x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Refugee managers from former Yugoslavia prosper abroad

Coaches from the former Yugoslavia have a history of looking for success in foreign climes - including in the UAE. Jonathan Wilson explains why

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, October 28, 2012: Al Dhafra's head coach Dzemal Hadziabdic, left, speaks with Saif Mohamed during the seond half of their Pro League match against Al Wasl at Zabeel Stadium in Dubai on October 28, 2012. Christopher Pike / The National
Dubai, United Arab Emirates, October 28, 2012: Al Dhafra's head coach Dzemal Hadziabdic, left, speaks with Saif Mohamed during the seond half of their Pro League match against Al Wasl at Zabeel Stadium in Dubai on October 28, 2012. Christopher Pike / The National

Al Dhafra's coach, Dzemal Hadziabdic, is Bosnian, but he has never worked in his homeland, his 20 years as a coach having all been spent in the Middle East.

Al Wahda's coach, Branko Ivankovic, is Croatian, but since leaving Rijeka in 1998, has spent just two years in his homeland, his odyssey taking him to Germany, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia before he arrived in Abu Dhabi in the summer.

From 2009 to 2011, the Slovenian Srecko Katanec was coach of the UAE national side.

They are part of an extraordinary diaspora: per head of population, no area, not even Brazil, has produced as many coaches who work abroad as the former Yugoslavia.

For Ciro Blazevic, who has coached in nine countries, including Iran, China and Switzerland, the number of coaches is about a Balkan mentality.

"We have a creativity," he said. "Our grandfathers' generation and the generation before that and the generation before that, they always lived under occupation. They had to develop the instinct to escape, and that got into our DNA, and that's the reason why these players and coaches have made progress."

Part of the reason they have travelled, of course, is that the war of the 1990s forced many to look abroad. Ivankovic coached in Iran because he had served as an assistant to Blazevic, who had himself been the Iran coach, having first made contact while helping the FK Sarajevo side flee the siege of their city in 1993.

He found them supplies and accommodation in Zagreb before they flew to a sympathetic Tehran to begin a world tour aimed at raising awareness and generating funds for orphans and veterans in their homeland.

Even with the war 18 years in the past and Yugoslavia fragmented, opportunities and resources back home are limited. For coaches, Africa, China and the Middle East offer higher-profile, better-paid alternatives to club sides in their own countries.

But it goes deeper than that, for the diaspora began long before the war and was a direct result of Marshal Josip Tito's policy of non-alignment. Having led the Partizans who helped end the German occupation of Yugoslavia, Tito, as a Communist, initially saw himself on the Soviet side of the East-West divide. After cleverly securing aid from both the US and the USSR, though, he rapidly fell out with Joseph Stalin, then premier of the Soviet Union, and pursued a third way that supported neither side in the Cold War.

That was formalised with the creation in 1961 of the Non-Aligned Movement, led by Tito, Sukarno of Indonesia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Jawaharlal Nehru of India.

Recognising the power of football and the riches Yugoslavia could offer, Tito encouraged coaches to go abroad to strengthen Yugoslavia's global diplomatic position.

Rade Ognjanovic and Vladimir Beara, for instance, were influential in Cameroon football, while Tihomir Jelisavcic is considered one of the patriarchs of the Nigerian game. Blagoje Vidinic led Morocco at the 1970 World Cup and then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) at the 1974 tournament. And once it was recognised and accepted that coaching sides abroad is viable, more and more followed in the pioneers' footsteps.

Tito not merely encouraged the diaspora, his style of leadership also in some way provided a template for them. Look at Bora Milutinovic, who led Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States, Nigeria and China at World Cups and has also coached Honduras, Jamaica and Iraq; Radomir Antic, who coached Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona; Ivica Osim, who coached Panathinakos, Sturm Graz and Japan; and Vujadin Boskov, the manager of Feyenoord, Real Madrid, Sampdoria, Roma and Napoli: all are astute, canny men, tough in their own way and endlessly quotable and controversial.

When Blazevic walked out for Bosnia's vital World Cup qualifier against Turkey in 2009, deliberately delaying his arrival to whip up the crowd and then emerging in a gleaming white blazer, it seemed he had even taken to dressing like Tito. The personality cult that surrounded the dictator perhaps shaped them all.

The younger generation, the likes of Katanec, Hadziabdic and Ivankovic, may not be cut quite from the same cloth in terms of personality or style, but they are part of the same trend.

It may be, as Blazevic argues, that the former Yugoslavia produces more skilled coaches than elsewhere but the reason so many operate in such diverse locations lies in the politics of the Cold War.

 

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