Published in Nacional number 339, 2002-05-15

Autor: Dean Sinovčić

Interview with Tomislav Ivić: The only Croatian strategist

In this interview, the most successful Croatian football coach, who has led teams such as Ajax, Anderlecht, Porto, Galatasaray, PSG, Panathinaikos, Atletico and Olympique, talks about the Croatian national team and their chances at the upcoming World Cup

Tomislav Ivić (69) is the Croatian coach with the most trophies won – in clubs that won six national championships, five national cups, the Intercontinental Cup and the European Supercup. In addition, his teams have placed in the finals of the national championships or cups nine times. His began coaching his first team, Hajduk in 1972 before going abroad in 1976. Since leaving Croatia, he has coached teams such as Ajax, Galatarasay, Anderlecht, Avellino, Panathanaikos, Porto, PSG, Atletico from Madrid, Olympique, Benfico, Penerbache and Standard from Liege. He was also head coach of the United Arab Emirates, and of Iran for a short time, though he was never invited to be head coach of the Croatian National team. The reasons are well known: in part because Ivić himself did not want that role, instead becaming director of the Croatian national team in 1994, and also somewhat due to his elimination by the political leadership which wanted to give Miroslav Blažević free reign over the team. He will always be remembered for the Croatia-Italy game in the European Cup qualifiers in Palermo in 1994, when Ivić was head coach for the only time, and they beat Italy 2:1.

Italian Defense Croatia does not have to look for Italy’s weaknesses, but instead prepare to play their best game to date: Italy has enough potential and they don’t have to think only of defenseItalian Professionalism

Ivić’s coaching career ended last year after his doctors advised him to stay away from stress due to heart problems. At the time, he was coaching Olympique from Marseille. Today, he lives a quiet life in Split, and he agreed to this interview with Nacional, even though he was in a rush to get to his weekend house. We spoke with Ivić only hours after head coach Jozić announced the play list for the World Cup in Japan and Korea. The only player he asked about was Silvio Marić, if he was accepted to the team. However, out of courtesy, he declined to comment on Jozić’s selection.

NACIONAL: Is it possible that Igor Tudor was intentionally pushed into the last round of the Italian championships, with a high risk of injury, so that he would not be able to play in the World Cup?

I don’t think so. The Italians, and especially Juventus, are too professional to do something like that. Tudor has been injured for four or five months, and it seemed as though his condition had improved. However, Juventus had their needs, and they played Tudor when they felt he was able. In the end, he wanted to be part of the championship team and when this happened, the doctors decided he needed surgery.

Defense Organization

NACIONAL: Head coach Jozić announced at that time that without Tudor, the Croatian team was 20% weaker. Is Tudor that important for the team, or is the team weak and thus dependent on Tudor?

Tudor is a great player, and there are few such players in Croatia. He is useful in both offense and defense. If I were to look at the problem of his absence and a player who would replace him, then that’s not 20%. His replacement could be 20% weaker than him, but the team would not suffer that much. On the other hand, he is a class player who can influence his team members to play better, and that is where Tudor will be most missed. Some players play for themselves, while others help their teammates to play well alongside them, and that is how Tudor is.

NACIONAL: How do you comment on the attacks against Jozić after we beat Belgium and qualified for the World Cup, when some were even asking for his resignation?

It is difficult to switch national team coaches as often as club coaches can be changed. It is true that only at the end of the qualifiers did Croatia find the best way to play and get results. In the end, when everything turned out well, we must not doubt a head coach such as Jozić.

NACIONAL: Have the team members become accustomed to Jozić considering that he is a different type of coach than Blažević, which was often a comment?

Yes, they have. Jozić respected their earlier way of playing the game, and that brought harmony to the team. Considering that football has evolved from a 5 defense system to a 4-4-2 system, I though that Jozić would implement that new system, which would also mean changing the players. However, he wisely continued with the old system of play.

NACIONAL: However, that system has brought accusations that we are playing too defensively, with seven stoppers and one midfielder, and they have proclaimed you as also being too defensive?

I have been told that, but you have to know that I have been invited to many clubs, and all of those clubs have asked for maximal results after one month of preparations. I wasn’t able to achieve that with the players I had available to me without establishing a defensive system, and then moving to the offense. That was at the time when a win brought 2 points and a tie brought 0.5 points. Today a tie is actually a loss, the game has evolved, it is played more forward and offensive, a completely different approach than before. The Croatian national team does not, at this moment, have the players to satisfy these modern demands. Today we have more counter-attacks, with one or two players in the back zone, a collective counterattack. The length of the offense has also been extended, and you have to have players who know how to hold the ball and move it around to find an opening.

