Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic, one of the most underrated and underappreciated players of his era, recently announced his retirement from professional football at the age of 35 to end a career that brought success at Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus.
Mandzukic broke the news by sharing an emotional message on Instagram which comprised a letter written to his younger self along with a photo of the first-ever pair of football boots he wore as a child.
"Dear little Mario," the message read. "When you put on these boots for the first time, you can't even imagine what you will get to experience in football."
"You'll score goals at the biggest stages and you'll win the biggest trophies with the biggest clubs. Proudly representing your nation, you will help write the history of Croatian sports.
"You'll succeed because you'll have good people around you - teammates, coaches, fans, and family, agent and friends who will always be there for you. You'll be forever grateful to all of them!
"Above all, you'll succeed because you'll always give your best. At the end, that's what you'll be most proud of. You'll sacrifice a lot, but you'll know it was worth it because of all the amazing moments."
The post drew responses from several big name stars and former teammates, including Cristiano Ronaldo who congratulated his ex-Juventus strike partner on a "beautiful" career, as well as other Croatian sports stars such as former U.S. Open tennis champion Marin Cilic and Bojan Bogdanovic, who plays in the NBA with the Utah Jazz.
Grown-up Mario can certainly be proud of his achievements. Over the course of an enviable 17-year professional career, the forward won 10 league titles (including the Bundesliga and Serie A), seven domestic cups and the Champions League.
He was also joint-top scorer at Euro 2012 and finished runner-up at a World Cup with Croatia, making history in the process when he became the first ever player to score both a goal and an own goal in a World Cup final against France in 2018, but the less said about that the better.
Mandzukic expressed his gratitude to all the teammates, coaches and fans that have supported him throughout the years and the sacrifices made, also speaking of his pride at all the "amazing moments" he was involved in during his career. After all, not many players can boast of scoring a spectacular overhead kick in a Champions League final. (in Juve's 2017 loss to Real Madrid, having also scored the opener in Bayern's triumph in 2013).
"You'll recognize the moment to retire, to put these boots in a cabinet and you'll have no regrets," Mandzukic's message continued. "Football will always be a part of your life, but you'll look forward to a new chapter.
"P.S. If you happen to play vs England in the World Cup, just be ready around 109th minute!"
The moment when you book your country a place in the #WorldCupFinal!— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) July 11, 2018
A goal that @MarioMandzukic9 and @HNS_CFF will never forget...
👀 TV listings 👉 https://t.co/xliHcxWvEO
📺 Highlights 👉 https://t.co/LOdKDX2Cwn pic.twitter.com/giu0LqA3iP
That dramatic extra-time goal from Mandzukic saw Croatia oust England in the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup, sending his country through to the final for the first time in their history.
The ensuing celebrations saw AFP photographer Yuri Cortez get unwittingly caught up and squashed amid the Croatian huddle, which led to a series of incredible images being captured from right inside the melee. Mandzukic later sent a gift to Cortez by way of apology, along with a hand-written note.
Some images of the dramatic celebration of Croatia's second goal against England during the semi final of the world cup #FifaWorldCup2018 #EnglandvsCroatia #CRO #CROvENG #CROENG #RussiaWorldCup2018 #Russia2018 #Rusia2018 #Nikon #CroaciaInglaterra pic.twitter.com/4wTwObDT8t— Yuri Cortez (@YuriYurisky) July 12, 2018
A tall and imposing target man, Mandzukic was regularly coveted by many of Europe's biggest clubs and indeed represented several heavyweights with distinction. Despite often being deployed in wide roles, the Croatian forward retained a healthy eye for goal throughout his career, scoring 197 goals in 508 games between his formative years in Zagreb to his final season with AC Milan in 2020-21, which was hampered by injury.
After hearing of his retirement, Croatia national team coach Zlatko Dalic thanked Mandzukic for his years of service in a statement calling him "a fighter on whom the team could always rely, a player for big games and the toughest challenges."
And yet while he attracts glowing plaudits from all those who fought alongside him, it still it feels as though Mandzukic bows out without ever truly getting the wider recognition his talent, versatility and consistency warrant. He may be beloved by Croatia fans, but curiously his name doesn't seem to crop up much whenever Europe's top strikers of the 21st century are discussed, despite his record comparing very favourably with most of his peers.
He's not the only one either. In an age of generic attacking forwards milling about creating overlaps and overloads, the old-fashioned battering ram is a footballing anachronism. The out-and-out striker is not the commodity it once was. While entirely subjective, there are a few high-scoring strikers out there playing in Europe's top leagues who rarely seem to receive the kudos and adulation that many of their similarly prolific predecessors once did.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was first published on Aug. 2, 2021
Olivier Giroud (AC Milan, 144 goals in 372 games for Arsenal and Chelsea)
Giroud remains criminally under appreciated by many despite scoring goals and collecting trophies absolutely everywhere he's been. With a Puskas Award on the mantlepiece, the 34-year-old has also won almost all there is to win, including three FA Cups at Arsenal and the Europa League and Champions League in the space of just two-and-a-half seasons with Chelsea. At international level, Giroud has amassed 117 caps for France and scored 46 goals which make him Les Bleus' second-highest goal scorer of all time, with only Thierry Henry (51) ahead of him. There's also the small matter of the World Cup he helped win in 2018. Since joining Milan in August, Giroud has pitched in with two goals in two games.
