For Damir Desnica, the decorated ex-Croatian football hero of the '70s and '80s, God may have taken away his ability to hear and speak at birth, but in doing so bestowed on him a talent and love for football that saw him reach heights few, if any, players with the same handicap have reached.
Born in the town of Obravak in 1956, his family moved to Zagreb when he was seven to attend the local school for the deaf. And it was while living there that football became an invaluable asset in his life, with the ball stuck to him as if it were some vital part of his body.
After signing for Croatian side HNJ Rijeka as a 19-year old in 1974, he quickly established himself as an indispensable part of the team, going on to score 54 goals in 251 games in his nine years at the club.
The talented left winger was undoubtedly one of the reasons the club reached the heights they did in the late '70s and early '80s, when they fought toe-to-toe with other, more recognisable teams such as Partizan Belgrade, Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade for Yugoslavian football dominance.
After winning the Croatian Cup in 1978 and 1979 and the Balkans Cup in 1978, Desnica went on to win one cap for Yugoslavia, coming in a qualifier for the 1980 European Championships against Romania, in a game where he scored his only goal at national team level.
A spell in Belguim with KV Kortrijk followed, with Desnica scoring 19 goals in 109 games for the club in a five year spell, before he returned to his native Croatia, finishing his career at small provincial club NK Pazinka.
However, in what was a fantastic career, given extra weight considering his handicap, there’s one night that stands out more than any other, for all the wrong reasons.
On a cold evening at the Santiago Bernabeu on the 7, November 1984, the return tie of a UEFA Cup last-16 match saw his HNJ Rijeka side face off against Spanish heavyweights Real Madrid, who at that period in time boasted the likes of Jorge Valdano – soon to be World Cup Winner in Mexico with Argentina - Santillana and Juanito.
Although unfancied for the tie, Rijeka were proving to be strong opposition in the tournament, having easily disposed of fellow Spanish side Real Valladolid 7-2 on aggregate in the first round.
Indeed, their 3-1 home victory against Madrid in the first leg still didn’t change their status as second favourites for the return tie – one which Desnica’s side, reduced to 10 men, would eventually lose 3-0.
With Rijeka reduced to ten men in the 34th minute after the sending off of defender Milenkovic, it wasn’t until a Juanito penalty in the 67th minute gave Madrid the lead. Then, in the 75th minute, an incident occurred between Desnica and the referee that is still spoken of some 31 years later.
As the normal dead ball taker for his team, he went to take a corner, where he was surprised to see the referee pull out a yellow card, presumably for time wasting. Another quickly followed for protesting the decision, and he was given his marching orders. This was a version of events detailed by Spanish sports journalist J.J.Santos in his 2009 book, ‘Abrazos y Zancilladas’.
The referee, Belgian Roger Schoeters, later denied that he had made the decision based on time wasting and protesting, instead sending Desnica off for insulting him after the initial time wasting violation. This was the view taken by another Spanish journalist present, José María García, alongside Desnica’s then teammate Nenad Gračan, who later went on to play for Spanish side Real Oviedo. One report indicates that the referee had a knowledge of sign language and used it to communicate with Desnica during the game.
Schoeters himself spent ten years officiating at the top level of European competitions as a FIFA referee, among which a European Cup quarter final in 1981 between CSKA Sofia and Liverpool, alongside the 1982 European U-21 final between England and Germany.
In an interview with Spanish football daily ASI in 2011, Desnica gave his own version of events.
“Of course I remember the game, it was scandalous robbery. I was sent off for protesting, which was impossible because I can’t speak”, he told the paper.
“I was sent off for protesting and time wasting. I was going over to take a corner and the referee was telling me to hurry up. It was a scandal. The first yellow I think was in the same interval when I went to get the ball to take the corner. The second, when the referee blew his whistle and I kept on running. I put my arms out because I didn’t understand why he was signalling,” he said.
“What I do remember is that Chendo (Madrid’s right back) fouled me twice in the penalty box, but the referee didn’t do anything. It was a robbery of the highest order. His performance left us without what would have been the biggest thrill of our careers.”
Putting the episode to one side, he had words for youngsters who grow up dreaming of being footballers, but are hampered by the same handicap he has.
“Follow your dreams. With his handicap, I was able to realise my childhood dream. God took my hearing, but gave me a talent and love of football. I encountered many obstacles in life, more than I needed to, but in the end, I still managed.”
For HNJ Rijeka’s fans, he will always be remembered for his hat-trick against Czechoslovakian side FC Locomotive Kosice in the 1979 Cup Winner’s Cup competition, with the 3-0 home win seeing his team through to the last eight, where they lost out to Juventus.
Nowadays, he can be found at Rijeka’s Kantrida Stadion in his capacity as caretaker, doing everything from replacing light bulbs to taking care of the storage. And although he watches all his home club’s games, he doesn’t think today’s football compares to the days when he was a player.
“I think that in my time we played beautiful football, because we all played with heart. Today there is too much money in the game and is therefore it has lost the allure of its previous beauty”, he told Bosnian paper Dnevni Avaz in a recent interview.