thank you to Branko for answering my questions on Jeju United and Croatian football, and being a brilliant guest on the Starting XI series! I loved both of the teams he has produced, with his all-time Vatreni eleven bringing back so many great memories of that superb Croatian team of France ’98. I absolutely loved that team! Plus his all-time, favourite eleven players is just pure quality – that front five would be simply unstoppable!! If you parked the bus, they would smash it down!
To find out more about Branko, the links to his social media accounts can be found below:
To read or catch up on the previous Starting XI episodes, they can all be found at the following link HERE.
If there you have any feedback, comments or suggestions who I should interview next in the series, let me know either below in the comments box, tweet me @The94thMin or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! It would be good to hear what you think about the series, and what have been your favourite episodes so far!