There is a saying in Croatia about Ivica Olić. “Batistuta Gabrijele, za tebe je Olić Pele”, which literarily translate into how Olić plays like Pele rather than Batistuta. This phrase originates back to the 1998 World Cup in France when the legendary Croatian national team head coach Miroslav Blažević stated: “Who’s Batistuta? We have Davor Šuker.” That statement came shortly after Croatia had won bronze medals, and Šuker had become the top scorer of the tournament.
During the World Cup four years later, the comparison between Batistuta and Olić emerged. After 73 minutes, Croatia were down 1-0 against Italy in a crucial second round group stage match, when Robert Jarni centered the ball from the left flank, and Ivica Olić scored the equalizer. With that goal, the largely unknown striker suddenly became a star as both Croatian and international media made him the main topic.
RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH A CROATIAN FLAVOUR
Although the 2002 World Cup turned out as a disappointment for Croatia after group stage defeats against Mexico and Ecuador, the 2-1 victory against Italy was enough for Olić to become the biggest star in Croatian football. Following the World Cup, the Olić madness materialized in the two powerhouses in Croatian football, Dinamo and Hajduk, competing for Olić’ signature.
Everything in the striker’s life before his international breakthrough at the World Cup circled around his talent and listening to his father. Ivan, his father, often told his son: “Ivo, concentrate on school, and only on school. It’s hard earning bread in this country, life is very tough with waking up at 4 am every day and going out to the farm.”
Despite this, scouts spotted the tiny, blond boy playing for his local club Marsonia at a young age, and they saw great potential in him. In 1998, at the age of 21, Olić opted to move to Hertha Berlin despite interest from the famous Italian side Internazionale. However, this move didn’t satisfy his father, as it was becoming more and more difficult to track his son’s footballing path, while Ivica simply wanted to play the game he loved. Unfortunately, Olić never managed to get his breakthrough at Hertha, and the lack of playing time saw the newly rich Dragan Marić emerge as his patron to save his career. Marić benefited heavily from close ties with the in-power Croatian Democratic Union, and through shady privatizations he came to own several glass making companies.
After two years in Berlin, Olić returned to Marsonia in 2000, and he immediately shined upon returning to his childhood club. The following season, he joined NK Zagreb on loan, with whom he won their first and only league title while he also became the Prva HNL top scorer. Soon afterwards however, his patron Marić found himself in the jaws of the mafia, and in the summer of 2002 he moved to Dinamo in a transfer that to this day is still referred to as the ‘transfer in the car trunk’.
On August 12, the day before the sensational news of Olić’s transfer to Dinamo, Vjeko Čuljak – owner of a so-called security company – tucked Dragan Marić into the trunk of his car, and after a long ride through the city, he dumped him on the pitch of local side NK Trnje. There, Marić, with a gun in his mouth, committed to finally finishing the transfer saga and to selling the player to Dinamo Zagreb. Until Olić officially signed contract with Dinamo, his agent Marić was under constant surveillance from Čuljak’s men.
So, why did all these events surround the transfer of Olić? Well, Marić did business with various loan sharks and reportedly borrowed 200.000 DEM with the safety being Olić’ upcoming transfer. He promised all his creditors that he would repay everything plus considerable interest when the striker was sold. He promised millions by selling Olić on the international football market, and meanwhile his debt to anonymous loan sharks, brokers, alleged businessmen, football agents and other supposed criminals climbed up to €12 million. It turned out, however, that foreign clubs weren’t willing to pay as much for Olić as Marić asked for, and after two years of searching and trying to sell the striker, his only remaining option was the modest Croatian market. While Marić was simultaneously bargaining over Olić’ future with both Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb, his creditors finally realized that Marić liabilities were a lot greater than what Olić’ upcoming transfer could earn him. Some, apparently, reconciled with the fact that they would lose money, while others, in close relationship with the Croatian underground, decided to take Olić’ fate into their own hands.
One of these persons was the before mentioned Čuljak. After driving around with Marić in his trunk, he extracted the creditors’ rights to Olić’ future transfers, and he quickly stopped the transfer tussle between Dinamo and Hajduk. At the end of the day, Olić ended up at Dinamo Zagreb who proved to be the best stage for the emerging star to show his talent.
MOTHER RUSSIA SAVED HIM
Olić spent only a season at Dinamo Zagreb, and after securing his second consecutive Prva HNL title and topscorer award he was ready to move on. The summer of 2003 turned out almost identical to the one the year before. Olić’ agent wanted to sell his client to a foreign club, with Bolton, Southampton, Tottenham and Everton reportedly showing interest. However, once again it proved that demanding price of 10 million euros was too high even for English clubs. Every day the newspapers claimed that “one English club as offered €7.5 million for Olić”, but it never took more than a couple of days before the story was debunked. The stories gave Olić many sleepless nights, and during Dinamo’s pre-season training camp in Switzerland, he said: “Yes, I want to leave abroad, but I’m losing patience with my agent. It seems staying in Zagreb is a realistic option.”
