For a small nation, Croatia has historically been an incredible breeding ground for footballers, and that tradition has been incredibly maintained since the country earned independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
Despite containing a population of approximately 4 million, its football team remarkably reached the 2018 World Cup Final, only to be defeated 4-2 by France at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia.
Mercurial forward Marko Pjaca played a minor role for the remaining nine minutes of the match, but after impressing at the 2016 European Championship, he was expected to have become one of the brightest young players in world football.
Nonetheless, injuries and patchy form have halted his progress since arriving in Italy after Euro 2016. A cracked fibula sustained on international duty with the Vatreni as well as an injury to the right knee limited his playing time at Juventus and injuring his left knee has ended his 2018/19 campaign with Fiorentina.
The Viola paid the Bianconeri €2 million in the summer of 2018 to sign the 23-year-old on loan with an option to buy him outright for a reported figure of €20 million, but that looks unlikely to happen after scoring just one goal and providing an assist in 19 Serie A matches for 2018/19.
His contract with La Vecchia Signora expires in June 2021, and it is doubtful at this stage if he will get it extended or if he will be sold for a profit. He could potentially be remembered as an unfulfilled talent in years’ time, but his career clearly was not intended to be heading on this path.
Pjaca made his senior debut in a competitive match as a 16-year-old for Lokomotiva Zagreb in February 2012 against NK Zadar in the Prva HNL and he had his breakthrough campaign in 2013/14, scoring seven times in the league.
Dinamo Zagreb was impressed with his ability to play on both the right and left wing, and the Croatian giants acquired him from Lokomotiva for a reported figure of €1 million in the summer of 2014.
In two seasons with the Modri, he won two Croatian league and cup doubles, including the first goal in the 2016 Croatian Cup Final against Slaven Belupo. Coach Zoran Mamić tried Pjaca in a variety of positions including the attacking midfielder and striker roles and the youngster still performed well.
Vatreni coach Ante Čačić selected him for Euro 2016 and the winger scored his only international goal so far in a 10-0 victory against San Marino in a friendly before the tournament. A cameo appearance in the 1-0 victory against Turkey in Group D gave Pjaca his first taste of playing at a major tournament, but he was brought into the starting line-up against Spain after not playing in the 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic.
Although he started on the right wing against La Furia Roja, he eventually moved to the left wing and then started to constantly torture the Spanish defence. Not only did he have the pace the pace to beat his opponents, but he was blessed with the guile, dribbling ability, and confidence to take them on.
Pjaca might not have been directly involved in the goals, but he was still one of the Vatreni’s best performers on the night, and he was only replaced by Duje Čop two minutes into stoppage time. Portugal was the next opponent, but the starlet was only given the last 10 minutes of extra-time to turn things around as Croatia lost 1-0 in the Round of 16 clash to the eventual champions.
By then, the Dinamo Zagreb player was one of Europe’s most sought-after youngsters and Juventus paid the Modri €23 million for his services. He scored his only goal for La Vecchia Signora in a 2-0 victory against FC Porto in the Round of 16 of the Champions League and he played 14 times in Serie A during the 2016/17 campaign, but it was in that season in which he suffered his first major injury.
While on international duty with Croatia in October 2016, he sustained a calf injury in training which ruled him out of World Cup qualifiers against Kosovo and Finland, but a further diagnosis confirmed that he had cracked a fibula.
Pjaca made his return from the fibula injury in January 2017 as a substitute in the 3-2 victory against Atalanta in the Coppa Italia and he played in both legs against Porto in the Champions League. But just when things were looking up for him, he sustained a cruciate ligament injury in Croatia’s 3-0 defeat against Estonia in a friendly in March of that year, which sidelined him for over six months.
On an amateur pitch in an international friendly, Pjaca twisted his knee, suffering the first major setback in his international career. Croatian winger Ivan Perisić lamented the loss of his team-mate, saying “The biggest defeat in this friendly was losing Pjaca. The pitch was criminal, terrible.” Had it not been for the injury, it may very well have been Pjaca starting in last summer’s World Cup, rather than his Nerazzurri compatriot.
He made some appearances in the Juventus youth team, but he played no senior games for the Bianconeri in 2017/18, and a January loan spell at German club Schalke for the remainder of the campaign, in which he scored twice in seven Bundesliga appearances, was still enough for Vatreni coach Zlatko Dalić to select him for the 2018 World Cup squad.
In addition to his cameo appearance in the final, Pjaca played four minutes in the opening game against Nigeria and he started in the 2-1 victory against Iceland, playing 70 minutes before being replaced by Dejan Lovren.
With the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus and Italian international Federico Bernardeschi earning more playing time, the Croatian winger went on loan to Fiorentina for the 2018/19 season and he was looking forward to establishing himself as a regular with the Viola.
“It was a long negotiation but I wanted to come here from the start and I’m glad it’s happened,” Pjaca said in his press conference in August 2018.
“I can’t wait to start playing. I will give everything to do well here and get good results this season. I’m ready, and I think form will come with matches, I cannot say how many I will need.”
Unfortunately Pjaca has struggled to adapt at Fiorentina and eventually Belgian winger Kevin Mirallas took his spot in the starting line-up while Colombian striker Luis Muriel as well as Brazilian starlet Gerson have taken his place in the second half of the season.
On March 9, Fiorentina released a statement on its website, saying that the Croat had suffered anterior cruciate ligament injury to the left knee, nearly two years after he had suffered the same injury on the right.
It will be remarkable for Pjaca to comeback successfully from this, but there have been players such as Irish defender Paul McGrath and Italian forward Fabio Quagliarella that had suffered knee injuries and still had long, successful careers, so he could take solace in their situations. However, it’s likely he’ll end up another unfulfilled talent like his compatriot Alen Bokšić in the 1990s.
It will be a long way back for the 23-year-old, and after two unsuccessful loans, his early promise has now been shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty and despair.
By: Vito Doria