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Darijo Srna: Pioneer of Croatian Football

Croatia captain Darijo Srna will bow out of international football after Euro 2016, and his loss will be felt hugely by the side.

“The Euros in France will definitely be my last tournament. I want to play the best I can, says thanks and leave and focus on Shakhtar,”

– Darijo Srna, March 15 2016.

After more than 130 caps, 22 goals and a glittering international career, Darijo Srna will bid farewell to the international stage. A right full-back by nature, Srna can perform his magic throughout the entire right flank and is considered a legend amongst the Croatian faithful.

Born in Metković,  a village of a mere 16,000 people along the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Bosnian and Serbian parents, Srna learned his trade in football despite the adverse financial conditions of his family and the ever-treacherous Yugoslav war.  On the day he signed for Shakhtar from Croatian dynasty Hajduk Split, he repaid the debt to his father by gifting him a Mercedes, that was followed by the gift of a BMW two years after the move to Donetsk.

A highly undervalued asset to any team, Srna’s qualities and leadership go unrecognized, but his players and coaches alike, know the value of 5 ft 10 right-back. Largely successful in Ukraine, the ride didn’t prove to be easy, as his story suggests.

Srna played for his local youth side NK Neretva where he excelled on the right flank and earned praise from many scouts across Croatia. The talent was evident and helped him gain attraction from several clubs across his native Croatia. Hajduk Split eventually made their move and got their man in 1999.

The deal was entirely worth it.

In four years at Hajduk, Srna helped the team win 3 trophies (2 cups and 1 league title) and helped him earn his first Croatia cap in 2002. Srna has often praised two-time manager and friend Slaven Bilic for helping him in his early days at Hajduk. It was current West Ham boss Bilic that helped Srna excel on the right flank that and also gave him the captain’s armband for the National Team later on in 2009 – an act he was highly grateful for. By 2003, Srna had attracted interest from clubs around Europe including Netherlands’ Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and Kaiserslautern of Germany. He ended up agreeing to a surprise move to Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk stating that he was likely to receive more playing time and less bench-warming minutes.

In the initial months, he was the understudy to Andriy Vorobey in manager Bernd Schuster‘s plans, making sporadic appearances and was left frustrated. By his first winter in Ukraine, Srna had contemplated leaving the club due to a lack of playing minutes and failure to adapt to his new surroundings. His dream of success in the country was fading. Fortunately for him and the  Shakhtar faithful, he chose to stay on, and later in his first season, he got his chances and won the Ukrainian Cup – his first major honor with the Donbas side. History was in the making.

Club president Rinat Akhmetov can be credited with the growth in Srna’s performances.He was the person who had put in faith in snapping up Srna and he was the man who helped Srna settle into life at Ukraine. The agony of not being able to perform on a regular basis go to Srna, but the president’s humility helped him get over those woes.

His second season in Ukraine was a lot more amiable to him. Srna managed 42 appearances throughout – 22 of which came in the league, under Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu as Shakthar were crowned Ukrainian champions for only the second time in their history and for the first time in 2 seasons – breaking the Dynamo Kyiv stranglehold on the championship. President Akhmetov’s spectre of domination in Ukraine was taking shape, with Srna right at the heart of the plan.

Shakhtar were crowned Ukrainian Premier League champions for a second season running in 2005-06 with Srna being able to continue his run of consistent appearances and performances. That was the season of the World Cup in Germany. Srna had performed spectacularly well leading up to the tournament, scoring 5 goals in 9 qualifying games for Croatia and at the World Cup itself, was heavily praised for his performances, despite not being able to help Croatia register a win as they help to rejuvenate the heroes of the team that finished third in 1998.

He scored a wonderful 30-yard free-kick in the final group game against Australia – an event largely forgotten due to referee Graham Poll’s blunders in the book. There was talk of him switching allegiance club-wise, after the World Cup with the likes of Portugal’s Benfica and Italy’s Lazio being linked. But he reiterated his desire to remain in Ukraine – a decision which proved to be highly successful.

Following his arrival from Croatia’s World Cup camp, his career earned him greater fruition. Having nailed down his place as starting right full-back for the Kroty, Srna made great strides under manager Mircea Lucescu.  The 2008-09 season was the pinnacle of his career as well as President Akhmetov’s ambition. A trophy on the European stage – The UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League), beating German side Werder Bremen 2-1 in Istanbul, having provided the assist for Jadson’s goal 7 minutes into extra time. Srna had the exclusive right of hoisting the trophy as he was named captain on the night. The decision to stay in Ukraine was reaping rewards.

Over the years, Srna’s career bought immense success. The glory of the UEFA Cup was followed by a domestic treble of the Ukrainian Premier League, Cup and Super Cup in the 2010-11 season and a domestic double of the League and Cup in the 2011-12 season. He’s now Shakhtar’s record appearance maker in the Premier League and has captained the side for almost 9 years and still going strong. A class act off the pitch as well, Srna has often publicly spoken about his grief of not being able to play at Shakhtar’s Donbass Arena over the last two seasons due to the Ukrainian Civil War and frequently tries to help those affected by the hostility in the Donbas region by providing children with utility items such as laptops and stationery. He states that children are the future and they deserve help.

“For two years now, the president of Shakhtar has been providing assistance to his compatriots in the Donbas. And he does that from the bottom of his heart. Our native fans reside in Donetsk, in the Donbas. Throughout those years, they believed in me and our team, having found themselves in trouble lately. So I also want to help them! Children are our future! And they should have a possibility to learn and develop, especially in the current difficult times”

– Statement by Darijo Srna, April 2016

When talked about for Croatia, he is definitely and deservedly mentioned right at the top of legends for the Balkan nation. A record appearance holder – more than the likes of the legendary Davor Šuker and Zvonimir Boban as well as being their 4th highest ever goalscorer with 22 goals, which comes as a surprise considering the position he plays in.

Having featured at many major international tournaments including 2 World Cups and 4 European Championships, Srna will bow out of the international stage post-Euro 2016 in France with his ‘cult hero’ status secured. Officially his last-ever international tournament, Srna was met with shock and sadness after Croatia’s opening victory over Turkey in Paris. He learned that he had lost his father. The man who helped kick start Srna’s career in war-torn Croatia was gone. He was allowed an official leave for Croatia and will return once traditional proceeding are completed back home. It is to be seen whether or not the situation will harm his performances or spur him on to make even better strides in memory of his father.

A captain, a leader and an inspiration on and off the pitch, Croatia and Shakhtar Donetsk will have a really tough job in managing to replace this maestro, once he does call it quits.


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