As Celtic’s greatest ever player called time on his illustrious career at the age of 40 after a record breaking, treble winning season, we look back on the life of the man who can perhaps claim to be the finest striker in football history.
When Ivica Strok arrived at a cold Lennoxtown training centre on 11th January 2020 nobody could have anticipated the astonishing journey that the Croatian, and the club he was signing for, would go on over the next twenty-two years.
However, it is in Zagreb just over eighteen years before that January morning where the story begins. On 20th October 2001, almost exactly ten years on from Croatia claiming their independence from Yugoslavia, Ivica Strok was born in the country’s capital, and straight into footballing stock. Ivica Strok’s father Hrvoje was a midfielder at the city’s second team NK Zagreb, and would later move across the city to join their rivals Dinamo, before returning to NK Zagreb in 2011. By the time Hrvoje Strok left The Poets again in 2013 to join one of Zagreb’s smaller sides Sesvete, his son was a committed Zagreb supporter, cheering on from the sidelines, and already making waves in their youth sides.
Impressing at youth and reserve level, and putting in a series of dazzling performances for Croatia’s under-17 side, Strok made his first team debut at NK Zagreb in November 2017 shortly after his 16th birthday. He would go on to make a further twelve appearances for the team throughout the season, mainly as a substitute, finding the net three times. An injury in a pre-season friendly caused the striker to miss much of the 2018/2019 season, but returning towards the end of the campaign Ivica Strok scored five goals in seven matches. His performances at the beginning of the 2019/2020 season were impressive, playing 19 matches and scoring 11 goals, making scouts across Europe flock to the Druga HNL, Croatia’s second tier, to catch a glimpse of one of the hottest prospects in football. Former Iraq international Nashat Akram, working as a scout for Celtic, was just one of many who made the trip across to Zagreb to see Strok play; “I think the number of scouts in their stadium nearly doubled their attendances,” Akram states, “There were a lot of big clubs watching him; Bayern, Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, but we knew we could offer him something none of the rest could: an immediate place in the first team”.
The Bhoys needed a goal scorer; struggling to recover from the departure of Tony Watt to Arsenal three and a half years previous to Strok’s arrival, they were still relying on the occasional goals of journeyman striker Modibo Maïga and hoping young Czech forward Marcel Kovar would come good. After a number of glowing reports from Nashat Akram, whose eye for talent would eventually see him elevated to the position of Chief Scout at Celtic, Ivica Strok was earmarked by manager Jonathan Sharples as a prospective signing, and Maïga was moved on to Frankfurt. Upon signing for Celtic the incoming Croatian was merely expected to be an understudy for Kovar.
“I hope I can push Marcel as much as I can, and when I get my chance I hope I can score goals and help my new teammates do the same”, remarked Strok when he was unveiled to gathered journalists following his £5mn move from his boyhood club. By the time Marcel Kovar left to join Monaco in the summer of 2024 his Croatian “understudy” had already scored 157 goals for Celtic, 25 more than Kovar did in his entire Bhoys career.
So what changed Ivica Strok from a young man who just felt lucky to be playing at Celtic into their record goalscorer and, arguably, their greatest ever player?
“I saw something in Ivica I had not seen in a young player for a very long time, after my first few training sessions at the club I went to the manager and told him that this boy needs to have a team built around him”, and when a player with the stock and experience of Cristiano Ronaldo says that then you usually listen. The Portuguese legend joined the Scottish club in 2021 to see out the end of his career, and within a few weeks he was working one on one with Ivica Strok to improve his finishing, control and technique, and by the end of the season the Croatian had won the first of his seventeen Scottish Premier League Golden Boots.
At the end of that season Strok also claimed the first of his four Champions League winners’ medals, adding to the Europa League win of the year before, and scoring the opening goal in the final against Chelsea. However, he also maligned one of his team mates for the first time and the true extent of his power at Celtic would come to the fore.
