“I can only say again and again that nobody likes to leave their home.”
Those were the words of Norwich City’s Mario Vrančić in 2016. Vrančić, playing for SV Darmstadt in the Bundesliga, had met up with Forson, a refugee from Iraq, to share experiences and talk football for the Refugee 11 documentary.
“It takes an extreme reason to leave your own country,” explained Vrančić. He asked those reading his words to imagine what it would be like if they had to leave Germany in a short space of time, to start afresh somewhere complete different where you’re faced with a different language, a new culture and people that you have never, ever met before.
It was a dilemma that Mario and his family faced themselves in 1994.
Starting a whole new life as a war refugee
Mario Vrančić was five when the Bosnian war pushed him and his family from their home in Slavonski Brod.
Tensions had been rising following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Bosnia was one of four of its former republics to declare independence – along with Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia. However it was Bosnia that would be hit hardest by the Yugoslav Wars. Over 100,000 people lost their lives while 2.2 million fled their homes – making it the largest displacement of people in Europe since the end of World War II.
“My parents saw it coming, thank God,” Vrančić told the Refugee 11 documentary.
They crossed the border into Croatia, initially, as they sought safety. “The hardest thing for my family was to leave my grandparents in an unsafe area,” Vrančić reflected in 2017. He brought nothing with him to Croatia. As a family, they had just a few clothes and their passports and were left facing the daunting prospect of beginning a whole new life.
They had hoped that new life could be in Germany. Vrančić’s father left for the country first, before the family followed in the summer of 1994. However, the family did not know whether their status as war refugees would be recognised, leaving a cloud of unimaginable uncertainty hanging over them.
Vrančić explained that they had plans to travel even further afield to the United States or Australia. They had already seen some of their neighbours and friends have to leave the country quickly. It seemed a matter of time before they would be forced back to Bosnia.
Instead, the intervention of a friend at the immigration office would prove key.
This friend advised the family to wait a little bit longer. Laws were changing at the time. The world was still working out how best to handle the war refugees from Yugoslavia. Eventually, a law was passed that ensured war refugees from Bosnia that were already living in Germany would be granted permanent residence visas.
It was a feeling of “huge” happiness for the family, said Vrančić. They had a new home. Now, they could really begin a new life. It was hard for Mario’s parents, he has since said, whereas for him – aged 5 – it was a lot easier to take in his stride. He did not have the big worries nor the big problems of his parents. He went out with friends. He learned the language pretty quickly. He also began to kick a ball about…
The great talent of Mainz
Vrančić and his family had settled down in Kesselstadt, near Frankfurt. It was here that the footballing careers of Mario and his older brother, Damir, began, when officials from VFR Kesselstadt spotted them playing in the park.
Mario found a home in the playmaker position and set about enjoying his football, while Damir would find his way to Eintracht Frankfurt in 2000. The brothers, however, would soon be reunited at FC Mainz 05 in 2002, with the whole family heading for the city and bringing Vrančić to a man that would prove instrumental in his football career: Jürgen Klopp.
“Klopp is a soccer scientist,” reflected Vrančić in 2018. A visionary. A fanatic. Someone that has his own philosophy and does everything to make it work. Wherever he’s worked, Vrančić said, Klopp brought players in that could respect his vision rather than signing up the biggest stars. Instead, he made them.
Hopes were high that Mario himself may be one of those stars. The youngster’s talents blossomed at Mainz. He was handed his first professional contract at 16 – having already been playing for Mainz’s U19 side and Germany’s U17 team. Mario had quickly established himself as one of Germany’s greatest talents for his age. Klopp, on many occasions, hailed his talent – something that he is still doing today, calling Mario his “Mario Götze” in an interview with Sky Sports.
But over the coming seasons, the young talent’s shining star would fade into a cloudy sky of struggles. After making his first-team debut at the end of the 2006/07 season away to Bayern Munich – becoming the youngest player in Mainz’s Bundesliga history in the process – Vrančić made just another nine appearances for the first-team over the next four years.
They were relegated that season and Vrančić was used sparingly as Klopp tried to lead the team back to the Bundesliga at the first attempt. Having missed out on promotion, Klopp resigned and would later take over at Borussia Dortmund who had finished 13th that season.
