Niko Kranjcar: What's Next for Croatia's "Forgotten" Genius?

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Niko Kranjcar: What's Next for Croatia's
Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Away from the limelight, far from multi-million euro glamour transfers occupying headlines worldwide, Niko Kranjcar is plotting the next phase of his career. He’ll only turn 30 next month and yet he seems way past his playing peak. Is there still time for him to revive his career and steer it to an ending his wonderful talent deserves?

These days you’ll find Kranjcar training with Dynamo Kiev reserves (via the club's official website) and waiting for the main squad to return from preseason camp. “Everything is fine,” he says, but it hardly is.

Last season he was shipped out on loan to Queens Park Rangers in the Championship, the second tier of the English football pyramid. There he reunited with Harry Redknapp, the manager who previously had him both at Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspur. It was a good season for the team, as they earned promotion to the Premier League, with Kranjcar featuring prominently.

However, the victory in the play-off final against Derby County turned sour for the player, who was injured before the break in that game. As QPR celebrated their return to the elite, Kranjcar was left heartbroken: The injury meant he was going to miss the World Cup.

Now he’s close to making a full recovery, but his future is far from certain.

There were words of kindness, but not exactly promises, throughout his season in London. “He’s a smashing fella, a great lad,” said Harry Redknapp back in October, per the Daily Mirror’s Jacob Murtagh. The manager added he would love to have him permanently but would first have to “see what happens this year at QPR.”

Well, what happened was QPR got back to the Premier League and now they should have the means to sign Kranjcar, easily one of their best players last season, on a permanent deal should they wish so. The player would surely prefer that to staying in Kiev, where he ended up on the margins despite the club paying more than £6 million to acquire him from Tottenham back in 2012.

Harry Redknapp has a reputation of a “wheeler-dealer” when it comes to the transfer market, which means he is always on the lookout for bargains. Dynamo would probably be willing to let Kranjcar go, as they don’t seem to need him that much. But the main problem, it would seem, is Kranjcar’s proneness to injuries, as well as his fitness level.

FILIP HORVAT/Associated Press

In his homeland, much has been made of his supposed “weight problem”.

Kranjcar started playing for Dinamo Zagreb back in 2001. His father Zlatko, later the Croatia national team manager, is a club legend. Niko drew early comparisons to Zinedine Zidane and, at the tender age of 17, became the youngest-ever captain and also a fan favourite, as a Dinamo kid through and through.

But later he fell out with the club’s management and was surprisingly sold to their archrivals, Hajduk Split. More than 10,000 people came to his unveiling in Split, while the Dinamo ultras, the Bad Blue Boys, lit blue candles in front of his parents’ home in Zagreb—a “symbol of dying honour,” they said—and dressed a piglet in a Hajduk shirt with Kranjcar’s name on it, suggesting that he was fat (via The Guardian).

The weight issue—though there hardly ever was one, in truth—has been the recurring theme of Kranjcar’s career, at least in the Croatian media. The unfair criticism was particularly harsh after the failure at the 2006 World Cup, when the Vatreni, led by Niko’s dad, failed to make it past the group stage.

But the real problem was their over-dependence on the young playmaker (Niko was 21 at the time), a sole creative force in the 3-4-1-2 lineup that included seven primarily defensive players and two out-and-out strikers.

Niko Kranjcar has had an accomplished football career, later playing for Portsmouth, Spurs and Dynamo Kiev, while his impact in the national team remained profound (81 caps, 16 goals so far) before his appearances started dwindling in the last two years or so.

What arguably stopped him from reaching even greater heights wasn’t body mass or lack of muscle, but his speed—or lack thereof.

Kranjcar is incredibly gifted, probably more technically skilled than either of his Croatia team-mates, Luka Modric or Ivan Rakitic. He has a fantastic shot and great vision; he just isn’t blessed with natural acceleration and pace. And that is a serious disadvantage in the ever-accelerating football of today, where speed has almost been made a fetish.

Sang Tan/Associated Press

The deficiency was painfully obvious when he lost his place in the Spurs starting lineup to Gareth Bale—compared to the Welshman’s lightning-fast runs, Kranjcar looked as if he was just standing there by the line. It’s useful to remember that when you think about whether a return to the frenetic tempo of the Premier League, albeit in less demanding surroundings and with a smaller club, would be a good idea.

In one TV interview two years ago, when he was already a back-up option rather than a starter for Croatia, a reporter asked Kranjcar what would be the one thing he’d like to change about himself as a player. “My speed,” he said, without giving it a second thought, with a melancholic smile on his face.

He seems to have lost some of his passion for football over the years. He grew cold and reluctant toward the media and the fans. He still gives his all on the pitch, but the impression you get from following him is that playing has become just a job for him, that he doesn’t enjoy it as much as he used to.

Once this nice, good-mannered and pretty boy seemed to have the world at his feet and was on course to become an elite player. Now he’s training with a Ukrainian reserve team, slowly working his way back to fitness and hoping for a way out. Is there still a place in top football for a player who can’t run as much or as fast as most of the others can but is a genius with the ball?

Or—perhaps more importantly—is there something, somewhere, that can relight that spark of his?

 

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