Domagoj Vida: The Controversial Joker Beloved by His Croatian Teammates

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 10, 2018

TOPSHOT - Croatia's defender Domagoj Vida (R) and Croatia's defender Josip Pivaric celebrate their winning penalty during the Russia 2018 World Cup quarter-final football match between Russia and Croatia at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi on July 7, 2018. (Photo by Nelson Almeida / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS        (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
NELSON ALMEIDA/Getty Images

For several years in the early 1990s, Rudika Vida did the grind with a couple of Croatia's unfashionable football clubs. He was a useful striker. His career peaked during the 1993-94 season, when he scored 26 goals in 34 league games for NK Belisce. For all his goals, the club still only finished 12th out of 18 teams.

Rudika never reached the heights his son, Domagoj Vidahero of Croatia's FIFA World Cup quarter-final victory over Russiawould scale, but he did teach him an important lesson. He drilled into him the need to practice his heading of a football. The lessons paid off when his boy nodded in a header for Croatia's second goal of an engrossing match against Russia, which concluded in a penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw.

Vida has been an eye-catching presence in the closing stages of the tournament, as Croatia—a country of little more than 4 million people—reached their second-ever World Cup semi-final. Some of it is due to his sharply cut features and blond ponytail, but in particular because he has been engulfed in controversy.

During Croatia's post-match celebrations, Vida and Ognjen Vukojevic, one of the team's assistant coaches, posted a short video dedicating the victory to Ukraine. The country is mired in a dispute with Russia over the territory of Crimea, a conflict that has claimed almost thousands of lives since erupting in 2014.

In the video, Vida shouted the patriotic rallying cry "Glory to Ukraine!" while Vukojevic, who put the video out on social media, added: "This victory is for Dynamo [Kiev] and for Ukraine." Vukojevic, who is a retired Croatian international footballer and works as a scout for Dynamo Kiev, used to play alongside Vida at the club.

According to Russian football expert Artur Petrosyan, the provocative video led to anti-Croatia chanting on the streets of Moscow after the game. Some people on the other side of the divide have heralded it. "I've seen a bunch of re-posts online in Ukraine since it went out, so I guess the reaction there has been positive," the editor of FutbolgradManuel Veth, tells B/R after attending Croatia's game with Russia in Sochi.

The Croatian Football Federation sacked Vukojevic for the indiscretion. Vida, however, escaped sanction—both from FIFA and his own federation. He said there was no political malice involved. "This victory is for Croatia. No politics. It's a joke. I've got friends there [Ukraine] since Dynamo Kiev. I didn't mean anything else," Vida said in a post-match interview with Sports.ru (h/t the Telegraph), adding he "likes" Russians.

Aleksandar Holiga, editor of Croatian website Telesport, believes Vida was being sincere: "It was just one of these stupid things footballers do. I don't think Vida understood the full meaning and context of what he was saying. Both of them were just doing it because they are close to Dynamo Kiev. It's something that fans would chant. In Croatia, it was not met with any kind of big publicity except for people wondering if they would be punished in some way. Most people are euphoric [about the win] and don't pay much attention to it."

Holiga stresses that it would be wrong to hint at a political motivation for the incident: "Of course, politically, Croatia doesn't have a perfect relationship with Russia, but then who does in the rest of Europe? Maybe Hungary. I don't think it has anything to do with politics. These guys just played in Ukraine at the time [2014] the conflict started there. They did that for the fans, but weren't aware of the full implications."

Vida, 29, has had a nomadic career. He played with Dynamo Kiev—where he won two league titles—from 2013 until 2018's winter transfer window brought a move to Turkish side Besiktas. He got a break early in his career, moving from NK Osijek, one of his father's old clubs, to Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen on his 21st birthday. But the move backfired. It was too soon, says Holiga. He struggled, making only one league appearance as a substitute before being shipped back to Croatia after one season.

"At this time, we had a really good team. We were second place in the Bundesliga that season," says Stefan Reinartz, who played with Bayern Leverkusen at the time. "Mentally he was really good, but his technical ability—his first touch, his ball control, his passing—wasn't very good. I remember that Jupp Heynckes, who was our coach, always said, 'OK, he's a good player. I like him but from a technical point of view I'm not that fond of him.'"

Vida got his second chance with Dinamo Zagreb, but he was never far from trouble. In December 2011, during his first season with the Croatian giants, he was at the centre of an alleged match-fixing scam—although UEFA decided against launching an investigation into Dinamo's suspicious 7-1 defeat to Lyon in a UEFA Champions League tie. Vida was caught on camera winking at Lyon's Bafetimbi Gomis after one of the goals went in.

"On that day they let in ridiculous goals—that's a fact—but I really don't know if the match was fixed or not. I can't be sure it wasn't," says Dea Redzic, a Croatian journalist who has been investigating corruption in the country's football club for over a decade with Index, a Croatian news website.

The episode has left a stain on Vida's copybook. "There was something fishy about it," says Holiga. "The incident did kind of mark him. Some people remember it. Potential employers will also know about this and maybe think twice before signing him, but nothing was ever proven."

Vida plays club football for Beskitas but has been linked with Liverpool
Vida plays club football for Beskitas but has been linked with LiverpoolVI-Images/Getty Images

Possible future employers of Vida include Liverpool, who have been linked with him by Turkish newspaper Aksam (h/t Mirror). He has also been linked with Everton. The overwhelming sense with Vida is that he's a bit of a lad. He loves to play the fool. He was involved in a notorious jape during his time with Dinamo Zagreb, when he was caught cracking open a beer on the team coach en route to a cup match in September 2012. Dinamo's team manager, Ante Cacic, tossed him straight off the bus for it, and he was hit with a fine for €100,000.

It was one of several disciplinary run-ins Vida had with Cacic, but tellingly it was during Cacic's reign as coach of the Croatia national team from 2015 until 2017 that Vida established himself as a regular starter. Despite Vida's history of indiscretions with Cacic, they could sustain a good working relationship.

"They didn't have any problems with each other on the national squad," says Holiga. "I haven't heard of any friction between them. In the past two or three years, all of Vida's [possible misdemeanours] have been kept under wraps, or maybe he just became more serious because he has started a family."

Vida is popular with his Croatia teammates. Redzic puts part of his likeable personality down to his roots. He's from Slavonia, a region in the east of the country.  

"Vida is from a part of Croatia where people are very friendly," says Redzic. "People are always so cheerful. Mario Mandzukic—who bought beer for the whole town where he is from for the match against Russia—is also from Slavonia. Vida is always up for fun. His teammates love him. He's a big-hearted person and a big-hearted player. He's a big joker."

Although Vida's pro-Ukraine chant video landed him in trouble, there is a flip side to his antics. An ability to look at life as a bit of a lark helps him deal with the immense nerves players experience in, for example, the closing stages of a World Cup. The sunny disposition was on display earlier that night against Russia.

"He's happy go lucky," says Holiga. "It's not confirmed from the team camp, but people are saying that Josip Pivaric was supposed to take one of the penalties in the shootout. He was really nervous about it. He missed a penalty in the previous round. So Vida apparently said: 'Give me the ball.' And he took it, and it was the best penalty in the shootout. He's a simple person. He doesn't feel as much pressure as others might."

Vida won't go hiding when it comes to facing England in the semi-final at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. Perhaps Vida will prove to be Croatia's joker in the pack again. A World Cup final awaits the winner, which is no laughing matter.

                                                   

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz

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