Just a week before the club celebrate the tenth anniversary of their Juventus Stadium home, Mario Mandžukić has announced his retirement from football. The Italian giants have enjoyed unparalleled success since opening the venue back in 2011, and while the Croatian striker is certainly not among the first players you’d think of wearing the Bianconero shirt there, he is undoubtedly among the most beloved.
The two events provide a stark juxtaposition between a stadium that helped Juve march relentlessly into the modern era of a game dominated by Europe’s super clubs and Mandžukić, a throwback to the values of a bygone era.
When discussing such a player, it is easy to toss around cliched words and phrases. “Grinta” is often among the first that fans will go for, the grittiness and fighting spirit that the no.17 so visibly displayed. Mandžukić was often held up as an example of “Juventinità” – Juventus-ness – that has always underpinned the Old Lady’s success, a combination of professionalism, class and loyalty that was carried by players like Gaetano Scirea, Alessandro Del Piero and Claudio Marchisio.
But before discussing what he meant to supporters, it is important to remember that Mandžukić was more than just a hardworking fighter who gave his all for the cause. He was a fine international player with 89 caps and 33 goals – including one in the 2018 World Cup Final – for his beloved Croatia.
He had a glittering career spanning 17 years, starting with spells at Marsonia, NK Zagreb and Dinamo Zagreb (where he won three league titles in three seasons) in his homeland. In 2010 he moved abroad for the first time with Wolfsburg where two good seasons and an excellent showing at Euro 2012 – finishing as the tournament’s joint-top scorer despite playing just three games – prompted Bayern Munich to snap him up.
Netting on his competitive debut to help win the German Supercup, he would be the club’s top scorer as they won the Bundesliga title and he also opened the scoring in the Champions League Final to complete a remarkable four-trophy haul. Pep Guardiola’s arrival would prompt him to depart, and after scoring an impressive 48 times in 88 games for Bayern, Mandžukić would add another 20 in his lone season at Atletico Madrid.
It was then that Juventus made their move. Rebuilding following the exits of Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, a €19 million fee and a four-year contract were quickly agreed. His debut came in the 2015 Supercoppa Italiana, a match played at the Shanghai Stadium where a 69th minute cross from Stephan Lichtsteiner set up Lazio’s Dusan Basta as the first victim of what soon became Mandžukić’s calling card.
As the ball came into the box, some clever movement allowed Mario to pit himself against the full-back and he towered over him, heading home to put Juve on track for a 2-0 win.
It would not be the last…
His second season saw the arrival of Gonzalo Higuain, and when Juve struggled boss Max Allegri opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation that pushed Mandžukić out to the left flank to allow the Argentinian to thrive in the middle with support from his compatriot Paulo Dybala. That system would take the Bianconeri all the way to a league-and-cup double, as well as a Champions League Final against Real Madrid.
Although Juve were outclassed in Cardiff by the Spanish side, Mandžukić scored a superb overhead kick that gave them at least some hope going into half-time. In 2019, after four Serie A titles and three Coppa Italia triumphs, Maurizio Sarri’s arrival saw an unceremonious end to his tenure in Turin, but there were no complaints and no bitter soundbites for the media to jump upon.
Indeed, speaking from experience for a moment, I applied to speak with Mandžukić on a number of occasions, only to be told by the press office that “Mario doesn’t do interviews.” In today’s world, there is undoubtedly something admirable about a footballer who is happy to simply play football and let others do the talking.
It was that old school attitude that saw the Curva Sud form a tight bond with Mandžukić. “A warrior among men” declared a banner unfurled just before a 2017 Champions League clash with Barcelona, a rare display of affection from Ultras who don’t often get to deliver such wonderful tributes.
But if any player deserved it, then it is Mandžukić. Whether it’s playing out of position, tracking back to help out his defence, heading away opposition set pieces or simply getting in fights to protect his team-mates, he did it all. There were some wonderful assists – 17 in total – as well as 44 goals, all of which seemed to be far post headers over helpless full-backs, and many were celebrated by leaps up the barrier that separates the Curva Sud from the pitch.
Since his departure, there is no doubt that the spirit he embodied has been eroded, the team under Andrea Pirlo last season – and even the two games with Allegri so far this term – sorely lacking the grinta and Juventinità that Mandžukić proudly carried into every single match.
Even the statement announcing his retirement was typical of the man. No flashy speeches and certainly no interviews, just an Instagram post to his younger self, telling the story of the career he had enjoyed. “Above all, you'll succeed because you'll always give your best. At the end, that's what you'll be most proud of. You'll sacrifice a lot, but you'll know it was worth it because of all the amazing moments.”
He did, and it was. Goodbye Marione, and thank you. You truly were a warrior among men.