Drive north out of the Croatian capital Zagreb, where the roads are steep and winding, the forestry thick and population ever thinning, and just beyond the striking, blue-roofed church of St.Mirko, hidden in the hills, is a coffee shop.
Tracking down the owner has been difficult, primarily because he does not want to be found.
But for those who knew him when he made headlines in the Premier League, this hilltop retreat is exactly the sort of sanctuary in which you’d one day hoped to find Mark Viduka, the scorer of 269 goals during a career that took in Celtic, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Newcastle.
Legendary Premier League striker Mark Viduka now owns a coffee shop based in Zagreb
The Australian scored 269 goals during his career and stayed out of the spotlight ever since
He never did court the limelight. This is his first newspaper interview since retiring in 2009. For while Viduka loved the game, he loathed the politics and falsity. ‘All the b****ks’ he calls it.
But there was, he believes, a misconception about him. It is true. Many expect to meet a brooding, intense, distant soul. In reality, he is, as I put it to him, ‘a laid-back, unassuming, Aussie bloke’.
‘Exactly,’ says the 45-year-old, espresso in hand, Zagreb in the distance over his shoulder.
‘Why is that misunderstood about me? I still feel it today. The amount of people I meet who say, “You’re not what I expected”. I often wonder, “Why?”.
‘I wasn’t obsessed with fame, at all. I didn’t like it. I still don’t. I wasn’t obsessed with money, that came as a by-product.
‘You’ve seen what football is like, a lot of a**e-lickers and climbers, dishonest people who try to shaft you. But I always tried to stay true to myself.
‘Maybe that’s why there is this negative perception, because I didn’t conform. I was born and raised in Australia but my parents were Croatian. I have that Aussie tolerance but I also have my Croatian side, I’ll stand my ground if I believe in something. It’s about being honest with yourself.
‘A lot of players suck up to fans, coaches, journalists, and everyone loves them. But what sort of people are they when you remove all the b******t? Are they good people or just playing the game?’
Our conversation detours to Joey Barton, his ex-Newcastle team-mate. Viduka, for the record, sees the good in him.
But there was an incident at Anfield in 2009 that captures Viduka’s principles. Barton had been sent off for a lunge on Xabi Alonso, later admitting he was exacting revenge. Newcastle lost 3-0 and, in the dressing-room, Barton and manager Alan Shearer clashed. Barton said, ’You’re a s*** manger with s*** tactics’. Only one Newcastle player intervened.
Viduka stepped in after Joey Barton and Alan Shearer clashed during his time at Newcastle
‘I thought Joey was in the wrong, way in the wrong. He got sent off for no reason and Alan had a go at him. Joey went back and, that’s Joey, he kept going.
‘I said to him, “Joey, shut the f*** up and sit down, take it”. He was out of order, and he knew it. So he sat down.’
Viduka’s existence now is far removed from such tension. His only cause to play peacemaker is between his three teenage sons.
So why here? Why not his native Melbourne? Or Middlesbrough? He smiles.
‘I left Australia to sign for Croatia Zagreb aged 19 and fell in love with the lifestyle. And we’d always wanted to run a cafe, for fun really, one where everyone was welcome. So here we are.
‘Listen, my missus does all the work, I just sit here and drink coffee!’
Former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic is among the regulars at Non Plus Ultra, meaning No Higher Point.
‘A good guy,’ says Viduka. ‘You know what else we have? The manager of UB40 runs a local brewery. We’ve got his beer, it’s lovely, try it.’
Former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic is a regular at Viduka’s coffee shop
Absolutely. Cheers! Life is good here.
But that tranquility was shattered, quite literally, on a Sunday morning in March of last year, when an earthquake of magnitude 5.5 hit Zagreb. Remarkably, only one person died.
‘It was as if someone picked up the house and shook it,’ says Viduka. ‘The scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. We were lucky it happened at 6.20am and during lockdown, because no one was on the streets. I dread to think how much worse it could have been.
‘We ran outside, in our pyjamas, and it started snowing. We had to sit in the car for hours, terrified of aftershocks. You realise how weak we are compared to nature.’
