Much is made about the strikers that Atleti have had and indeed replaced in the recent years. The same rings resoundingly true in the case of ‘keepers as well. David de Gea, followed by long term loanee Thibaut Courtois were arguably the best young ‘keepers during their time at the club. Jan Oblak will be looking to continue that trend. Miran Zore tells us more about his rise.
In 2003, UEFA officially named the 52 Golden Players, picked by its member associations. The list of players was actually a list of the single most outstanding player of the past 50 years (1954-2003) and was released in November 2003. In Slovenia, there were no real surprises. Branko Oblak, former Olimpija Ljubljana, Hajduk Split, Bayern, Schalke 04 and Yugoslavia’s 70’s star took the crown, his rivals, Zlatko Zahović and Srečko Katanec finished second and third respectively. Branko Oblak (67) was already at his second stint as Olimpija’s head coach at the time.
Olimpija went bankrupt in 2005 and returned to the top flight in 2009, once again with club legend Branko Oblak, also a former national team coach (2004-2006), as head coach. Oblak’s third and (for now) last episode in Ljubljana finished very quickly. His fate was sealed when Olimpija’s eternal rival Maribor won the derby and pushed the capital team towards the danger zone. In one and a half months as coach Oblak didn’t and couldn’t do much and was not really missed by the fans after his departure. As it turned out, the bad treatment received by the club and the fans wasn’t totally deserved.
“We chatted on daily basis and one day I suggested that we should try out a very talented, but also a very young goalkeeper. Not that he doubted me, but he simply had to see the youngster himself,” Andrej Kračman, Olimpija’s goalkeeper coach remembered in 2012. The young goalkeeper’s name was Jan Oblak and he was only 16 years old. Branko Oblak (the two of them aren’t related) was thrilled when he saw the youngster’s ability and didn’t need any more convincing. He left the club only a few weeks after Oblak’s debut, but Jan Oblak, a keen basketball player until his 12th birthday, remained Olimpija’s first choice. And much more.
In June 2010, some of Europe’s top clubs knocked on Olimpija’s doors. The word of a bright goalkeeper sensation from Slovenia had spread to Lisbon and Benfica eventually won the bidding war, ending the negotiations 1.7 million Euros lighter. Ambitious, but still inexperienced Oblak, the most expensive Slovenian goalkeeper at the time (Inter’s Samir Handanović was still at Udinese) went to Portugal with only one goal: to become Benfica’s number 1.
The road to success at Estadio da Luz was long and guided Oblak through Beira-Mar, Olhanense, Uniao Leira and Rio Ave, where he made his final breakthrough. He especially excelled versus Benfica and was one of the top performers, when Vila do Conde’s side won the game 1-0. Oblak, who in only a few years gained 10 kg of pure muscle, received a clear confirmation of his quality and he knew exactly how to react when Benfica were still unsure of his future at Da Luz. He risked everything and threatened to leave the club, but eventually signed a new contract. His fate was now back in his own hands.
After his League debut versus Olhanense in December 2013, he never looked back. He quickly displaced experienced Artur and became the number 1 and finished a successful season with three domestic titles and an appearance in the UEFA Europa League final. Not only in Don Balon (http://inbedwithmaradona.com/100-for-2013/) and in Portugal newspapers, Oblak received praise for his performances in the UEFA Europa League from all around the globe. As the season ended, it became clear that Benfica couldn’t block his path to a bigger stage. Real Madrid, Juventus, Atletico Madrid and others announced their interest.
“I will never forget Benfica, but as a child I always dreamed of top leagues. A new challenge is ahead of me and I am willing to take it. Benfica wanted me to stay, but it is my choice to go to Atletico Madrid,” Oblak told A Bola and did the expected – he became Thibaut Courtois’s replacement at Vicente Calderon. Atletico triggered Oblak’s release clause and paid Benfica 16 million Euros, making him the most expensive goalkeeper in La Liga history and 8th most expensive goalkeeper in the world.
Oblak’s transfer to Atletico Madrid wrote an important chapter in the football history of Slovenia. He is now the most expensive Slovenian player of all time with the transfers of Zlatko Zahović (13,5 million Euros from Porto to Olympiacos in 1999) and Samir Handanović (12 million Euros from Udinese to Inter in 2012) trailing behind him. Oblak is not just the most expensive one, but also one of the most popular footballers in the country and he is not even the number one in the Slovenian goal. Inter’s Handanović, in 2013 officially named the best goalkeeper in Serie A, is Slovenian national team coach Srečko Katanec’s first pick. For now at least. Oblak is now playing for the Champions of Spain and being only 21 years of age he could represent a young, fresh force which could guide Slovenia to Euro 2016 in France.
“Goalkeepers? We have no problems, no dilemmas, we have two excellent goalkeepers,” Katanec said recently and split the playing time between the two keepers in the South American tour, where Slovenia faced Uruguay and Argentina. Similar thoughts are going through Diego Simeone’s head. He has Oblak and Miguel Angel Moya.
Jan Oblak’s transfer to Atletico Madrid is only the beginning. He is now facing a difficult task. Two tasks actually. He has to displace not one, but two experienced goalkeepers (Handanović and Moya) and fight his way into the starting elevens for club and country. Nothing new for Jan Oblak, a proven fighter, for whom, as Branko Oblak likes to emphasize, only the sky is the limit.
Written by Miran Zore.
Read all our Atleti content on the “Read and White” Team Blog.
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