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Masking the madness

sports Updated: Jun 18, 2012 01:36 IST

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According to Mario Mandzukic's father, it was not the team effort on the field that brought Croatia their win against the Republic of Ireland in the first-round game of the tournament, or manager Slaven Bilic's tactics. It was a tiny insect.

On the day of the match, Mandzukic Sr saw a ladybug on the window drape in his apartment in Slavonski Brod. He called his son in Poland to tell him about it, but not before he had made a wsh – in Croatia ladybugs are believed to bring good luck, and he had asked for his son to score not just one, but two goals. And so he did.

Without the ladybug's help, Mandzukic fired in another goal in the match against Italy, as Croatia levelled the score on minutes. "That was an amazing moment for me," he said. "As a kid, I watched many of Gigi Buffon's games and dreamed of scoring against him one day. I was overwhelmed with happiness when that actually happened."

In the limelight

Mandzukic, now 26, is enjoying the limelight before having to return to the uncertainty of his club career. Even though he had a decent season at Wolfsburg, scoring 12 goals (seven of which were headers – the most in the Bundesliga), his club has put him on the transfer list, with the manager, Felix Magath, saying they “will accept any fair offer.”

So how come they want to get rid of him if he's that good? The answer lies in the player's nature, which has been compared to that of another Super Mario. No, not Gomez.

When asked about Mario Balotelli's threat ahead of the Italy game, Bilic said: “Geniuses are always the closest to lunatics and he [Balotelli] is a borderline case. But we have a couple of those in our team as well." Mandzukic is one of them.

He does not go around setting houses on fire, throwing darts at people or breaking into women's prisons in his spare time, but his behaviour on the pitch is just as unpredictable.

While he was at Dinamo Zagreb, Mandzukic frequently got booked for peculiar reasons – such as tackling recklessly when his team was 3-0 ahead, kicking the ball out of play after the final whistle, and yelling at referees. He also publicly admitted he did not have enough motivation to play against the “village teams”.

Lesser fee

When the word about his character spread, the club had to settle for a much lower transfer fee than they originally had asked for, with Mandzukic signing for Wolfsburg for just under £6m in 2010. There he has put in some good performances but has also got into conflict with Magath this season. The manager resented him for not working hard enough in training, as well as his lack of defensive effort.

"No coach can tame him," Magath said of Mandzukic. "He’s a shrewd and aggressive striker, but often looks reluctant arrogant on the pitch," added a report recently. It has also been reported that he enjoys taunting the younger players in training, waiting for them to collect all the balls at the end of the session and then firing them at the goal again.

Defensive failings

Mandzukic's defensive failings came to light in Croatia's draw with Italy.

He was supposed to drop deep and track Andrea Pirlo when Italy were in possession but did so for only a few minutes, thus putting his team in danger.

Bilic reacted with a stroke of genius, fitting of a man who once wrote a rock song called “Blazing Madness”: instead of subbing Mandzukic he changed the whole formation at half-time, moving the forward to the right from where he cut inside to score his dream goal against Buffon and become a hero in Croatia.

If Mandzukic can score against Spain on Monday as well, big-name suitors are sure to come knocking, regardless of his character. “They are a grand team, but we have no fear of them,” Mandzukic said. “We will need a little luck, too.”

Papa Mandzukic is probably on the hunt for bugs right now.