An army veteran from the Croatian War of Independence shuffles into the cafe. Viduka says hello. When he first arrived here in 1995, it was during the final months of the conflict. Franjo Tudjman – president of the country and Croatia Zagreb – had persuaded him to sign.
Tranquility in Zagreb was shattered in March 2020 when a 5.5 earthquake hit the city
He can smile about one or two memories of that period now, but the horror of the hostility remains, especially as extended family were killed.
‘My mates would take the p*** during training when the fighter aircrafts were above and I was jumping out of my skin. I was a kid, it was scary.
‘I was walking towards the city one morning and the air-raid siren sounded. In thirty seconds, everyone disappeared. Even the tram driver jumped out and ran somewhere.
‘It was just me in the middle of the street, no idea what to do. I just started legging it back to my hotel and ran to my room on the 16th floor!’
Come 1998, Viduka was escaping Zagreb for different reasons, caught in the vicious crossfire of domestic politics given his association with Tudjman. He signed for Celtic but, infamously, fled to Melbourne just days after arriving in Glasgow.
‘A lot of people labelled me, and maybe that’s where the perception comes from. But I went through hell here in Zagreb. I told Celtic, “I’m mentally f*****. I need a break. I don’t want to come and hide and take the money”. I was honest with myself and with them. But it backfires.’
Viduka returned a couple of months later.
‘I worked my a**e off at Celtic. The club was in turmoil but I was top scorer and player of the year. I really left my heart there. I refuse to accept it when someone says otherwise.’
And so to Leeds for £6million in 2000. For a man who wilfully shuns the spotlight, Viduka was about to take centre stage.
Viduka first moved to Croatia in 1995 in the middle of the Croatian War of Independence
Drinks poured, terrace seats assembled, let the show begin. Thanks to YouTube and a laptop, we are back in November of 2000. It is Leeds versus Liverpool at Elland Road.
First, Viduka has something to say.
‘It was the early Saturday kick-off so we stayed in a hotel. It was also Bonfire Night. So it’s 1am and my phone starts ringing, it’s my missus. “I’m scared, the dog is barking”.
‘I tell her, “Don’t worry, it’s probably just from the fireworks”. Then she rings at 3am. “The dog is still barking”. I’m seriously p***ed off now. “If I have a shocker tomorrow, I’m gonna f***ing kill you!”. So yeah, I never thought it would end up the way it did.’
We press play. Sami Hyypia heads Liverpool in front and Christian Ziege doubles the lead. Viduka doesn’t say a word as the ball then runs to him in the penalty area and he wedges the most glorious chip over Sander Westerveld.
We press pause. Well?
‘It feels like it isn’t me. It’s weird.’
Finally, he elaborates. ‘You know what happens, you practice so many times, it’s instinct. There is no thought process, really. It’s everything you’ve spent your life working towards. If you were to stop and think about it, you would never try a chip like that.’
Viduka scored four goals for Leeds against their opponents on Sunday Liverpool 21 years ago
Play. Gary Kelly breaks down the right and crosses to the near post, where Viduka flashes a header into the top corner.
‘Rewind that,’ he says. The screen freezes with Viduka airborne on the angle of the six-yard area.
‘From that position, it’s so difficult.’ He whips his hand across his forehead, simulating the ball glancing off it. ‘That’s the only way to score from there. It could go anywhere. That day, it was perfect.’
Vladimir Smicer makes it 3-2 Liverpool on the hour. Then, Olivier Dacourt plays Viduka in on goal. Cue Martin Tyler: ‘Mark Viduka… still Viduka… still! Brilliant!’
A customer in the cafe looks over, but Viduka is lost in another world. ‘I probably should have hit it straight away, I complicated it.’ It must be said, there are more ill-fated complications than a Cruyff turn and nutmegging Jamie Carragher on the goal-line.
So how did that feel, a first Premier League hat-trick?
‘I was bloody over the moon. But you have to go for the win. That’s the type of team we were. We didn’t know how to sit back and be happy with a point.’