Every good team today has five players who are by vocation offensive, so that whoever gets the ball can move in the attack. If you play with only two such players, then you have holes. Further, considering that everyone is playing solid defense, the offensive finished with a lot of players in the 16 meter zone, and winning teams continue with an even stronger attack as a means of defense. We don’t have such players. We firstly lack strong midfielders who can play a prolonged offensive. We have good attackers, but once they lose they ball, they end the play and get a little lost. There are now fantastic attackers in the sport who, as soon as they lose the ball, they instantly switch to defense, and that’s where we are weak. Our defensive players have strong defensive skills, but they do not have the sense to move the ball forward, which makes that system static and the holes easier to see. It would be easiest for Jozić to put five attackers in, but once they lose the ball, they will be stuck in one place, with an empty center or defensive zone.

Italy among the favorites

NACIONAL: Does that mean that at this time, Jozić is patching up those holes they only way he can?

Yes, the problem is that neither the clubs nor the national team have not taught players in the ways of modern football. All of us coaches are to blame for that, because we always have to be able to predict what is going to happen.

NACIONAL: That is likely the reason why Šuker is now playing midfield for the national team. Is this a logical and necessary move?

A year ago, I suggested something similar, which doesn’t mean that my idea made it to Jozić, he could have had the same idea himself. Over the years, Šuker has been losing his penetration in the attack, he can’t move left-right anymore and run deep. However, he is very experienced in handling the ball and, when he retreats, he can move the ball forward better than others. He is more vertical than Prosinečki, who is more lateral.

NACIONAL: Do you agree with Jozić’s decision to not invite players who are not playing, or playing very little in their home clubs?

It is difficult to play those players in such important games such as the World Cup. However, it would seem to me that we need to pay more attention to players such as Balaban, Biščan and the others who will be very important to us in the near future. We should be talking with them, inviting them and giving them special treatment during training. A player who has not played enough games for his club will have a difficult time playing in the World Cup, but they have a truer talent than someone with less talent who is getting a lot of play. I would rather invite someone with true talent than someone without, but who is playing well. Mate Bilić is not playing now in Real from Zaragoza, but he has fantastic abilities as a goal getter. He is only 22 and he will be great when he is 23 or 24, and will play until at least 30.

NACIONAL: Is the greatest strength in the Italian team their head coach Trapattoni? You once said you admire him greatly.

I think that Italy chose the best possible solution by bringing in an expert head coach who has proven himself in all spheres. That is the best kind of coach. He is not tired like the club coaches, he has the ability to make fantastic combinations, and he has the whole nation at his disposal. He will certainly know how to better use his players than a younger or less experienced coach. Italy has a lot of potential, and I put them in with the favorites at this World Cup.

NACIONAL: But Trapattoni and his players have been criticized in Italy for playing poorly in the qualifiers and friendlies.

Many coaches are in an experimental period in preparing their teams through friendly matches. Few teams play their real groups and game; they are all based on experimentation. On the other hand, the players were not strongly motivated. Only those best players, who consider the game their pleasure, were strongly motivated, unlike those players who feel the game is their job, and so a club game and its salary are more important than a friendly national team match. That’s why Trapattoni was experimenting and not showing what Italy has to offer when it is a matter of life and death for the players.

NACIONAL: Can Croatia count on Italy’s weaknesses, such as a weak midfield and slow start at the World Cup?

In the last few years, we have played well against Italy. But Croatia should not be looking for Italy’s weaknesses; instead we have to prepare to play our best game to date. It is true that Italy is beginning the World Cup not in their best form, but the competition atmosphere always makes that team dynamic and it becomes increasingly stronger as the tournament progresses. Italy has the kind of player potential that they don’t have to think only of their defense.

NACIONAL: Were you surprised by Trapattoni’s decision to not invite Robert Baggio to the World Cup?

I wouldn’t have invited him either. He would cause problems in the group because he would sulk if he was not part of the starting line, and all the media would focus only on him, creating anxiety within the team.

Fantastic Combinations

NACIONAL: Virtually every team has left out some of their stars for the World Cup, but Brazil leads the pack, leaving out Jardel, Elber, Ze Roberto and Romario.