For the scorpion kicks, the bullet headers, the late strikes, the north London derby winner, the FA Cup final assists, the 105 goals, the 253 appearances and for all the hard work and dedication, we want to say...— Arsenal (@Arsenal) January 31, 2018
THANK YOU, OLIVIER GIROUD ❤️#NaNaNaNaa pic.twitter.com/myIR7FcNXs
Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, 279 goals in 599 games)
Operating in the considerable shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid for so long, it seemed to escape notice that Benzema still regularly passed the 20-goal mark in all competitions while his partner was racking up ridiculous half-centuries.
Indeed, the France striker has managed the feat in LaLiga alone during each of the last three campaigns having found himself returned to the focal point of Los Blancos' attack once again.
Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan, 64 goals in 95 games)
Allowed to leave Manchester United after being accused of not offering enough up front, Lukaku has rebuilt his reputation at Inter chiefly by scoring vast rafts of goals and leading the line with formidable presence.
The Belgian scored 30 goals in 44 games and chipped in with 11 assists in his debut season at the Bianconeri, powering his new side to their first Serie A title in 11 years -- yet still, he struggles to convince some onlookers of his merits.
Ciro Immobile (Lazio, 150 goals in 219 games)
His name is hardly mentioned outside Italy, but Immobile has scored over 150 goals for Lazio since joining the club from Sevilla in 2016.
A hard-working striker of the "never say die" school, the 31-year-old covers more ground than most and has also provided 42 assists for his teammates in that same period of time.
Edin Dzeko (AS Roma, 119 goals in 260 games)
Slightly ungainly at the best of times, Dzeko forged a reputation during his time at Man City for being able to score with almost any part of his flailing body.
He was also responsible for scoring City's vital 92nd-minute equaliser against QPR on the final day of the 2011-12 season, though Sergio Aguero's title-winning strike 120 seconds later somewhat stole the Bosnian's thunder.
Since moving to Roma, Dzeko has finished as the club's top goal scorer in four of the last five seasons, even rattling away a phenomenal 39 goals in all competitions in 2016-17. But the general perception remains that he's not quite at the very highest level as a striker.
Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo, 166 goals in 380 games)
Aspas left the Premier League as something of a punchline following his fairly tepid stint at Liverpool, which fizzled out with a corner kick so momentously dreadful that is still spoken of (with a wince) to this day.
However, since returning to Spain, the striker has recaptured his form and scored well over 100 LaLiga goals for Celta and finished as the club's top marksman for six seasons on the spin -- only to somehow miss out on a place in Spain's Euro 2020 squad. Genuinely baffling.
Gerard Moreno (Villarreal, 82 goals in 185 games)
A comparatively late bloomer, Moreno didn't play top-level football until he was 22, though since then he has established himself as one of the most productive strikers in LaLiga.
Indeed, of all the players in the Spanish top flight, only Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi (38 goals, 12 assists) was involved in more goals in all competitions than Moreno (29 goals, 10 assists) of Villarreal last season.
As far as individual output is concerned, that's about as impressive as it gets. But few outside of Spain will really knew much about him before he was part of their Euro 2020 squad.
Alvaro Morata (Juventus, 20 goals in 40 games)
Often maligned and chastised for being prone to the odd inexplicable hash, there is a reason why Europe's elite clubs keep signing Morata.
He leads the line well, occupies defenders, is extremely good in the air and has also proven himself in maintaining a perfectly respectable goal to game ratio throughout his career while peppering his portfolio with the occasional breath-taking wonder strike.
Chris Wood (Burnley, 50 goals in 144 games)
Consistent if not prolific, Wood continues to provide the lion's share of Burnley's league goals in the club's continued efforts to punch well above their weight in the Premier League.
In the mould of Giroud, Wood specialises in making a nuisance of himself, engaging physically with defenders and finding pockets of space in the penalty area to operate in.
Wood has played in four Premier League seasons for the Clarets and scored more than 10 goals in all of them. As if to underline his importance, the New Zealand international also finished the 2020-21 campaign by either scoring or assisting 11 of his side's final 14 league goals.
Danny Ings (Southampton, 46 goals in 100 games)
After struggling to make inroads at Liverpool due to issues with form and fitness, Ings was almost forced to start his career anew in the aftermath.
He signed for Burnley and scored 43 goals in 150 games before moving back home to Southampton, where his renaissance has been fully realised and he earned a recall to the England national team.
With zeal and zip, Ings has mustered a near 1-in-2 goal-to-game ratio for the Saints since the start of the 2018-19 season.
The striker even managed to surpass the 20-goal mark in 2019-20, becoming only the third Southampton player ever to manage the feat in the Premier League, after Matthew Le Tissier and James Beattie.