With Celtic already leading through Strok’s goal, Raymond Dekker saved Eden Hazard’s penalty and the Bhoys broke two on one as Ivica Strok and José Ribeiro bore down on Thibaut Courtois’ goal. With the Croat screaming for the pass, Ribeiro instead shot and scored to double Celtic’s lead and while he wheeled away with joy he was not joined by Strok, who continued to chastise Ribeiro. Within a year the Portuguese international was turning out for Newcastle United and Strok’s influence had claimed it’s first victim. Others would follow throughout the years, those who Ivica Strok clashed with would be out the door and moved to pastures new. Even as recently as 2039 when Alan García left for Dortmund when the Croatian called him, “the most arrogant strike partner I’ve ever had the misfortune of playing with”, a damning indictment of the Mexican-born Scottish international when you consider the pair partnered one another less than ten times.
Along with aggravating his teammates, Strok also had a habit of winding up fans of Celtic’s biggest rivals, Rangers. The Croatian immediately won over the Celtic fans upon signing for the Bhoys when he told the official club website that he had “left Zagreb’s second biggest team to join Glasgow’s best”. It didn’t stop there for the man who holds the record for goals in the Old Firm derby, no wonder he “bloody loves [them]”. His most famous indiscretion came on the trophy parade for the Bhoys’ record 55th league title in 2024 when Strok, looking perhaps a little worse for wear, grabbed the microphone from Celtic’s captain Borja and shouted “We’ve finally knocked them off their ****ing perch” to the assembled crowd. The club announced they fined him for the outburst but rumours remain that the penalty was waived by manager Jonathan Sharples, who will only ever respond to questions on the matter with a wry smile.
The next year saw Ivica Strok hit 61 goals for Celtic in all competitions, his most productive season, and while the Bhoys swept all that was in front of them in domestic competition they were still falling short in Europe as semi-final after semi-final always seemed a hurdle too far for the Glasgow club. However, in Strok they had the man who would eventually become the Champions’ League record goalscorer with 112 goals so it wasn’t too much to assume that another European Cup would make it’s way to Celtic Park.
And that finally happened in the 2031/2032 season when the club’s third Champions’ League trophy arrived during undoubtedly the greatest year in Ivica Strok’s professional career. On 22nd November in a 3-0 win over Hibernian at Easter Road, the Croatian striker hit his 399th league goal to break Jimmy McGrory’s 94-year old goalscoring record, but that would just be the tip of the iceberg for him, and for Celtic. The club would go the season unbeaten, tally up a then record 108 points and their now record goalscorer would find the net 39 times as Strok became the first footballer since Lionel Messi to feature of the cover of Time magazine. In Europe, Celtic overcame their semi-final hoodoo to reach the showpiece final in Istanbul where they would defeat Valencia 2-1 thanks to a brace from Noé Rojas, who would become another to fall victim to Strok’s influence when he left for Norwich City two years later. News reports in The Scotsman that suggested Ivica had become the most popular baby name in Glasgow were proved false, but the Croat’s name did see the biggest increase in popularity over that remarkable twelve month period.
The season didn’t end there for Strok, as Croatia went into the European Championships in Belgium as many people’s dark horses to win the tournament with many pundits believing the country from the Adriatic coast had their finest generation of players since the side of 1998. The Vatreni didn’t disappoint, beating favourites England in the final and lifting their first ever international trophy, with Strok confirming his place as one of the finest footballers on the planet. However the sporting world was left in disbelief at the end of 2032 as Strok was overlooked for the Ballon d’Or, coming second in the voting as England and Manchester City midfielder Doni Traynor was given the accolade. That would be the closest he came to winning the sport’s biggest individual prize despite six other nominations. He wasn’t overlooked completely however, as football magazine FourFourTwo named the Celtic forward as their pick of 2032’s best players, retaining the title he had won in 2031. He was also named as the BBC’s Overseas Sports Personality of the Year, becoming the first Croatian since Goran Ivanišević in 2001 to win the award.
