Davor Suker rose to international acclaim in the 1990s thanks largely to his exploits for Croatia at Euro ’96 and the 1998 World Cup, the newly independent country’s first two tournaments.
Suker scored three times at Euro ’96 – only Alan Shearer scored more – and his nonchalant chip over Peter Schmeichel against reigning champions Denmark is one of the competition’s lasting memories.
Two years later, with Croatia playing on the global stage for the first time, Suker was in the form of his life. He scored against Jamaica and Japan in the group stage, got the winner against Romania in the last 16, netted in a famous quarter-final thrashing of Germany and even put Croatia ahead in the semi-final against France. His sixth goal of the tournament was the winner in the third place playoff.
Suker finished that World Cup, an incredible success story for Croatia, with the Golden Shoe as top scorer and Silver Ball as second best player overall, behind only Brazil’s Ronaldo. At the end of 1998, he was runner-up in the Ballon d’Or to Zinedine Zidane – the first and only Croatian to finish in the top three until Luka Modric eventually won the award in 2018.
But behind the celebrated international star so instantly recognisable in the red and white checks, Suker was also top club striker and plied his trade for most of the 1990s in La Liga.
Having risen to the first-team at home-town club NK Osijek in the mid-1980s, Suker was poached by Dinamo Zagreb, before then moving to Spain with Sevilla in 1991. At the time he left, Croatia had recently declared independence from Yugoslavia and the region was descending into a warzone.
In the very month of his transfer to Spain, the Yugoslav Air Force attacked the official residence of the President of Croatia in Zagreb. Meanwhile, the city of Dubrovnik was under siege in the south and his home city of Osijek was also attacked and heavily shelled by Yugoslav forces.
Suker, known for his languid style complemented by almost effortless quality, took a little time to get going in Spain. Despite netting twice on his full debut against Real Sociedad, the striker only managed four further goals in 20 appearances to the end of the season.
His 1992/93 campaign started in the perfect fashion, scoring a hat-trick in a 4-3 win over Albacete. Soon, Suker even found himself partnered with a 32-year-old Diego Maradona, who wound up in Andalusia when a 15-month drug ban expired and he left Napoli in disgrace.
A particular highlight of that season saw Suker score in 2-0 Sevilla win over Real Madrid.
Maradona soon moved on, but Suker was about to hit his best form. He scored 24 times in La Liga in 1993/94, second only to Barcelona’s Romario in the Pichichi Trophy standings. Remaining consistent, in each of the two seasons that followed he got at least 20 goals in all competitions.
Sevilla had encountered financial problems in 1995 and were even demoted from La Liga alongside Celta Vigo ahead of the 1995/96 season over the non-payment of their fees to the Spanish federation, only to later be reinstated.
By then, Suker had outgrown the club. Despite his goals, Sevilla struggled all season and his 1996 departure was ultimately to be expected. Fittingly, his final game resulted in a hat-trick in a win over Salamanca, but a transfer to Real Madrid had already been agreed.
Had Suker’s future not already been secured, Euro ’96 might well have prompted a scramble for his signature from top clubs across the continent as he put himself in the shop window – it is hard to put into the words the impact that chip over Schmeichel had on his wider reputation.
As it was, Suker rode the wave of momentum from his star turn in that excellent Croatia team at those championships. Having filled the void when Ivan Zamorano left Sevilla several years earlier, he also replaced the Chilean in Madrid, plundering 29 goals in all competitions for Real. That made him the club’s top scorer ahead of Raul and fellow new arrival Pedrag Mijatovic.
With it came a return to the Champions League for Real and, for Suker, a first season at the very highest club level. The arrival of Fernando Morientes in 1997 brought fresh competition for places, yet the Croatian still retained an important role, scoring 15 times in total that season, including four in the Champions League en-route to glory – Real’s first European crown in 32 years.
He was only a substitute in the final itself. But, that summer, Suker took Croatia to new levels at the World Cup and further underlined his reputation as a genuine legend of his generation.