The talented Croatian attacker had injured his hamstring in a playoff victory for QPR against Derby County, which forced him out of that summer’s World Cup squad for his beloved Croatia. Kranjčar later returned to Dynamo Kyiv after his loan with QPR had ended. Following an unsuccessful spell where he tallied only four goals and two assists in 22 appearances, his contract was terminated on January 15th of this year, six months before it was set to expire. Without a club and lacking fitness, Kranjčar was unsure what lay next. Due to the timing, he looked to the United States, where clubs where beginning their preseason, for a new home.
That’s where the Cosmos came in.
According to a piece by the Telegraph’s Bob Williams, it was a call to family friend Jérôme de Bontin that set up Kranjčar to train with the Cosmos and regain some fitness. However, it all became a lot more than that. He first announced himself to the Cosmos Family in front of the organization and a few fans at LIU Brooklyn on a freezing cold day in mid February. In a scrimmage against the Blackbirds, he came on in the second half and scored a goal from the edge of the box that featured a turn that would have made the late great Johan Cruyff smile ear to ear. That began an impressive run throughout preseason for the former Pompey man, which came to a peak when Cosmos signed Kranjčar for the 10-game NASL Spring Season on March 18th. Now working diligently on his form and his game, Kranjčar is looking to reignite his career and fitness in a new place, and maybe even in a new spot on the field as well.
In watching Kranjčar feature for the Cosmos (even for such a short amount of time), it’s evident why the big Croatian was once connected with big money moves to both Arsenal and AS Monaco. Niko is one of “those” players: the game is natural to player of his quality. He could have three world-class defenders closing him down and you wouldn’t see the slightest bit of nerves on his face. He’s delivered world-class (a term not used lightly) touches and passes in bunches and in ease, and his ability to control the tempo of a match draws the imagination to the club legend Marcos Senna. The difference here: Niko has a good five years on Marcos, and his versatility throughout the midfield is an incredible asset to a club that appears to be all about versatility in its squad.
Sitting back in a defensive mid position was uncharacteristic for Niko, as he is famous for being a number 10 player and even playing on the wings. In talking to him, he laughed when I asked about where he sees himself on the squad.
“Wherever the coach plays me, honestly.”
That was a small part of the humor and down-to-earth mentality I encountered with Niko, which reinforced the one thing that no one can seem to debate about the former Spurs midfielder: how wonderful of a person he is. Kranjčar has been described as “a smashing fella, a great lad” by former QPR manager Harry Redknapp and a “world class human being” by Cosmos COO Eric Stover, and its not hard to see why he draws such high praise. In addition to a great work ethic on the field, Kranjcar carries himself with a certain balance of class, humor, and genuineness that is hard to find in world football. I didn’t feel like this was an interview of a former FA Cup winner; it came across more like a conversation with an old friend about work.
Despite his jovial response, he went on to explain his feelings tactically: “Obviously I’m comfortable in playing any position, especially going forward. Obviously I do feel most comfortable in the #10 position, especially coming off the left, because it’s the position I played in the majority of my career. But like I said the coaches will have to find where it suits the team best for me to be playing.”
What if Gio were to call upon him for the CDM role? Again, that’s the coach’s call and he’ll adjust. But, with a smile, Niko mentioned one problem with sitting back.
“Too much defending.”
There’s also another brand new element that Kranjčar brings to the club: he is the first ever Croatian to wear the badge. His popularity amongst his fellow countrymen was evident as dozens of passionate fans packed Café Scorpio for a meet and greet with Kranjcar on March 23rd in Astoria. After a Q&A that brought out a glowing review of the club, he signed jerseys and took time to speak with fans. When asked about it, you could see a gleam of appreciation in his eye for being able to take in a slice of home at his new club:
“It was great. Y’know, there is a Croatian fanbase here, we are known for our sports, and that the country has provided for years, the love of soccer as well, so hopefully they’ll come to the games. Obviously with the big Cosmos family, the Cosmos family is growing again, I really enjoyed the time there and happy to see my fellow countrymen.”
Continuing with Croatia, I would have been remiss in forgetting to ask one of Croatia’s biggest stars of the last decade about the upcoming European Championships. I wasn’t even able to finish my question on his homeland’s expectations this cycle before he blurted out with a smile “Yeah, they’re going to win it.” He continued with a bit more of a realistic discussion:
“They have to aim for the semifinals. I grew up with that group, some of them are probably playing their last tournament. But I think when you have players that are key figures in the Real Madrid and the Barcelona and the Juventus or Inter Milan you need to aim for the highest position and we haven’t done well in the previous two tournaments, we both failed to get out the group stage, but this a time where I think we need to prove that we are in the group of European soccer.”
For the midfielder who was forced out of the 2014 World Cup with a hamstring injury, you could certainly tell his passion in discussing his national team and how they are shaping up for this summer. However, I did also notice a bit of a backdrop: a twinge of longing and disappointment. It was evident that the man who came through the ranks with the likes of Modric, Mandzukic, and Raktic, all of who he evoked in discussion “Vatreni”, deep down in his heart he has an ambition to return to the red and white on a big stage. He sees his country at a certain level, but he ever so badly (even though he hasn’t said it) wants to return and elevate it as best he can.
That’s one of the things that’s been evident of Kranjčar since the beginning of his career: he is a committed player, but he is always wants improvement. Whether from himself or from those around him, he always wants things to be better. He is never satisfied. That seems to be one of the reasons that he is enjoying New York so much so far: the tactics, training, and the boys around him are consistently providing a challenge similar to what he found in Europe. Kranjčar is finding familiarity in an unfamiliar territory, which was evident when he was asked about coach Giovanni Saverese’s tactics and training sessions in comparison to Europe:
“Not much, it’s almost the same as Europe, I think. The way the training sessions are run, obviously, we’ve been playing tactically with a lot of possession and it’s very similar to the European way.”
And for his teammates? Well, he’s become comfortable on and off the field, and it appears they share the same desires he has: “It’s been great, yeah. From the first day. I have liked being part of the group, which I think is the most important. They are a great bunch of guys that do a great job…we push ourselves every training to give our best.”
While this deal seems to be just a professional and compensated extension of his training in the offseason, it is anything but for Kranjčar. He is a hard worker in training, and has even given advice to U.S. Youth national team member Eric Calvillo when he is able to. In previous interviews, Kranjčar has come across as motivated, focused, and ready for what lies ahead in the NASL Spring Season. As for what he wants from the club? He’s been quoted as saying he wants to “win every game”.
As the season begins on April 3rd against a familiar foe in Ottawa Fury FC, Niko Kranjčar promises to be one of the stories of an exciting NASL Spring Season. Off the field, he brings a mix of professionalism, humor, and class that are a dream for a club to work with. On the field, his career through Europe couple with his world class first touch and a field vision that is sure to be second to none. All things considered, Niko Kranjčar will be a player you won’t want to take your eyes off of this season.