Chris NeeComment


Chris NeeComment

When the sociologists of the future assemble the definitive study on the social history of UK football fandom, they'll discover the Gazzetta Generation. Gazzetta Football Italia and its sister coverage of Sunday afternoon Serie A matches represented an unprecedented level of access to a European league in the early 1990s.

It was intoxicating and it beguiled those of us who soon came to construct our weekends around its fortuitous dovetail with domestic Saturday 3pm matches.

Channel 4 allowed us to gorge on the exploits of players whose presence would otherwise have been fleeting, and few of the memories live on as vividly as Fabio Capello's AC Milan. Hot on the heels of Arrigo Sacchi's iconic Rossoneri side, Capello's Milan seemed exotic and omnipotent.

They worked hard in the transfer market to bolster Sacchi's talented and famously well-drilled squad. Of all the players brought to San Siro as the Rossoneri smoothly transitioned from double European Cup winners to domestic dominators, none was more complex and voracious than Zvonimir Boban.

Born in 1968 in Croatia's patriotic south, when it was part of Yugoslavia, Boban was as ardent a citizen as they come. He's a man of palpable intensity, a fiery fanatic with red and white chequered bones.

But his youthful intellectualism extended beyond the explosive matter of Croatian identity. Boban is a lover of literature who once recommended Nietzsche to Antonio Matarrese, the president of the Italian Football Federation. 

In May 1990, 21-year-old Boban struck the most infamous blow in the battle that derailed Dinamo Zagreb's end-of-season match against Red Star Belgrade and dragged the region closer to war, kicking a police officer on the pitch as Dinamo's notorious Bad Blue Boys ultras clashed with Serbian fans and police.

His kick targeted not a Serb officer but a Bosnian Muslim, but its symbolism was immovable. The midfielder had been lined up to play for Yugoslavia at World Cup Italia '90 but was instead suspended for six months by the Yugoslavian FA.

The incident that prevented him playing at Italia '90 was an overtly political act. In football, his considerable reputation was made after he belatedly arrived in Italy to sign for AC Milan in 1991.

Boban was relegated whilst on loan with AS Bari, but in Milan there emerged a player of ferocity and extraordinary ability, a young man who took his scholarly outlook into football and ended up in the AC Milan Hall of Fame.

The football brain that made Boban's name in Milan was flawless. He was a technically excellent, two-footed midfielder whose natural preference was to create and attack, often from an ostensibly orthodox central midfield position.

He had a great understanding with George Weah, Milan's prolific mid- to late-1990s goalscorer, for whom he created the second goal in a famous win at Juventus as Milan strode towards the Scudetto in May 1999.

Boban himself was a surprisingly adept penalty box finisher and was also capable of scoring from distance, often - but, pleasingly, not always - by applying culture over brutality. He was a terrific header of the ball and scored a handful of scorching free kicks, though it sometimes took him a few attempts to get his shooting calibrated.

But Boban was never not Boban. Just as his intellectual education was married to a simmering Croatian pride, his footballing elegance was paired with endless tenacity on the field of play. He was captivating.

The Rossoneri and Boban won Serie A in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1999, but his highest-ranking triumph in Milan was a continental one, and was achieved just as the Croatian was coming into his prime.

They snuck past FC Aarau in the First Round of the UEFA Champions League in 1993/94 but found form with a Second Round demolition of FC København on the way to the Group Stage. The first leg decided the tie thanks to a 6-0 Milan win that was capped by a Boban-assisted Jean-Pierre Papin header.

Boban sat out three Group B games but was instrumental as the Rossoneri closed out the round with a draw against FC Porto to secure a semi-final place against Arsène Wenger's similarly star-studded AS Monaco. Milan overcame Alessandro Costacurta's controversial dismissal to win 3-0.

The campaign did wonders for his reputation but Milan's charge to the final against Barcelona was spearheaded by other players, bigger names than Boban. His contribution to their remarkable 4-0 final victory against Barcelona in Athens, though, was a vital part of the performance Capello described as "perfection" when asked to reflect on the match.

Goalscorers Daniele Massaro and Dejan Savićević deservedly attracted the headlines but Boban was terrific throughout the 90 minutes, working inwards from the right flank and directing the Rossoneri's possession in Barcelona's defensive third. Savićević did the hard work to tee up Massaro's first goal but Boban's aggression in intercepting the ball made it happen.

Massaro's second was the unheralded side of Boban's creativity writ large. He pulled all the strings as Milan probed from right to left and conjured a relatively simple finish for Massaro, duly buried along with the hopes of Johan Cruyff and his mighty Barcelona side.

Four years later Boban finally took his place in international football history, proudly captaining the sensational Croatia team that finished third at World Cup France '98. He finished playing in 2002 with a glittering career full of caps and trophies behind him, and remains a man of culture and contradictions.

He graduated from the University of Zagreb with a history degree in 2004, has worked as a pundit, owns the trendy and deliciously named Italian restaurant 'Boban' in central Zagreb (Boban's wife Leonarda owns a rather more modest café next door) and has even dipped his toe into the murky waters of football administration, having joined the office of FIFA president Gianni Infantino as a special adviser in 2016.

But a tamed suit he ain't. He expects high standards of form and conduct as an AC Milan observer, and some impressive players have been on the receiving end of Boban's pointed criticism in the years since his retirement. "Two-faced liar" Kaka can attest to that. Mario Balotelli's attitude put him in the firing line too.

For British Serie A fans of a certain age, Boban is a name that instantly brings to mind recollections of Italian football's brilliance in the 1990s. He was a player who had quality and character, a combination guaranteed to win supporters around the world.

In the eyes of generations before and after Gazzetta the fullness of Boban's ability has inevitably been overshadowed by more famous players. But Boban's fire was - and, one presumes, still is - undeniable.

Chris Nee is an IBWM Content Editor and appears every week on the Football Fives Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter: @ChrisMNee.

All images are of the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan and have been kindly provided under licence by Marco Pochestorie.