TMG Feature

Josip Ilicic at Euro 2024: A win for football romantics

5 min read
Cover Image for Josip Ilicic at Euro 2024: A win for football romantics
Chris McMenamy
Chris McMenamy

It takes a lot to coax any emotion other than anger out of Gian Piero Gasperini.

“It’s too personal and delicate. Venturing into our heads is like entering a jungle,” said Gasperini in January 2022 of Josip Ilicic’s publicly documented mental health struggles. 

Late last year, the brusque Atalanta manager shed tears in an interview when asked about visiting the Slovenian during his treatment for depression at a clinic the week before their Champions League quarter-final against PSG in August 2020. 

Two years later, Ilicic was released from his Atalanta contract so he could return home to Slovenia.

However, this is a story with a much happier ending than one might have expected a year ago. This is one for the football romantics. 

A football cult hero and bona fide Atalanta legend had his career derailed by depression.

36-year-old Ilicic will be at Euro 2024 with Slovenia less than two years after it seemed his career might be over.

Five months prior to Gasperini’s clinic visit, Ilicic looked like a world beater, scoring four goals in a single game as Atalanta knocked Valencia out of Europe, but his adopted home of Bergamo had become the continent’s ground zero for COVID-19 and it wasn’t long before the world shut down.

Ilicic was alone, stuck at home while his family were back in Slovenia. A football cult hero and bona fide Atalanta legend had his career derailed by depression. The Slovenian maestro’s battle is a reminder that footballers are indeed human.

His mental state and background rarely would have entered my mind when watching him play football prior to 2020. Perhaps that’s a general ignorance to the idea that footballers are more than just entertaining millionaires but you don’t find yourself thinking about such things when a player is at the top of his game.

Ilicic ties vintage and modern football together.

He was born in Bosnia & Herzegovina to an ethnic Croat family in a majority Serb town and his father was killed by a Serb neighbour when Ilicic was a baby. He grew up in Slovenia as a refugee of the wars that raged during the breakup of Yugoslavia and chose to represent the country in which he spent his formative years.

Few players have been able to pair grace and power quite as seamlessly as Ilicic. Watch a highlight reel on YouTube and you quickly understand the origin of his nickname, Il Professore.

Ilicic ties vintage and modern football together. He dribbles past players and shoots from distance in a way that is rarely seen anymore yet has the passing range and presence of mind not to expose himself to today’s obsession with percentages and stats. 

He is a trequartista with the strength of a defender and if he were more consistent at his peak, it isn’t difficult to imagine him being in the conversation when it comes to the world’s best players at that time. But that’s all in the past now.

An era ended when Atalanta terminated his contract in September 2022. That attack of Zapata, Muriel, Gomez and Ilicic was raw entertainment and felt like the breakout album that took Gasperini’s team mainstream.

A fitting third act in a wonderful career.

Football moves on quickly. It doesn’t allow for sentimentality, yet most football lovers cannot live without it. Ilicic was an artist in his prime and his return to Slovenia with Maribor has started to resemble some of the masterpieces he painted on Italian soil.

While Slovenia’s Prva Liga is a far cry from Serie A, beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to football. His first season back home was plagued by injury, appearing only 14 times, but this year has been a different story.

At 36, he racked up 21 goal contributions across league, cup and Europa Conference League, hence the Slovenia call up after almost three years without a cap.

His nine goals and twelve assists are littered with brushstrokes of the vintage Ilicic. Delicate, pinpoint crosses. Perfectly weighted passes. Feints and cutbacks that leave defenders frozen. The laser accurate left foot shot. It’s all there, it’s just a little slower, which is to be expected.

His return to international football set the nostalgia receptors alight. Moments after coming off the bench, he found himself free on the right wing and received a perfect pass from Petar Stojanovic. 

The covering defender met the old Ilicic. Cutback onto his left foot, turn, shoot with precision and power. A goal that puts him on the plane to Germany. 

Josip Ilicic is off to his first international tournament aged 36. A fitting third act in a wonderful career that could have ended with great sadness and it’s a testament to the man’s ability and fortitude that he made this comeback.

Romance in football still exists, as proven here. Now, all we need is him to score the winner against England in a few weeks’ time, eh? Only joking. Sort of.

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