For some people traveling is the best way to celebrate a birthday. Some want to be with their families, and some want to get drunk with their friends. I would personally prefer to watch football. Especially in this situation, we have now.
The only better way to blow the candles out of your birthday cake than watching football is by playing it. In Champions League. And scoring goals. Four of them, to be exact. And only one person in the world has done that. A pony-tailed mechanic from Croatia.
We gonna party – like it’s your birthday
It was 5th November 2003, and Monaco was in the second place of Champions League Group C. “Les Rouges et Blancs” were having a great season. They were battling out with Lyon and PSG for the silverware in France, and with a win over Deportivo La Coruna at home, they would get to the first place in their Champions League group.
Deportivo was well known for its unbreakable defense, and disciplined approach to the game. Charismatic talisman goalkeeper Jose Francisco Molina was the leader of this team, alongside players like Diego Tristan, Roy Makaay and Juan Carlos Valeron upfront.
In the first three games, he got beaten only once, by Vasilios Tsiartas in the 86th minute of the first leg match against AEK in Greece.
“It was my birthday. I told to myself before that game, I will surely score one goal…”, Dado Pršo starts his story.
It was 2nd minute when Manuel Pablo made a mistake, and Jerome Rothen scored. In 11th minute Ludovic Giuly doubled the lead, and then it started. The best birthday party in the history of the Champions League, and perhaps in the history of football.
26th minute. Rothen flicks the ball from the corner, and towering 190 centimeters tall Monaco striker Dado Pršo heads the ball home, from the edge of the five-meter box. Four minutes later Deportivo’s defense was careless yet again, and Pršo was the strongest man in the air. It’s 4:0, and Pršo scores yet another headed goal from point-blank distance.
It was the end of the first half when Rothen made a through pass, Ludovic Giuly managed to get the ball and to get an assist. Pršo was alone, with no one ahead of him, on the edge of the box. He powered the ball into the net and raised his hands in celebration.
The second half started with a goal from Monaco, and then Rothen again assisted for Pršo for his fourth goal of the game. He stormed from the back and blasted the ball into the net of Gustavo Munua because desperate Deportivo manager changed goalkeepers at the halftime.
“… but four balls went into the net. I got the prize from the heavens for my hard work. That was really great birthday gift and maybe my best game ever“, continues Pršo his story.
That was the day Dado Pršo turned 29. All eyes were on him, and the whole population of at least two countries idolized him. Croatia and Monaco celebrated together with their favorite striker.
Matters of the heart
Ten years before, chances for successful football career for 19-year-old Miladin, or Dado as friends called him, seemed grim. He was stuck in France, fleeing from the war in his homeland, and working as a car mechanic. Never seen as talented, he played for Hajduk Split’s youth teams, but one medical examination revealed irregular heartbeat. Hajduk sent him to Zurich to be examined once again, but they didn’t want to gamble with him. NK Pazinka gave him his first professional contract in 1992. In 26 games in Croatian top tier, he scored just twice. That proved to be his only 2 goals in the Croatian league ever.
War was ravaging Croatia, and many people fled the country. Pršo and his family moved to France, where he signed for Rouen in the second tier, but once again failed to impress. Rouen managed to get out of French Divison 2, as Ligue 2 was called back then, but in two seasons there towering striker scored just once, in 10 games.
Life was catching up, and football didn’t pay the bills, so the 19-year-old boy from Zadar had to find a job. He signed for fourth-tier Stade Raphaelois and started to work as a mechanic in a local workshop. Born by the sea, in a land of wine, pretty women and amazing nature, Dado wasn’t too strict on himself. He was living a bohemian life, day by day. What he earned by the day, he spent in Riviera’s casinos and bars in the night. Once weekly football matches for St Raphael were little more than a past-time, but then something happened.
He met his future wife Carole, and she convinced Dado that he can do it. Instead of casinos, he spent his time with Carole, or on a training pitch. Once again he found joy in scoring, and he scored 7 times in league games for St Raphael. But a friendly game propelled his career.
It was 1996, and St Raphael played French giants Monaco in a friendly. Pršo was a man of the match, and French legend and Monaco manager at that time Jean Tigana decided to give him a chance.
He would spend one season in Monaco’s reserve side alongside future great David Trezeguet, and it seemed that young Croatian international yet again had an obstacle he couldn’t handle in front of him.
Trezegeut was seen as a top prospect, and Thiery Henry was another young gun in Monaco’s attack. Tigana sent Pršo to AC Ajaccio in third-tier, and he got going. In his first season, he helped Ajaccio to win promotion. Next year he was the best Ajaccio player, and his team was safe in the middle of the Ligue 2 table.