Neither of his successors, Jörn Andersen or Thomas Tuchel would hand him a regular starting berth – even though he had excelled for the U23 side, scoring 16 goals and grabbing 5 assists in 45 games.
Following an unsuccessful loan spell at Rot Weiss Ahlen in 2009/10, Mario was struggling.
Returning the right path
After more first-team frustrations upon his return to Mainz in 2010/11, Mario would leave for Borussia Dortmund II in the January window to play under David Wagner and share a reunion with Jürgen Klopp.
But he was far from over the struggles that he’d endured in the past few seasons. Vrančić confessed that his time at Mainz had been difficult psychologically and he was struggling to get his head straight, even after the switch to Dortmund.
Arriving at Dortmund, he talked a lot with Klopp – but there was one conversation in particular that he has always remembered.
He went to thank Klopp for all that had done for him only to be given a surprising response. Klopp told him not to say thank you for being a talented player. He didn’t need to. He assured Vrančić that he could go far. He also apologised for placing a “big burden” on his shoulders when he was younger – having hailed him as the biggest talent Mainz had ever had. He told Vrančić that, instead, he should have helped him mature mentally rather than leave him expecting wonders from himself.
Klopp then took him to training and showed him a player that was struggling after a move. He was lost. He’d wandered into such a big club in a state of disbelief. Klopp told Vrančić that he would make this player into the best striker in Europe but first, he had to ensure the striker believed in himself and his capabilities.
That striker? Robert Lewandowski.
Klopp would also get to work with Vrančić. Mario would train with the Dortmund first-team which, in turn, saw him begin starring for Wagner’s Dortmund II. Over an 18-month-spell, Vrančić scored 16 goals in 47 games, landed eight assists and established himself in a deeper role as a #6 – something he described as an “step forward” and the “optimal” position for himself.
He was back on the right path. This would spark the beginning of what Vrančić has called his “serious career”.
The star man leading the charge
On Klopp’s recommendation, a 22-year-old Vrančić signed for SC Paderborn in the 2. Bundesliga in the summer of 2012.
They had narrowly missed out on promotion the previous season and while Vrančić was aware of this, he was simply looking to get as many games as he could, gain as much experience as possible and make up for lost time. He took to regular first-team football like a duck to water, scoring five and grabbing nine assists in his first season, including the below “dream goal” against VfL Bochum in his second game.
It was 2013/14, however, where Vrančić took things to a whole new level. He was instrumental in a promotion winning campaign, serving up 10 assists while scoring five goals. The fifth of those goals was the one to clinch what was a very unlikely promotion, bringing about Paderborn’s first ever season in Germany’s top tier.
“Super Mario” was lauded by the German newspapers for his starring role and rewarded with a new contract at Paderborn.
His coach, André Breitenreiter, praised Vrančić as an “important personality” in the squad and lauded his many talents – including the way in which he’d added goals to his game. He was certain that Vrančić would rise to whole new levels in the Bundesliga.
But despite the best efforts of Mario, Paderborn ultimately were relegated after just one season in the top-flight.
They would also soon lose their star man too as Darmstadt came calling for his services.
A homecoming that was a huge deal
Alongside his club career, Vrančić had harboured international ambitions – that would finally come to a satisfying conclusion in 2015.
In 2014, Vrančić revealed his hopes that playing in the Bundesliga – following promotion with Paderborn – would land him with the opportunity to play for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He’d represented Germany up until the U20 age group but had since touted the idea of giving up German citizenship if it would enable him to play for his country of origin. He considered both Germany and Bosnia home, but said he would be with the latter with all his heart.
He planned to go to Sarajevo and begin the process into getting a Bosnian passport. His older brother had done so by now and represented the national side – a moment of great pride for the family.
Mario was now hoping to follow in his footsteps.
Bit by bit, things started to come together. He received Bosnian citizenship in January 2015. His international destiny now lied in the hands of FIFA, leaving what would be a “great honour” within reach.
A few months later, FIFA gave Mario the green light to represent Bosnia. A month after that, the call came to join up with the squad for the EURO 2016 qualifiers against Belgium and Andorra. A dream was realised when Mario made his debut for Bosnia in a 3-0 win over Andorra – something he described as a “huge deal”.
