Written by Slavonac From Canada
Amid a raging war, a young Mario Mandžukić faced many horrors that I would not wish upon another human being. From hiding behind an old mattress to shield himself from bullets flying by, to fleeing the country as a refugee, Mario truly witnessed it all.
These moments are what hardened and pushed those 23 men on the 2018 World Cup squad to the absolute pinnacle of football – a World Cup Final. And leading the pack was the man with a heart of gold, Mario Mandžukić. Although Mandžukić had a complicated character and usually came across as moody and intolerant, this was just on the surface. Mario did all he could for the team, no matter where he played. He won starting roles everywhere he went, even with players like Dzeko at Wolfsburg, Claudio Pizarro and Mario Gomez at Bayern, and Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres at Atletico Madrid. The best example of his driven attitude and bull-like determination was when Juventus signed him as a substitute to Dybala, Cuadrado and Morata, yet he fought himself into a starting spot…at left-wing!
From putting on an elite display in the 2012 Euros, to sinking the Serbs in 2013, and finally putting on his biggest show in 2018, Mario was always there at Croatia’s most important moments. Mandzo was truly THE unsung hero of the 2018 World Cup.
He left his mark on every single important goal Croatia scored in that tournament. The opener against Nigeria and the equalizer against Denmark, not only bringing Croatia back in the game on the scoresheet, but also from a mental standpoint. He once again brought the Vatreni back in the game against Russia, setting up Kramarić’s goal, displaying his undying drive to win. Most important of all, his history changing moment in the match against England, when he put Croatia into the World Cup Final and sent England home with nothing.
In the 105th minute, Pickford collided with Mandžukić and was heard yelling profanities at our leading man. Obviously bothered, Mandžukić took the next chance he could, to strike back…“Pivarić… it’s up to Perišić…MANDŽUKIĆ! Croatia hit the fronts! Mario Mandžukić pounced! And England are hurt!” Once Perišić headed that ball back, there was Super Mario with full anticipation, wide-eyed and ready to pounce, he came out between two defenders and stapled his name into Croatian history forever. Nearly knocking all of us unconscious, this goal was the one moment where no Croatian knew how to react. Do we scream, cry, run, jump or yell? Rewatching this still gives us all the chills, and who better could it have come from?
Mario left us with a final, touching message, before he hung up his boots for good, writing to his younger self, the little Mario that went through all those struggles.
“Dear little Mario, while wearing these shoes for the first time, you cannot even imagine what you will feel in the world of football,” he wrote.
“You will score goals on the most important stages, and you will win the biggest trophies with the biggest clubs.”
“Proudly represent your country, you will contribute to writing the history of Croatian sport.”
“You will be successful because you will have good people around you: teammates, coaches, fans and family members, agents and friends who will always be there for you.”
“You will be forever grateful to all of them! Above all, you will be successful because you will always give your all.”
“In the end, this is what you will be most proud of. You will sacrifice a lot, but you will know that it was worth it because of all the amazing moments.”
“You will recognize when it’s time to retire, to put these shoes in a closet and you will have no regrets. Football will always be part of your life, but you will be looking forward to a new chapter.”
“Have fun! Your big Mario”
“P.S. If you happen to play against England in the World Cup, be ready around the 109th minute.”
Mario Mandžukić was brash, had attitude and was under appreciated all of his career. But at the end of the day, he is a Croatian legend and we should all be thankful for the moments we were able to witness while #17 was playing in the Croatian checkers.