If Erno Rubik, creator of the famous Rubik’s Cube, had ever branched out and sculpted a footballer, he’d surely have created Alen Boksic.
Seemingly blessed with all the attacking gifts required to reach the very top of the game, Boksic had once been considered the new Marco Van Basten and Europe’s answer to Ronaldo.
Physically robust – hard even to foul – Boksic could go through the gears at an alarming rate. He possessed powerful shooting, tight control with both feet, and was prodigious in the air.
He was also an absolute master of the chip. Whether it was as a one-on-one where he would lift it over the advancing goalkeeper or even from outside the area, he made it look ridiculously easy, just as he made a number of goalkeepers look ridiculous.
Yet only once in his career did Boksic register more than 20 goals in a single season.
“With the cube, there are many flashes, there are many aha’s”, the Hungarian inventor Rubik had pontificated.
Boksic’s prolific 1992-93 season with Marseille – he scored 23 Ligue 1 goals and six in the European Cup, helping the French side win both – became the de-facto proof that the Boksic algorithm could yield the highest results.
It would prove to be the reference point that encouraged Lazio (twice) and Juventus to take a punt on a player who finished fourth in the Ballon d’Or ahead of the likes of Michael Laudrup, Paolo Maldini, Hristo Stoichkov and Ruud Gullit in 1993.
Boksic never replicated his form from that one season while in Italy, but his value lay beyond just goal scoring. He was part of a new wave of centre-forwards that Thierry Henry says reinvented the role in the 1990s:
“They were the first to drop from the penalty box to pick up the ball in midfield, switch to the flanks, attract and disorientate the central defenders with their runs, their accelerations, their dribbling.”
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Boksic fitted this mould. Managers at the time understood his talents would provide their team with variety, even allowing for a lack of efficiency in front of goal at times.
Asked who of Boksic or Davor Suker was the better striker, international colleague Slaven Bilic once said: “I don’t know who is better.
“If you ask me as a centre-back, when you play against Boksic, he would have slaughtered you. Running, dribbling, going left in the channel. He’d kick you, beat you, whatever. But maybe he wouldn’t score.
“But Suker? You’d have a good game against Suker, but then he’d score a couple.”
As a combination, perhaps Suker’s poise benefitted from Boksic’s softening up of the opposition.
As if to highlight the point, Boksic scored only 17 goals across three seasons in Serie A for Lazio between 1993 and 1996 yet earned a move to Juve, where he won the Scudetto, Coppa Italia, European Super Cup and World Club Cup in a single season.
However, perhaps Juve were hoping to get another season like 1992-93 out of Boksic because, despite the team’s success, he was sold back to Lazio after just one year.
In his second spell in the Eternal City he helped the club win only its second ever Scudetto, along with the Coppa Italia and the Cup Winners ‘Cup (although he had little involvement in this now defunct competition). It was no coincidence that he was part of successful teams.
However, a succession of injuries and bad luck (perhaps fate if it exists) all counted against Boksic when it came to receiving the recognition his talent merited. At the most important points of his career, the necessary algorithms were absent.
He was withdrawn by the Yugoslavian Football Federation from playing in the 1987 World Youth Cup – on the premise that he’d gain more playing domestic football – only for a team including talents such as Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Predrag Mijatovic and Robert Prosinecki to win the tournament.
Later, his achievements as top scorer in the Marseille team that won the European Cup and French domestic league titles in 1992 were muddied by a match-fixing scandal which eventually saw the club stripped of the league title and relegated. Boksic formed part of the ensuing fire sale of players.
A head injury in the first half of Croatia’s opening game at Euro 96 negated any impact he may have made in the new nation’s international tournament debut, while injury ruled out his participation at France 98, where Croatia finished third.
It was Boksic who had scored the decisive goal in the second leg of the play-off for the tournament against Ukraine which sealed qualification, but that would be the end of his role in the national team’s finest hour.
By the time Boksic was injury-free for a tournament, aged 32, at the World Cup in 2002, many of his illustrious team-mates were in the twilight of their careers. Croatia were nowhere near the force they had been and made little impact. Luck, it appeared, was not on his side.
Following his title success with Lazio in 2000, Boksic surprisingly moved to Middlesbrough. The wage of £65,000 a week (reportedly making him the highest earner at the time in English football) undoubtedly played its part in swaying him, but he cut an isolated figure at Boro.
“I sensed the lads didn’t like him and it was easy to understand why,” Gareth Southgate said when he moved to the Riverside Stadium in Boksic’s second season with the club.
“In Steve McClaren’s vision for Boro, everyone worked together and no-one sought special treatment. But there were two sets of rules at Boro: rules for Alen and rules for the rest.
“In pre-season training, when he felt he had done enough, he walked away from the group and began his warming down exercises. The remarkable part was the complete lack of embarrassment, the refusal to excuse himself.”
There were even rumours that Boksic was oblivious as to who the club were playing and that he would go back to Croatia and not tell anyone.
Yet despite the question marks over his professionalism in England, Boksic loomed large over Middlesbrough’s best moments during the period he was at the club, helping keep them in the Premier League and scoring decisively in derbies and against the best sides in the land, often in outstanding fashion.
Ultimately, though, his time in England followed the same pattern as the rest of his career. He could have been one of the best players of the 1990s, but instead, much like the Rubik’s Cube, he’ll be remembered best as a puzzle so many people failed to find the answer to.
By Leon Wilde