Jardel is 34 years old and really is the best striker in Europe. Romario is 36 and is an excellent striker, as is Elber, Ze Roberto receives the ball well and passes even better. But these are all players without the work ethic necessary to satisfy football’s demands: fast tempo, collective approach and knowledge of the game. When you play against Brazil, it is easy to check Jardel, move him away from the goal and he can’t escape. Ze Romario stands by the sideline, but he can’t break away. These four players you mentioned, to which you can add Baggio and some of our players, create defects in this modern game which is very demanding. These kinds of players don’t even ask the coach if they will play, they assume that their place is reserved and when they are left out, they cause unrest in the group. That is not important, today it is no problem to train, it is leading the team that is key. Imagine the team who is at the World Cup for one month, with dissension among them. This is why the coaches need a large selection of players in order to resolve these problems, which we don’t have.

NACIONAL: What do you think of Ecuador after they passed the South American qualifiers, beating Mexico, a better known club?

In the qualifiers, Mexico was third of six teams, they had a lot of trouble. Their quality is in the knowledge of their players. But they are an unknown and could be knocked out in the first round. They are under a lot of media pressure, and their advantage is that they completed their national championships over a month ago and have spent this time training together. Ecuador cannot be compared to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, but in their qualification group of ten teams, they finished second behind Argentina, in front of Brazil and Uruguay. They played 18 qualifying games, even beating Brazil 1:0, which is not to be underestimated, and they are strong in their knowledge, technical ability and their teamwork. However, their advancement to the second round came as a big surprise, but they still have to be taken very seriously because it is possible that this is a generation capable of doing great things. Nonetheless, Croatia and Italy should move on to the second round.

NACIONAL: Why are Ecuador and Mexico hoping to beat Croatia, and not Italy. Has Croatia lost their authority in football?

These two teams have not been sleeping, and they have been watching the videotapes of our games and watching us. After the old generation retired, Boban, Asanović and others, they know that our game is not as strong. They are not counting on beating Italy, because they know that team has a charge that will not disappear during the World Cup, which makes them think that they won’t beat Italy, but they could beat Croatia and Mexico, or Croatia and Ecuador.

NACIONAL: Who are your favorites for this World Cup?

Today, everyone knows how to play the game and if you don’t give it your all, you can’t beat any of them. Due to a small error, a favorite team can be knocked out, and this creates a large palette of favorites. France is perhaps the best team, the current European and World Champion, the best football is played in Spain, and England knows how to put together a good team. The best football players today come out of Argentina, and they are, together with France, the best contenders for the championship. But we must not forget Brazil, Italy or Germany. The favorites are those teams which have already won the cup, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and France. But even Spain and England, who can be crazy, can accomplish anything. Beckham has said that the English players are unbreakable.

Premier’s League

NACIONAL: Do you expect any revolutionary advancements in the football at the World Cup, or has the game evolved enough already?

For me, the Premier’s League is a better model of football than the national teams are. The best players play in the Premier League, brought together in one club automatism, while in the national teams, there are players from various big clubs, and that automatism is lacking. The evolution of football in the Premier’s League is at its greatest, but there is always room for advancements in the game. Real Madrid could be the European champion, but they have two weak points, Hierro and young Pavon. Imagine that instead of these players they have Zidane and Raul in a defensive role. Unlike other clubs, Bayer Leverkusen has Lucia and Nowotnya, defensive players who play offense, which is why Bayer plays with 10 players while the others play with 8. Space for a better game was created with the defensive players who know how to play offense, thus enriching the team.

On Mirko Jozić as head coach

We lack midfielders who can play an extended attack, our strikers are out of the game as soon as they lose the ball because they don’t play defense, while defensive players do not participate in the offensive attacks. Jozić has “patched” the holes the only way he could, and should not be replaced

Tomislav Ivić
Born June 30, 1933 in Split

Began football career as player for Split and played one season for Hajduk

1967 began his coaching career in Split

1968-1972 led the Hajduk juniors. At the end of the 71/72 season was coach for the Hajduk first team

1973 again becomes Hajduk coach and wins two championships (74, 75) and three Yugoslav Cups (73, 75, 76)

Transfers to Ajax, where in 1977 wins the Dutch championships, returns again to Hajduk to take the 1979 championships

Coached for three years at Anderlecht (Belgian champions in 1981), then moved around from Galatasaray, Dinamo, Avelino, Panathinaikos, and Porto, which became Portuguese champions and took the Cup, Supercup and Intercontinental Cup in 1988.
Continues career in Paris St. Germaine, Atletico (M), Olypique, Benfici and again in Porto.

1994 becomes director of the Croatian National team, then leaves to become head coach for the United Arab Emirates and for a short time in Iran

1999 returns to Europe to Standard from Liege, then again to Olympique

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