By Mark Bennett
When asked which player in the squad he considered irreplaceable, VfB Stuttgart coach Matthias Sammer did not name playmaker Alexander Hleb or German internationals Philipp Lahm, Andreas Hinkel or Kevin Kuranyi. Instead he replied: "The only player that I can't replace is Zvonimir Soldo."
Sammer may have been seen as a new broom when he took over at Stuttgart in the summer, but he certainly had no intention of removing the veteran Soldo. At 37, the former Croatian international recently signed a one-year extension to his contract and his talents are showing no sign of diminishing.
"His experience on the field is extremely valuable to the side," said Sammer, who has been hugely impressed with Soldo's skill and leadership qualities. "He can read the game, is still very fit, can pass the ball and is strong in the air. All in all he is a complete player.
There isn't a single situation in the game that Zvonimir hasn't been through already. He knows the game inside out and can pass the experience on to our younger players. That ability combined with his pure skill and tenacity makes him so valuable to our cause."
Soldo's contract at Stuttgart had been due to expire this summer, and the former NK Dinamo Zagreb man, who signed in 1996, was ready to retire. "My time in the Bundesliga is coming to an end," said the Stuttgart captain. "I will leave at the end of the season."
However, as Stuttgart continue to challenge in Germany and Europe, Sammer has persuaded Soldo to persevere. "You are still fit and haven't had any real injuries, so why quit?" said Sammer. "I had to leave the game early because of my knee problems and I would give my right arm to still be playing."
The club were no less willing to let Soldo carry on for another year. As he persisted in persuading the player to sign a new deal, Stuttgart chairman Erwin Staudt said: "Tying Zvonimir to the club is one of our top priorities We all hope that we can persuade him to stay."
The midfield anchor that holds Stuttgart together, Soldo can now look back on a career which has seen him make over 250 Bundesliga appearances, and while his greatest achievement with the club was winning the German Cup in 1996/97, he had the honour of leading them in the UEFA Champions League last season.
With Stuttgart third in the Bundesliga at the winter break, and with a two-legged UEFA Cup tie against Parma FC to look forward to in February, Soldo may well feel that even greater honours lie ahead.
However, his first target will be to get ready for the start of the second half of the season after being sidelined by an operation to remove kidney stones during the Christmas break. He is already back on his feet and has joined Stuttgart at their training camp in Marbella.
"I am feeling much better, but need a bit of time," he said. "I did a few laps today and will have to take things slowly. The doctors are keeping an eye on me and they will allow me to increase the training in the next few days if everything is OK." With a new contract and a new lease of life, it seems that nothing can stop him.
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