x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Time flies at Al Wahda, but Ivankovic is here to work

The manager's dedication to the job in the last six months means there is little chance for sightseeing.

Branko Ivankovic is not superstitious but likes to dress up well like a ritual on match days.
Branko Ivankovic is not superstitious but likes to dress up well like a ritual on match days.

Branko Ivankovic holds the notebook horizontally as he writes left-handed. His words are carefully spaced, his style almost akin to an art. It reflects his personality and his keen attention to detail.

The 58-year-old Croatian is not only armed with a steely will and an array of strategies for his position as coach of Al Wahda, but he also holds a doctorate in physical education and has obtained the highest coaching credential, the Uefa Pro Licence A.

Ivankovic's life has revolved around sport. His ambition had always been to become a football coach and his first step towards achieving his objective was when he was appointed the assistant coach at Varteks, his home club, immediately after he retired as a player at the age of 29.

"It was my dream and I was fortunate that I got this opportunity straightaway when I decided to quit as a player," he said.

Ivankovic was faithful to the club and never wanted to leave, even at his peak, when he had offers to play abroad.

"I wanted to complete my education," he said.

"I wanted to go to the university and I was interested in academics, especially sports and physical education. I went to the highest level I could and spent five years teaching in a school, apart from playing."

Ivankovic joined Varteks at the age of seven and represented the club in various age group tournaments. At 17; he was promoted to the first team.

He became an assistant coach at Varteks in 1983 and by 1985 he took over the team, a role he held for 10 seasons. He went on to coach two more Croatian clubs, Segesta for one season and Rijeka for two.

From 1994 until 2000 he also served as an assistant to Miroslav Blazevic, the coach of Croatia's national team.

In that period he was involved in more than 60 official games, including a run to the quarter-finals at Euro 96 in England and Croatia's shock third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup finals in France.

He left Croatia in 2000 to coach Hannover 96 in the German second division before rejoining as Blazevic's assistant when the latter took charge of Iran in 2001.

Ivankovic succeeded Blazevic as the Iran coach in the following year and he led the Under 23 team to the gold medal at the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, in 2002.

He then coached Iran's senior team to third place in the Asian Cup and earned qualification to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where they lost to Mexico and Portugal and drew with Angola.

"I had excellent times wherever I worked, in Germany, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia," Ivankovic said.

"I spent five wonderful years in Iran. There the people loved football and crowds of more than 100,000 were in attendance for most of the matches. I have a lot of good memories and made a lot of friends in Iran."

Ivankovic had made several visits to the UAE during his time in Iran and he was familiar with UAE football when he arrived at Wahda in the summer.

"I was in Saudi Arabia before I was invited for negotiations at Al Wahda," he said.

"I had the opportunity to follow the Pro League more closely during my time at Ettifaq and had a good idea of all the teams.

"All that I wanted to know from Wahda were the objectives set for me, which was to build the side in the first season. Of course, as always the intentions are to win every game and every competition."

Ivankovic is on a two-year deal. Having taken charge over the summer, he feels the first six months of his time at the Abu Dhabi club have flown by so fast that he has had no time to relax.

"I have been so busy that I haven't been able to visit any interesting places in the UAE. I feel I have been here only a week," he said.

"We had a tough programme preparing the team for the season. It was training, we had the camp in Germany, training again and playing friendly matches besides analysing each and every game we played.

"My time in Abu Dhabi has been confined to the club, my apartment [at the Grand Millennium Al Wahda] and Al Wahda Mall.

"I went to watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and that was my first visit to Yas Island and that on the insistence of my son who was here on visit. We went with the entire team.

"I haven't been to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, which I must go and see as some point. I haven't gone to Dubai on a visit other than travelling with the team."

Ivankovic loves to watch all sports "especially handball, basketball, volleyball, skiing, water polo and athletics, besides football" when he is relaxing at his apartment.

"This has been all my life," he said. "I like to watch some movies like the new Bond movie Skyfall. But I don't like violence in movies."

He enjoys reading the sports pages in newspapers and magazines, and anything related to football.

Back home in Croatia Ivankovic's wife, Vesna, is a lawyer while his daughter, Mija, and son, Hrvoje, are now looking after his businesses, a coffee shop and a sports centre he opened three years ago.

Hrvoje, a goalkeeper, has retired from professional football with Varteks and runs the sports centre, Mija is in charge of the coffee shop.

Ivankovic is the youngest of three boys. His brothers Zlatko and Drago have also been football coaches.

One of Ivankovic's nephews, Franjo, plays in Turkey for Kayseri after spells at the Croatian clubs Varteks and Slaven Belupo, and at Inter Milan and Hannover. "My father was in the Yugoslav police and he was an avid football fan. He encouraged us in our careers in the sport, and me and my brothers benefited from his support," Ivankovic said.

He is not superstitious but he concedes he goes through rituals before every game.

He said: "Match days are like attending a wedding party. I shave and put on the best clothes for the occasion. I think about the game from the time I am up to the time I go to bed after the game. This is my life."

apassela@thenational.ae

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