A mechanic that wins the title
Pršo’s life was looking a lot better at this moment, but a cult hero status was nowhere to be seen. He was stuck on the bench because Monaco had a fierce attacking duo of David Trezeguet and former Italy international Marco Simone. Trezeguet scored 22 goals, and Simone got one less, in a season that saw Marcelo Gallardo lead brilliant Monaco team to Division 1 glory.
Pršo waited until 29th round to score his first goal, and scored just twice in his 20 outings that season. Injuries persistently hit him, and he couldn’t get firing. In 2000/01 season he scored 4 times. 01/02 season was a disaster with just 11 games played and two goals scored by 27-year-old forward.
It seemed that he just isn’t up to the challenge, but then he and Shabani Nonda became a devastating strikers duo. Two-man that came from poverty and understood one another. Tall, but skillful, they tore through opposition defenses.
Nonda scored 26 goals, and Pršo stepped up with 12, which was enough to be the 7th best scorer of the season. Lyon won the title with one point more than Monaco, and everyone said the same thing. If Pršo didn’t miss half of the games because of injuries, the trophy would be in Monaco’s hands.
That season saw Pršo make a debut in the national team, and like all of his stories, this one was a story about an underdog. A story that broke all the rules, and defined chances.
Nobody knew about Pršo in Croatia in 2003. He didn’t play a game for Monaco until the match with Guingamp on December 15, but then he scored a goal. Then he scored in a cup tie and managed to get two goals in two straight games in Ligue 1 at the start of February.
Media in his homeland noticed him, and Otto Barić listened to his assistant Zoran Vulić. Croatia manager wanted to give Pršo a chance in a game against Belgium, and on February 23 Croatian FA president Vlatko Marković went to the Monaco – Auxerre game. The home team won, and Pršo scored a goal.
“Dado is an exceptional player“, Marković said after the game, and Croatia got a new striker.
Pršo was a mystery even then. A 29-year-old injury-prone player, that never played for Hajduk because of heart problems. Many people in Croatia thought that he wasn’t worth a gamble.
In March Croatia won 4:0 against Belgium in European Championship qualifier, and Pršo scored a brace on his international debut.
He was a savior. A deadly striker that emerged after Davor Šuker ended his international career. A force came from nowhere, to propel Croatia in 2004 Euro. But apart from a footballing miracle, he was a cultural and political anomaly. Born near Zadar in the Serbian family, he was the first Serb in the Croatian national team since the Yugoslav civil war and Croatia’s independence. Just a couple of months ago, nobody could imagine that whole of Croatia would cheer him up. And that Serb mechanic from France would be an idol for Croatian kids on their playgrounds.
Dado Pršo did that, and once again in his career proved that everything is possible.
Glory days of working-class hero
Remember the story from the start of this article? One about a guy scoring 4 goals on his birthday? Well, Pršo also did that against all odds.
Hit by persistent injuries throughout his career Croatian striker went into last season of his contract, and didn’t get a renewal. Although he played well in the previous season, his injuries and financial situation of the club meant he wouldn’t get a new contract.
Monaco squad could have been broken up in the summer when the club was threatened with bankruptcy. After a team meeting, the players decided en masse to give it another shot.
“They were really sought after, some of them. The good thing was they really wanted to stay together. That gave me a lot of confidence. In the modern game, it’s not always easy to come across that sort of attitude. They are a very close group, of a certain age, with hunger, spirit, desire.“, said Didier Deschamps later. He was 35 at that time, and he decided to get rid of Marco Simone, Marcelo Gallardo, and Christian Panucci in the summer, and give a chance to young guns such as Emanuel Adebayor that season.
But the Champions League has a habit of creating unlikely heroes. Injuries that slowed him down the whole time now gave Pršo his chance. Shabani Nonda was ruled out for almost the whole season, so the club loaned Fernando Morientes from Real Madrid. Spaniard was brilliant, and he finished that season as Champions League top goalscorer.
Pršo was on the bench once again, and on his 29th birthday, that should have been the case. But Morientes had a sore thigh, and when Deportivo came to Monaco, towering Croatian international was the only senior striker Deschamps had. He had to play, and he put on one of the biggest goalscoring shows in Champions League history.
“It was the first game I’ve started in the Champions League and I had been so frustrated I was burning with desperation to play. I wanted to prove that I am always here, that when Morientes is absent I can be a solution“, Pršo said afterward.
After that Pršo’s goal got Monaco past Lokomotiv Moscow in Champions League last 16, and he scored an opener against Chelsea in the semifinals.
Jose Mourinho’s Porto was eventually too strong for Didier Deschamps side in the finals, where Pršo came on for injured Ludovic Giuly in the 23rd minute.
Meanwhile, boys started growing their hair and having pony tales because of him in his homeland.
