Croatia might not have qualified for the second time in a row in the final of the FIFA World Cup, but their antics at Qatar 2022 will surely be remembered for a long time in the country with a four-million population. It is especially the penalty win against Brazil that will surely be etched into the ethos and the history of Croatia, one that was made possible by the extra-time goal of Bruno Petkovic, a striker who returned to his home country in 2019, after a disappointing seven-year spell in Italy.
Petkovic knew immediately when he started playing football that he was going to be a striker, citing his idols to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Brazilian Ronaldo. His first steps were made in smaller teams in Croatia, but the big break looked to come in 2012, when he was 18 years old, as Italian team Catania snapped him up on a transfer. He started in the youth ranks of the Sicilian club and even made his first appearance for the senior side against Torino.
And while his potential might have been huge, forcing Catania to snap him up, he duly failed to deliver the goods in Italy. The next seven years were a blur for Petkovic, who played in all the top three divisions of Italy – Serie A, Serie B and Serie C – featuring seven different teams.
In 2014, he left for Serie B side Varese, but scored a goal in eight matches. He dropped down to the third league in Italy, where he featured 15 times for Reggiana. He came back to Sicily and played for two years for Trapani, between 2015 and 2017.
“He reminds me of Ibrahimovic. He has incredible quality. I’m sure he’ll be a thoroughbred, a superstar,” said Trapani’s coach, Serse Cosmi, according to FIFA.com.
Of course, Cosmi had his share of trouble with Petkovic, as the striker could look disheartened and uninterested in what is going on in the team.
“He was special, as a coach you have to pet him and talk to him. I remember many episodes with him, I remember the last round of that season. We are going away to Bari, we need a win for third place and home field advantage in the play-off. Everyone is ready for the trip, but he is not there. We call him, we ask, nothing. And then literally at the last moment, he appears, eyes barely open, hair disheveled, barely awake. Was I angry? However I did not say anything, because we needed him,” said Cosmi.
Once again, the stint was cut short and Petkovic moved to Bologna, in Serie A, where he failed to score in 21 appearances. Another loan to Hellas Verona followed, where he did not score in 16 games. At one point, 620 days passed without Petkovic even scoring a goal, as the Croatia striker amassed over 2300 minutes without a goal.
He needed a change of scenery and he went immediately back to Croatia, where Petkovic signed for powerhouse Dinamo Zagreb. Slowly, but surely, Petkovic was back to his best, flashing the qualities that made him so good back in the day.
With 62 goals in 193 matches for Dinamo in the last five seasons, he is one of the top scorers in the team and his qualities – technique and speed – which are not necessarily suited for his tall build, really captured the mind of the Croatia fans.
Sure enough, Petkovic was back in the national team for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, despite having not scored a goal since a UEFA Nations League game against Portugal, in September 2020.
It took two years for the striker to hit again, but he was decisive, helping Croatia tie the game against Brazil in extra-time, when there were only four minutes left in the match, and eventually seal a huge win on penalties in the quarter-final of Qatar 2022.
“Without a doubt that goal against Brazil was the most important of my career. It’s something that will stay with me forever, that I’ll tell my children about, and it’s part of the country’s history too,” said Petkovic.
“With every passing day I understand a bit more about what that goal means, for me and for the people of Croatia. I think our fighting spirit has a lot to do with the history that we’ve lived through,” added Croatia’s striker.
While the “Vatreni” will not feature once again in the final, like at Russia 2018, Petkovic’s story brings plenty to the table. It is a story with a player that could have been excellent but failed for plenty of his young years. Back in Croatia, he thrived. And now, he became a national hero with a goal against Brazil, that will be remembered for eternity. Everything is possible if talent is put to use.