JOSIP SKOBLAR: L'AIGLE DALMATE

JOSIP SKOBLAR: L'AIGLE DALMATE

Even in French households where football is not of any importance, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is now a household name. The giant striker has dominated Ligue 1 since his arrival two years ago, breaking goal-scoring records and capturing the imagination of the French public with his charismatic, enigmatic persona. Despite his advancing years, 'Ibra' is frequently touted as the best French footballing import of all time, and often tops polls seeking to identify the most talented foreigner footballer the country has ever seen.

Other front-runners in such debates are the incredibly gifted Brazilian Juninho Pernambucano, forever worshipped by Lyon fans, and Liberian striker George Weah, the only Ligue 1 player to win the Ballon d'Or award. Like Ibrahimovic, Juninho and Weah both had tremendous careers outside France; Juninho played over a hundred games for Vasco de Gama before joining Les Gones, while George Weah is most famously remembered in the black and red of AC Milan.

Safet Susic was awarded the honour of being the best foreign player of all time in Ligue 1 by French  football magazine France Football . However, ask those with a few more decades' experience of watching French football and one name will crop up again and again. Time after time, often said with a reminiscent grin, the player named will be l'Aigle Dalmate: the Dalmation Eagle, Croatian Josip Skoblar.

Josip Skoblar, often remembered by Olympique Marseille fans simply as Monsieur Goal, played for L'OM in the 1960's and 70's. As his nickname suggests, he was a forward, capable of operating on either flank as well as through the centre as the focal point of the attack. He was comfortable on either foot, had a great turn of pace, and was ferociously powerful, but is principally remembered for one thing: hitting the back of the net.

Skoblar began his career in his native Croatia, joining local side NZ Zadar in 1957 at the age of just sixteen. The club was situated not far from his birthplace, the small town of Privlaka. Skoblar was not there for long however, leaving just before the turn of the decade to join OFK Beograd. Rather than being scouted by Beograd, Skoblar was spotted by the club's keeper Perica Radenkovic while he was serving army service in Zadar.

Radenkovic praised Skoblar to his club on his return from Zadar, particularly highlighting the young Croatian's physical strength and fitness, as well as his sharp eye for goal. Skoblar joined Beograd in 1959 and developed into the fearsome attacking force that swept him into French football record books. He scored 63 goals in 162 games for Beograd, leaving the club in 1966 to move west to Germany and Hannover 96.

Die Roten immediately whisked Skoblar away on loan, moving him further west to France, and Olympique Marseille. L'OM were stuck in the longest trophy drought in the history of the club; they had last lifted silverware in 1948. Skoblar arrived part-way through the 1966/1967 season and immediately settled into his surroundings. His first ever goal for L'OM came against Valenciennes in the December of 1966, and he went on to net 13 goals in 15 games before departing back to Germany. In his half-season cameo he netted nearly a goal a game and fired a warning shot to French Division 1 defenders. It was almost as if he was a military scout; scoping out the weaknesses in opponents, working out the opportunities for success, and then retreating to prepare for battle.

Skoblar was similarly prolific on his return to Hannover, scoring at a better ratio than a goal every other game, finding the net 30 times in 57 matches. His time with Hannover was short however, as Marseille came calling again during the season of 1969/1970, this time looking to secure his services for good.

So began a tug of war between the clubs. Hannover desperately wanted to keep Skoblar but Marseille were the greater footballing power and, when L'OM chairman Marcel Leclerc personally travelled to Germany in a bid to secure the Croatian services, there was only ever going to be one destination for Skoblar. Rumour has it that Leclerc was so determined to sign Skoblar that although he travelled out to Hannover alone, he brought with him two tickets for the return journey; one for himself, one for Monsieur Goal.

Marseille had endured a torrid couple of decades, stranded in a trophyless wilderness while Monaco, Reims and, most recently, Saint-Etienne lifted numerous league titles. The season Skoblar arrived, 1969/1970, Les Verts won the league for the fourth time in a row but, for the first time since 1948, Marseille finished in the top two. Again, Skoblar only played part of the season and again scored 13 goals. Another warning shot.

Before the 1970/1971 season began, Skoblar was already a favourite among the Marseille fans. By the end of the campaign he was a hero. In a season of unprecedented glory for L'OM, Skoblar plundered a record 44 goals in the league, a feat that has yet to be bettered to this day, despite what Zlatan Ibrahimovic's PR representatives would like you to think.

From the opening day of the campaign Skoblar was influential to L'OM's success. Leading away to Nantes thanks to a Charly Loubet goal, they were pegged back to 1-1 with fifteen minutes remaining. Step forward Skoblar, who drilled home in the final five minutes to hand Marseille the victory. Thus a pattern was established, as Skoblar continued to score vital goals throughout the campaign. Despite a defeat and a draw in their two matches against Saint-Etienne, Skoblar's goals ensured Marseille were the more consistent side over the course of the campaign, and a wonderful hat-trick on the final day of the season handed L'OM, and Skoblar the title. Grainy photos show Skoblar after the match, wearily clutching the match ball as his side celebrated their first title in over twenty years.

Not only was Skoblar a prodigious individual talent, he was also a fine team player, and his partnership with Swedish forward Roger Magnusson was hailed as the best in European football. They are often pictured smiling together in their white shirts with red and blue trim, emblazoned with the word BUT in capital letters across the front. BUT  indeed. Together, Magnusson and Skoblar scored nearly 200 goals for the club during the seventies.

Marseille were back at the top of French football. Marcel Leclerc was hailed as a visionary, while Skoblar was the talisman of the team. A second consecutive title followed, with closest challengers Nimes Olympique five points behind. Saint-Etienne dropped down to sixth, and Skoblar thrashed home 30 goals. Not content with retaining the league title, Marseille also won the Coupe de France, beating Bastia 2-1 in the final. The scorer of the decisive second goal? Josip Skoblar.

During his second spell with Marseille, Monsieur Goal lived up to his moniker, firing in 138 goals in 159 games. He was top scorer in the French Division 1  for three consecutive years, the first of which saw his record-breaking 44 goal haul and saw him awarded the European Golden Shoe. Reshuffles both on and off the pitch saw his time with L'OM come to an end in the 1974/1975, his appearances limited by the arrival of Brazilians Jairzinho and Paul Cesar.

Skoblar perhaps did not have the longevity to be hailed as the greatest foreign import of all time. Safet Susic played in France for over a decade, and played well into his thirties. Skoblar's career in French football was much like his playing style on the pitch; explosive, energetic and deadly effective. Videos of his goals stand testament to his ability. His strikes are notable for their sheer variety; long shots, dinked chips, thunderous half-volleys, expertly converted set-pieces, bullet headers; Skoblar had it all.

Just Fontaine, one of French football's greatest ever men, both during and after his playing career, hailed Skoblar as a unique talent: "When I watched him in front of the goal, each time, I was thinking, kick from the inside of the left foot, from the outside of the right foot, a header, now!"

"He had already done it. Scoring each time, exactly by the only possible way, and in just a split second. In the last 30 years, he has been the only striker that I've seen like that in France."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is often described as unique footballer, capable of scoring any goal imaginable. The big Swedish striker has smashed French football record books since his arrival in Paris two years ago. One feat he has yet to conquer, however, is the one held by Josip Skoblar. 'Ibra' may yet pass the 44 goal total but, for now, l'Aigle Dalmate 's record still flies out of reach.

Follow Owen on Twitter @OwenHMorgan.

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