During the 2015 Champions League quarter-finals, Sergio Ramos’ wayward elbow connected with Mario Mandžukić’s face, and I swear I felt my heart soar straight out of my chest.
It’s not that I like seeing opposing players hurt. Far from it; I don’t wish harm on even my most bitter rival. It’s not even that I get a particular thrill out of Ramos’ card-happy antics. It’s more that I got to experience one of the purest phenomena in modern football playing out right in front of me, as it has so many times before and as it will again.
The dichotomy between players’ personality on the pitch and their real life exploits has always been uniquely fascinating to me. Generally, more of a meal is made out of how the media portrays a player versus how they actually act – see also, anything written about Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. What about the players who are rarely portrayed by the media at all? All you have to go off of is what you see for ninety minutes at a time once or twice a week and what little you know of their as-close-to-real-as-it-gets personality. The two don’t always align, and occasionally they miss each other by miles.
That’s the space where I live. Standing between metaphorical representations of my favorite striker as a lunatic on the pitch and a mouse of a man off of it, pointing at both and gleefully telling anyone who will listen: Look! Look at him! Look at these two diametrically opposed depictions! They’re the same person!
I’ve loved Mario Mandžukić since before I can remember. My unwavering adoration of him predates my actual entry into being a football fan. As a Croatian-American, Vatreni was always on my radar, even before I truly cared about the sport. And as a generally brash and loud person, I found myself drawn to players who I deemed most similar to me. When I saw Mandzo bowling the opposition over in his single-minded pursuit of the ball, spitting curses and blood, I felt a kindred spirit. That would be me, I thought, If I were a 6’2” athletic powerhouse playing for my country. We are one.
That night at the Vicente Calderón, Mandzo was bleeding profusely from a gash over his eye. He shouted at the ref while batting away his national teammate turned club rival Luka Modrić’s attempts at placation. He bled, he yelled, he bled some more and yelled some more. Cards were brandished. Eventually play resumed, but I remained stuck in that moment for the duration of the match.
Mandzo generally isn’t spoken about often, but when he is it’s all to the same tune. Brutish. Rough. Imposing. An instigator. During his time at NK Zagreb, the great Ćiro Blažević gave him his very own nickname: Đilkoš. Unsophisticated. Brash. Gaudy. And though it perfectly encapsulates the essence of Mandzo’s playing style, he bristled at the word being used to describe him. In 2011, he asked in an interview with Sportske novosti not to be called that anymore. In no uncertain terms, he reminded everyone, “I have a name.”
This is the point where I began to reevaluate the earliest bloom of love that I felt in my chest for Mandzo.
It took a while to unpack. He stays out of the media as much as possible, so there isn’t exactly a wealth of information to dig up on him. But slowly, tiny piece by tiny piece, it became clear to me that I’d bought into his narrative penny for pound. There’s a fiction created every time he takes the pitch, a short story written in his wake of destruction. The Mario Mandžukić who barrels past defenders and knocks them to the ground, who whips around to argue with the first official to call him out, who smears his own blood as he gesticulates and shouts – the Đilkoš caricature who I decided was my spiritual counterpart in the world of football? He doesn’t exist. Not really. That may be how Mandzo plays football, but just as his divorce from the nickname implied, that’s not who he is as a person.
As is so often the case, the truth is much stranger and more compelling than fiction.
Mandzo was born and began his professional career in Slavonski Brod, Croatia. When the city was hit by the worst flooding in the Balkans in over a century, Mandzo was there. It was somewhat serendipitous timing – due to his incompatibility with Pep Guardiola, he had just severed ties with Bayern Munich. With his future uncertain and the 2014 World Cup less than one month away, he made his way back home not to relax and plan his next steps, but to help aid in the humanitarian efforts.
Perhaps that’s an extreme example. Even the most outlandish player has moments of empathy and altruism. It may or may not say anything about his character. But to me, it was the most publicly visible example of the true Mandzo that had ever been reported.
There are smaller, quieter things too. Mandzo keeps his private life extremely private. When asked, he doesn’t give details. He claims what he does with his free time would bore everyone. He’s a trained ceramic tiler. He’s close with his sister, goes home to Slavonski Brod to visit his friends often, and doesn’t particularly enjoy giving interviews or talking in front of a camera. The most blatant display of public affection he’s ever engaged in was getting two names stitched into his boots – his equally private girlfriend’s name on one, and his pug Leni’s on the other. He once said he would rather stay at home with Leni than go to training (which is just about the most hashtag-relatable thing I can think of).
All told, he’s a man who’s buttoned straight up to the top of his collar. As soon as he steps off the pitch, that combative exterior flakes off like cheap paint. He draws inward, becomes gentle and humble, even self-effacing at times. Once I looked past his madman act on the pitch, that initial pang of I relate to this player therefore I adore him grew roots in something more profound. It was a nice reminder that footballers – even seemingly wild, ghoulish ones like Mandzo – have unexplored depths, just like us. Parts of themselves too tender to shove into the public eye. A need for separation between work and home, to not always be on.
In some strange way, this revelation made me feel better about my own rare moments of vulnerability and reticence. If Mario Mandžukić doesn’t keep up his public persona at all times, why should I? I can be bold and aggressive and far too loud, but when I want to slow down to let myself breathe and feel, I can. I should. I’ll still be me, and Mandzo will still be Mandzo.
At thirty years old, Mandzo’s career has entered its waning twilight years. He’s still as vibrant and explosive on the pitch as ever, but time marches on. It won’t be too long before he’s hanging up his boots. While that hurts to imagine, there’s a strong silver lining to it all: He couldn’t be doing it in a better place.
After fumbling his way through his last three clubs and ending things on rough terms with all of them, Mandzo seems genuinely settled and happy at Juventus. It’s been bizarre and exciting to watch. He’s still reserved, but he’s joyful in a way I haven’t seen at the club level in a long while. When a club can get Mandzo to appear on camera, laughing and joking with his teammates in a way that is completely relaxed and natural – as if he forgot the cameras that he dislikes so intensely are there at all – then you know everyone involved has found something special.
I don’t claim to know how, but the Bianconeri have managed to put him at ease in a way that lets the Mandzo I’ve always known on Vatreni shine through. In doing so, he’s managed to strike a balance in his confusing, fascinating dichotomy. He’s slightly calmer and more level-headed on the pitch, and just a pinch more outgoing and open off of it.
The lines are still firmly drawn between these two aspects of his life, but it’s safe to say that while his playing style remains as ferocious and unrelenting as ever, Mario Mandžukić hasn’t been Đilkoš since he donned the black and white stripes. He’s always known that, of course – but now we’re lucky enough to see it too.