Just few days later, CSKA Moscow’s interest was revealed in the press. The newspaper Sportske Novosti mentioned CSKA’s interest on July 15 as Dinamo’s back-up option if the club failed to land Olić a deal with an English club.
Five days later, Olić played his last game in Dinamo’s shirt in the Super cup fixture against Hajduk. The Zagreb side won 4-1 with Olić being the best player on the field despite him not scoring. Sportske Novosti described his performance this way: “Hero. His forward runs were an enigma for the opponent’s defence, and he also had two assists.”
The following day, the newspaper wrote “Olić towards Moscow” as the front story, stating how Olić’ future was still unknown, but that Moscow was a more realistic option than England.
This did however not mean the end of the long transfer saga. On July 22nd Zdravko Mamić, the vice-president of Dinamo, confirmed that the club had offered Olić a lucrative contract extension, and that Olić currently had a clause in his contract. “He could leave only if the interested club offer €10 million. But as no one offers such amount, he can’t leave.” In the end, Olić accepted the offer from Dinamo, but only if the deal with CSKA fall apart.
Luckily for Olić, the deal with CSKA didn’t fall apart. On the following day, July 23, Sportske Novosti reported that Olić had signed a 4-year deal with CSKA for a transfer fee on €8.2 million. This was however later corrected by his agent who stated that, “CSKA offers €5 million. For four years in Russia, Olić will earn €3.2 million, while Dinamo will receive 15 percent of the transfer fee.”
Only a day later, Dinamo officially received the offer from CSKA as reported “at 1 PM by telefax”. As CSKA offered only half of the clause in the contract, the board members of Dinamo held a meeting to approve the deal. With the first hurdle over with, the next days passed with exhausting negotiations between Olić himself, his former clubs Marsonia and NK Zagreb, his agent and then CSKA and Dinamo, with the final agreement being that Dinamo received €2 million out of the €5 million.
When the negotiations were finally over, Olić stated: “With this contract I have ensured my existence. Now, I’m not interested in the possibility of joining Chelsea [Something that was rumoured due to the close ties between Chelsea owner Abramovich and CSKA owner Giner] after a year in Moscow. Most important, I will sign with a well-known and respected European club such as CSKA Moscow. CSKA are the ideal club, full of ambition plus Moscow is a metropolis. My transfer is the highest transfer in the history of CSKA and TV cameras will pompously welcome me. I even received an instruction in what to wear for the occasion. I’m really looking forward to the arrival.”
Upon arrival in Moscow everything was quickly done. The temperature in the Russian capital was 26 degrees Celsius, and the sky looked as it often does before the summer rain. CSKA president Evgeniy Giner explained to journalists how he was quite tired after the exhausting correspondence with Zagreb and couldn’t wait for Olić to sign the contract. Giner even postponed the mandatory medical for the next day, in order to finally finish the saga around Olić. After signing the contract, Giner decided to take Olić and his wife Natali to walk around Moscow and the Red Square.
“I’m finally financially independent and can completely concentrate on football. Ambitions are high, I want to win CSKA’s first league title in modern Russia”, Olić said after signing the contract. Unnamed personnel from Croatian embassy in Moscow also commented: “We can’t remember there ever being a situation like Olić’, he received his Russian visa at the airport.”
Ivica Olić made his debut for CSKA on August 2, and what a debut that was – scoring the equalizer against Shinnik (1-1). After that game, Olić told Sportske Novosti: “After the game the head coach shook my hand and told me – ‘excellent, you were the best’. With the high tempo and as I didn’t train for five days, I had to ask for substitution after 75 minutes on the pitch”, adding that, “at first glance Moscow is a beautiful city and I’m still living in a luxury hotel in downtown Moscow.”
In his second appearance, Olić again scored a goal in a 3-0 home win against Spartak-Alania. By the end of the season, Olić had found the back of the net seven times in 10 appearances. One of these still holds a special place in his memory.
It was October 25, the 29th round of the Russian Premier League as CSKA played at home against Rotor Volgograd. A victory would secure the championship for the Muscovites, and after 26 minutes, Olić opened the score. “I received the pass 40 meters away from the goal,” he later recalled and added, “And in full sprint dribbled passed two opponents and finished with a shot from the edge of the box. Later we demolished Rotor.”
The title was Olić’ third championship in only two and a half years. More importantly, that was CSKA’s first title in Russian history. After that historical win, Olić commented: “If you could only experience it. President Giner almost had a heart attack. After the game, he burst into the locker room, kissed all the players, celebrated with champagne and later with vodka. That was sheer madness. After 12 year CSKA won the title, we are all delighted.”
As the first couple of months proved, signing for CSKA and coming to Moscow unleashed Olić’s full potential, which he at the end vividly showed. Escaping from the shady Croatian football pond was his escape to freedom. Only in the cold Russian winter and under the protection of Mother Russia, Olić finally began to breathe fully.
Olić went to win two more Russian championships, two Russian cups and the UEFA Cup before eventually leaving Moscow for German football and Hamburg SV.
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