Two minutes later and Viduka is clear after Dacourt skews a shot into his path. Westerveld rushes to meet him but, again, Viduka dinks beyond him. He is mobbed by white shirts.
‘It’s scary how similar it is to the first goal. In football, your first touch is everything. When I was a kid at AIS (Australian Institute of Sport), I turned my bed against my wall and played one touch above it, all different angles. I would do it for hours, the guy next to me never slept!
‘So you see that first touch, that’s the reason. I got the ball out of my feet and then… it’s pure instinct, again.’
The goal, we realise, was offside. ‘Yeah, I’d be off celebrating today and it would be called back, wouldn’t it?’
Leeds’ 4-3 victory over Liverpool is one of the all time classic Premier League games
Leeds won 4-3 and Viduka was thrust in front of the TV cameras, waving to his mother who was watching on her birthday in Melbourne.
But here is an admission.
‘I didn’t play that well. Some bad touches, poor hold-up play, that stays in your mind. I had four shots that day, scored four goals. How often does that happen?’
Viduka was top scorer in each of his four seasons at Leeds. But there is regret at how it ended – relegation following a fire sale of their best players.
‘We didn’t have a clue of the financial problems, but then the likes of Woody (Jonathan Woodgate) were sold. It was a disaster. I was sent off in my last game, and that was frustration.
‘The team wasn’t being run how it should be. After David O’Leary was sacked (in 2002), we lost that aura. There wasn’t the same discipline.
‘It wasn’t just Peter Reid (manager who Viduka fell out with), the whole club became lawless. If you have a squad worth millions, like ours, get a good coach. Someone who knows what he’s doing. Look at Marcelo Bielsa now. He has proved what a coach can achieve.’
Viduka fell out with manager Peter Reid and he described Leeds as ‘lawless’ before they were relegated in 2004
Three seasons at Boro – and a UEFA Cup final – were followed by two injury-hit years at Newcastle. Under Shearer – ‘a good bloke, honest, I liked him’ – the Magpies were relegated.
Viduka, at 33, retired.
‘Roy Hodgson wanted me at Fulham. We met in the Chelsea Harbour Hotel. “You’re gonna be my No.9, bring players in”.
‘I said, “Roy, I would love to be that guy for you, mate. But I can’t do it”. In my head I was there, on the end of the cross. In reality, I was a split-second late. I thought, “If I keep playing, I’m gonna look like a f***ing idiot”. I had to be honest with myself, and Roy. I didn’t want people to remember me as someone sticking around just for the money.’
Do you miss playing?
‘No. Everyone has their time. I’ve had mine. I’m fine with that. I enjoy the peace. I’m happy to be anonymous now.’
Viduka has found the perfect spot in that regard.
After Leeds, Viduka went on to have spells at Middlesbrough and their rivals Newcastle
Coffee cups and craft ales cleared, we roll down the hill towards Zagreb in Viduka’s 4×4.
‘There’s Luka Modric’s house. He bought it off Zvonimir Boban.’
Quick question: is it true Modric is your cousin?
‘No, everyone says that. He’s related to my cousins through marriage. But we’re friends. A nice guy.’
Another: is it true your sister was in Neighbours?
‘Now that is true. Just a few episodes.’
That’s brilliant. We love Neighbours in England.
‘Don’t worry, as a kid I was obsessed with it too.’
Next: so what do you do with your spare time now?
‘Other than drink coffee? I play the guitar. My son, Oliver, is a drummer in a band. When one of his mates can’t make it, I jump in. We use our basement. The neighbours aren’t very happy about it! Me and the boys love Arctic Monkeys. The lyrics, man, genius.’
We pull up and Viduka scrolls through his phone. ‘I’ve got a video of me and my boy playing. Hold on, let me watch it first, I don’t know if it’s any good!’
There it is, Fake Tales of San Francisco, chord perfect. He shows me another of his son during his first live gig. Viduka was recording, the camera bopping to the beat of their Franz Ferdinand cover.
And that, you feel, is where this former superstar is happiest – a proud dad lost among a crowd.