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Croatia’s Mandzukic has stamina to spare, says former coach

Zagreb (AFP) – Croatia’s World Cup semi-final hero Mario Mandzukic built up his stamina as a child on the banks of the Sava river in his native region of Slavonia.

The Juventus striker’s first football coach, Damir Ruhek, 58, remembers Mandzukic’s return to his home town of Slavonski Brod as a 10-year-old after being forced away to Bosnia and Germany because of Croatia’s war of independence.

“After the first two or three training sessions, I saw that he had something special. He stood out for his speed, but also his running endurance,” Ruhek told AFP.

With training pitches at a premium due to damage during the war and the presence of Serbian forces on the other side of the Sava, Mandzukic and his teammates were forced to train on the beach of Poloj, more than 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) away.

“To get them there, I put the two goalkeepers in the car… but the others had to run and a young Mandzukic was always first,” added Ruhek.

Just a year after turning professional with NK Marsonia, Mandzukic was plucked from the third division club by NK Zagreb before moving to Croatia’s top club Dinamo Zagreb.

The man nicknamed “Super Mario” by his compatriots has since gone on to play for some of Europe’s top clubs — Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and now Italian champions Juve.

On Wednesday he scored the winning goal against England to take Croatia to their first ever World Cup final.

However, he has not forgotten his roots.

“Every year, really every year he comes back, brings jerseys and shoes for the children in the academy, and a few years ago he gave us money to re-equip our locker room and showers,” said Ruhek. “He did not forget us.”

On Thursday, the day after his semi-final heroics, he was honoured by the local government of the region, with Mayor Mirko Duspara lauding him as “a fantastic sportsman, but even more a man with a big heart”.

With 32 goals, Mandzukic is the second-highest goalscorer in Croatia’s history behind another son of Slavonia, 1998 World Cup Golden Boot winner Davor Suker. 

Suker gave the French a scare by scoring the opening goal when the two sides met in the semi-finals in 1998 before France emerged 2-1 victors.

Mandzukic hopes to go one better and will have the stamina to keep running after three periods of extra-time to reach the final. “We will be ready on Sunday,” he told the Croatian press.

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