“He was kind of Croatian Jamie Vardy. Now some people say that they know him from Hajduk, but he was really a guy that came out of nowhere. Internet wasn’t so widespread these days, and how could someone know that there is some outlaw mechanic that scores goals for Ajaccio?“, says Telesport journalist Juraj Vrdoljak.
Croatia had to overhaul its ’98 generation, and it was a strange team needing a hero like Pršo to save it.
“That was a strange team. Jozić made a mess as a coach at World Cup 2002, and changing generations proved to be more difficult than anyone thought. Striking options were terrible, and then Herr Otto (Barić) came. Pršo was perfect for that team. He was an old school player, and we played some kind of outdated 3-5-2. Very rigid, with only one or two creative players. Pršo worked for five guys in there. He jumped like crazy, won duels, and worked his ass off to get those balls to his teammates“, Vrdoljak explained.
After his goal against Belgium, Pršo cemented his place in the team, and Croatia was second in its qualifying group. They had to play new rivals Slovenia, a country Croatia had border dispute at that time. The whole country was on its knees, and these two-legged playoffs were much more than just football games.
Towering striker proved to be too much for Slovenia’s defense. He scored home and away. In 61st minute of the away leg at Bežigrad Stadium in Ljubljana, he somehow managed to get through and in between three defenders to score a goal that qualified Croatia to Euro 2004.
In Portugal, he bagged a wonderful goal against France, probably the best goal of his international career, but in a group with England and France, Croatia didn’t go through.
A year of football to go into Rangers legend
“We were emotionally drained before that final. We couldn’t possibly win it. All of us thought about what to do next. Rothen was in PSG, I had a deal with Rangers. I remember Deschamps telling me not to say to teammates I struck that deal because they could all go to tears.“
Pršo and Monaco lost that final, and later that year, Croatia didn’t exactly play as expected on Euro. But Dado’s best season was behind the corner.
He signed for Rangers and immediately got fans to love him. Once again he found his partner in crime, and in 2004/05 season Pršo and Nacho Novo managed to combine for 37 goals. Of course, Ragers won a title, and working-class hero and hard-working striker such as Pršo had to be made into a cult among Rangers fans.
The next two seasons were destroyed by injuries, and at his last game at Ibrox, he walked out after the final whistle wearing a brace on his leg due to damage to his ankle. “We could be heroes just for one day” sang David Bowie from the speakers. Pršo waved at the 50,000 fans who waited for him and was then given the “Guard of Honour” by his teammates, led by captain Barry Ferguson.
“Dado Pršooo, there’s only one Dado Prrršooo“, roared the crowd, all 50.000 of them. He just waived, went back up the tunnel with tears in his eyes.
That was not just any tunnel. That was a way to glory, that was the tunnel that led to football immortality.
Becoming a cult hero
This is a story about a working-class hero. This story tells you everything is possible. Everyone loves Dado Pršo, and it’s really hard not to love him. There is a Croatian hip-hop song named after him.
He was Jamie Vardy before Jamie Vardy. And nowadays, he often recalls his time spent between French fourth tier and a mechanic workshop with a sense of joy.
“That workshop exists to this day, only Dado is missing. That was a good life, normal life for me“, says 190 centimeters ponytailed hero.
He succeeded against all odds. If he didn’t meet his wife, maybe he would be stuck living day by day, struggling to pay rent and bills from his mechanic’s salary. If Monaco hasn’t had a friendly against his fourth-tier team, maybe he would just be one of the millions of nameless Yugoslavian refugees across the EU. But he grabbed his chance, and he came not just a famous footballer, but a cult hero. An inspiration for all the kids out there kicking a football while living poorly. Proof that it can be done.
“His life story was loved more than himself. People loved him, but more because of his background. It’s not comparable to Šuker or Bokšić, it’s different. He was a working-class hero, and he played just like one. On top of that, you get that story of a mechanic who gambled and drunk, played for a fourth tier team. And that’s a mosaic that ain’t fake. He wasn’t a world-class football player, but he knew he had to dig deep, and that he will get what he deserves if he does that. His fame was entirely deserved“, Croatian football journalist Juraj Vrdoljak explains.
Pršo was never Monaco’s first-choice striker, but 15 years since his departure from the club, he is still an icon there. He played one exceptional and two injury-prone seasons in Rangers colors, yet he is one of the most loved Rangers players of the XXI century.
His international career lasted just 3 years, he scored (just) 9 goals, and never made it to knockout stages of a big tournament. But the streets of Croatia will never forget him.
“There are two America’s, and only one Dado Pršo“, says graffiti in his hometown Zadar.
And that’s exactly the sentence to end this story. There’s only one Dado Pršo.