A former refugee helping today’s refugees
It was 2015 that also saw Vrančić get involved in helping support refugees of the present day.
The initiative “Former Refugees for Today’s Refugees” was led by Sanel Halilcevic. It saw former refugees from Bosnia in Germany organise a campaign to help support refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They had managed to collect €4,000 and were preparing packages for the kids.
Vrančić helped out after training, helping to pack packages to be given to the children as well as donating. He continued to help support refugees living in Darmstadt.
He admitted that he did not think his role was worth media attention. He expressed hopes that the children they were trying to help would achieve all their wishes and succeed in life – whatever and wherever they end up working. He would also meet with Forson for the Refugee 11 documentary series in late 2016. Forson was playing for a refugee team near Cologne – with Vrančić praising the way that football can bring people together.
He said it brings a common ground which connects. Whatever team you’re in, players can be distracted together, have fun and not have to think about the past or an uncertain future.
Mario, the romance artist
Meanwhile, back on the football pitch, Vrančić’s new team had seen off the threat of relegation in 2015/16 and the midfielder chose to cap that achievement on the final day of the season with quite the move.
Nach Spielende sorgte Mario Vrancic am Samstag für einen weiteren Gänsehautmoment an diesem unglaublich emotionalen Tag. Der Mittelfeldspieler nahm seinen Mut zusammen und stellte im ausverkauften Stadion die Frage aller Fragen an seine Freundin Adna. Nochmal Herzlichen Glückwunsch Euch beiden! 🏼 _________________________Zum Bericht: http://sv98.cc/Vrancic-Verlobung
Posted by SV Darmstadt 1898 e.V. on Monday, 16 May 2016
Darmstadt captain, Aytac Sulu, joked that he’d never seen Mario as nervous. “He was as white as a sheet when he told us about it on the pitch,” said Sulu.
Despite a 2-0 defeat to Mönchengladbach, Darmstadt had enough points in the bank to survive. Mario then popped the question to girlfriend, Adna, on the stadium microphone before a sold out stadium. “She could not say no in front of 20,000 spectators,” quipped a delighted Vrančić, who had a t-shirt specially made with his proposal written out upon it. “She was really embarrassed, so it all went to plan.”
It did, indeed, all go to plan. She said yes.
— SV Darmstadt 98 (@sv98) May 14, 2016
Along with his proposals, Mario was impressing on the pitch. He continued to stand out the following season in what was, unfortunately, a wretched one for Darmstadt who were relegated – he was their top scorer with 4 goals.
Dan O’Hagan, a commentator on Bundesliga games, gave the Pink’Un the lowdown on Mario in 2017. “Clearly in a team as bad as Darmstadt, to do as well as he did says he’s a player – and I can’t stress enough that Darmstadt were really a third division team who got lucky. I saw Vrančić play several times last season and he was playing in a very poor team. They survived the first season pretty well but playing very defensively, and in their second season they got found out. So he was playing almost above himself and it will be good to see him play in a better team to see how good he is because it was hard to judge him playing for Darmstadt.”
Instead, a new adventure would soon await for Mario as Daniel Farke added him to the ranks of his Norwich City revolution that summer.
Writing the next chapter as a Canary
Joining Norwich was a destiny of sorts, owed to a former teammate in Vrančić’s days at Mainz who actually came from Norwich. Vrančić said he’d always tell him that, one day, he would play for the Canaries.
Now, in 2017, here he was.
On his new arrival, Daniel Farke said, “He’s a really smart technical player with a brilliant left foot. He will bring a lot of quality passing and special creativity to the team. In addition to that he’s a really good character and a very nice guy who will fit into Norwich. I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
After a slow opening six months, Vrančić has since established himself as one of the most talented, dependable members of Farke’s Norwich squad.
Though starting just three times, Vrančić already has three goals to his name this season and two assists – including one for “that” Pukki goal against Millwall – and without the sensational form of Alex Tettey and Moritz Leitner, Vrančić surely would have featured more. But there’s little doubt that the Bosnian is playing his part this season.
“You can feel that there’s something special going to happen at the moment,” he told the Pink’Un after the 3-1 win v Rotherham. “We just don’t know what will happen in the future.”
Fingers crossed it’s another special chapter in a journey that’s been about so much more than just the beautiful game.