Despite his fine form throughout the year for both club and country, not even Croatia manager Dinko Matosevic voted for Strok to win the Ballon d’Or, and relations between the player and country became increasingly strained.
Although he is both Croatia’s record appearance maker and goalscorer, along with being the record goalscorer in international footballing history with 152 goals, Croatian fans never really fell in love with Strok in the same way that supporters of Celtic did. His omission from Matosevic’s voting for the Ballon d’Or was just one in a long line of problems between the striker and his country; many Croats believe he left the country too early, while constantly being overlooked for the captaincy of his country irked the player himself. Upon retiring from international football after 194 appearances he gave an exclusive interview to FourFourTwo in which he said that throughout his career he felt more Scottish, and wishes he had the opportunity to represent the country in which he lived most of his life. In the same interview he also claimed he hadn’t returned to Croatia since ending his international career in 2037, perhaps it is no coincidence the country hasn’t come close to winning a tournament since.
Strok added his third, and Celtic’s fourth, Champions League title in 2034, coming off the bench to net the first penalty following a 1-1 draw with Manchester United in Athens. However, to keep the squad happy the Croatian’s European appearances became more sparse, with him not even making it off the bench when the Bhoys won their fifth European Cup in 2037 by beating Juventus 2-0 in Manchester.
Despite his reduced appearances on the continent he was still first choice when it came to domestic matters, even in a time of upheaval when the club departed Celtic Park, the stadium they had played in since 1892, to move to the 99,237 capacity Sharples Park for the start of the 2038/2039 season. As the Bhoys took to the field for the first time at the biggest stadium in Britain for a match against Greenock Morton on 7th August 2038 it is perhaps fitting that the opening goal at their new home was scored by Ivica Strok.
Although his latter years saw him used less and less by his manager, Strok stayed loyal to the club. One of the criticisms that was levelled at the Croatian throughout his time at Celtic was that he lacked the hunger and desire to play in what some would perceive as a more competitive league. However that opinion has often been dismissed by the player himself, “I’ve had chances to leave the club”, Strok disclosed in an interview with World Soccer Magazine in 2030, “Chelsea, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City – they’ve all wanted me but this is my home and always will be”. Despite feeling at home in Glasgow, Strok wasn’t just kept at Celtic through sentimentality as they continued to match his ambition domestically, in Europe, and breaking their own wage structure to make him the highest paid player in the club’s history.
His commitment to the Bhoys was also rewarded by the club when a statue of the Croatian joined those of club legends like Jimmy Johnstone and Jock Stein outside Celtic Park in 2034, before being moved to their new home in 2038. Celtic chairman Barry Carter admitted at the unveiling that, “having a statue of a player still at the club outside the ground is unusual, but we wanted to show Ivica just what he means to the club, and to the fans”. The club was also rewarded for their loyalty to the striker when he scored his 1,000th professional goal on 5th February 2042 during a hattrick against Motherwell, putting him alongside footballing luminaries such as Pele and underlining the belief of many that the Croatian may be the finest forward in the history of football.
Despite several attempts by the club to tempt Ivica Strok into staying on in a coaching capacity, with rumours Celtic wanted to mould him into Jonathan Sharples’ successor as manager, he turned them down. Instead the Croatian wanted to “move to the Highlands to shoot grouse”, but he has been spotted on television still offering some insight into Celtic’s Champions’ League campaigns. As a final thank you to their great striker the Bhoys retired the number 10 shirt which has become so synonymous with their outgoing captain who said, “As a boy I dreamed of wearing the number 17 shirt for my country because of Mario Mandžukić but they gave me number 9, at least every boy will know already he’ll never get my number 10”.
The City of Glasgow also paid their respects to Ivica Strok in August 2042, with the council granting the Croatian the Freedom of the City. Even supporters of Rangers may have to admit it is thoroughly deserved, but for football supporters the world over and especially in the green and white half of Glasgow the talent, ability, and goalscoring of Ivica Strok was never in doubt.