x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The wait is finally over for Katanec

For the coach, months of hard work and patience will culminate in UAE's first game against North Korea.

Ahmed Khalil, seen here in an Al Ahli shirt, has been prolific in age-group national competitions and is a key player for UAE.
Ahmed Khalil, seen here in an Al Ahli shirt, has been prolific in age-group national competitions and is a key player for UAE.

Srecko Katanec is waiting. He is relaxing, floating in a small rowing boat, the tame ripples of the azure Adriatic Sea lapping at its sides. A long fishing rod appears almost like an extension of his arm as he sits patiently. Waiting.

There are not many fish to be found off the coast of Croatia, but it is here he enjoys his favourite pastime the most. The adrenaline that accompanies a rare catch has him hooked.

Yet here in the UAE, the Slovenian's adopted home for the past 18 months, rarely does he make the trip from his house in Festival City to the Dubai coastline. Not because, as coach of the country's national football team, he has bigger fish to fry, but rather because here the sea is full of marine life; never do you come home with an empty net. The challenge is removed.

Srecko Katanec is waiting. It is 1990 and he is spending a balmy midsummer's afternoon in Bologna by sitting on the substitutes' bench as Yugoslavia take on the UAE, the little-known World Cup debutants, in the group stages of the tournament in Italy.

If he gets the nod, he will warm up, but the defensive midfielder has played in Yugoslavia's two previous group matches against Germany and Colombia and is being rested after suffering a recurrence of the knee injury that plagued his domestic season.

"At that time, nobody knew much about the UAE, but this is normal. It is like today, not too many people here know much about Slovenia," he said.

Katanec loved a challenge and had a habit of raising his game when it mattered most. His influence was undeniable.

In 1990, he returned in time to help his country beat Spain in the last 16, but missed the quarter-final defeat to Argentina. His authority had been exemplified 12 months previous when he helped lead the German team Stuttgart to the Uefa Cup final before falling at the feet of a Napoli side built around Diego Maradona.

In 1992, then with Sampdoria, he stifled the likes of Pep Guardiola, Hristo Stoichkov and Michael Laudrup as the Italians held out for a scoreless draw against Barcelona in the European Cup final. Only a Ronald Koeman strike in the 111th minute ended Katanec's hopes of lifting the trophy.

"I played with so many great players," he said. "Toninho Cerezo, Ruud Gullit, Jurgen Klinsmann, Gianluca Vialli, too many. It is impossible to say who was best because each player is special in his own way."

It was in 1996, following a conversation with an instructor at his local football school, that Katanec decided to follow in the footsteps of his mentors - be it Sven-Goran Eriksson, Arie Haan or Ivica Osim - and go into coaching.

"I never imagined I would be a coach; everything moved very fast," said Katanec, whose first appointment was as co-manager of the Slovenian Under 21 side, where he achieved relative success before moving to local club Gorica for six months.

By 2000, he was in charge of the full Slovenian national team, leading them to the European Championships and igniting an intense interest in the sport in his home country.

From there he endured mixed results in charge of Greek side Olympiakos and later spent three years with the Macedonia national team.

"I learned many things from my coaches that have helped me in world football," he said. "I tried to take something from all my coaches, but at the end you have to do your own thing because you cannot simply copy them.

"You have your own players and nobody knows how they are. You must adapt to them and they must adapt to you, so it is difficult."

At times, it is such adaptation - or lack thereof - that caused problems in Katanec's career plans. Having taken Slovenia to the World Cup in 2002, he was involved in a public bust-up with Zlatko Zahovic, widely regarded as the country's best player, and resigned almost immediately.

Seven years later and with his Macedonia side having failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Katanec resigned again under a cloud, citing a dispute with Goran Pandev, the country's all-time leading goalscorer.

"The best team is not always composed of the best players," is the 47-year-old's explanation. "The big characters are more important than big players, because if you have players who do not work for the team and do not pass the ball, these are the kind of players I will usually leave out."

Srecko Katanec is waiting. It is June 4, 2009 and the UAE national team, led by Dominique Bathenay, have just conceded seven goals to Germany in an friendly match in Dubai. It could have been a lot more, considers Katanec from the stands of Maktoum Stadium as he prepares to accept an offer from the FA to replace the Frenchman.

In many ways, Katanec's decision to join the UAE made perfect sense when considered in conjunction with fishing, his most leisurely of leisurely pursuits.

He was taking the reins of a side that had managed just one win in their previous seven and appeared to be in world rankings freefall, dropping from 95th to 124th in the space of 12 months. The challenge was most certainly there.

"When I came here, I said to myself this is a challenge, I want to enjoy this experience. Things do not happen overnight; patience is the key," he said.

"I never reflect on the past. You must look ahead and do your best because nobody can know the impact of a new coach with his new energy and new tactics."

He had to wait four games before finally experiencing success with his new squad - a 3-1 friendly win over Jordan - but with a new fitness regime in place, as well as extensive focus on defensive robustness, he slowly began to show he was building a side for the future.

Back-to-back triumphs over Malaysia and Uzbekistan - the latter of which, in Tashkent, secured them a first-place finish in their Asian Cup qualifying group - were followed up with impressive defensive displays in the Gulf Cup where they conceded only two goals on route to the semi-finals.

"Normally in today's football, the most important thing is fitness. If the players are not fit then we have major problems, only after that can you work on other things. If you can run and press for 90 minutes then for a coach it is easy. But if you do not have this quality, then you must work a lot harder tactically."

Ironically, with the difficulties in defence having been dealt with, Katanec now finds himself with a problem in the goal-scoring department. And it is not a problem easily solved.

The FA last week passed a rule allowing each Pro League team to register two additional foreign players taking the total number of non-Emirati players in each squad to five. And with the league's top 16 scorers all carrying foreign passports the opportunity for Emirati forwards is slender.

"Everybody who knows anything about football knows our most important player is Ahmed Khalil, who is 19 years old and rarely starts," Katanec said, referring to the Al Ahli forward who has been prolific in age-group national competitions, but is regularly limited to 20 minutes in the closing stages of his domestic side's league games and has managed just two goals.

"We have defenders, but strikers are a problem. We have almost no national players who play for their clubs as a forward. We must choose our national team strikers from players who start league matches from the bench.

"My suggestion is if they want to make a foreigner rule that is fine, but they have to do something whereby at least one striker from this country has to be on the field. I don't know how they can do this, but if they can it will be better for the country."

Srecko Katanec is waiting. The Asian Cup gets under way today, but his side do not play until Tuesday. He approaches his first major continental tournament in cautious mood having been placed in possibly the toughest group.

The UAE will meet Gulf heavyweights Iran, a North Korea side that qualified for last summer's World Cup, and Iraq, the reigning Asian Cup champions.

"I am a realist and I have my feet on the ground," Katanec said. "We will play in the strongest group. They all have experienced players, some of whom play in Europe, whereas we are mixing older players with youth players from the Olympic team.

"We are not under any pressure and I hope it stays like that because it will be hard. If we make progress through the group it will be seen as very big success."

The UAE start their campaign against North Korea in Doha in four days' time. For Katanec, come Tuesday, the wait is over.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae