Bilic's fire burning bright
Croatia's coach has the passion to return his side to old glories, says Jamie Jackson
Evening, November 21 2007. At a rain-soaked Wembley, Slaven Bilic is punching the air. Mladen Petric has just scored for Croatia and Steve McClaren's reign as England head coach is finishing with a 3-2 defeat that ends any hope of qualification for Euro 2008.
"When England got back to 2-2, I thought, 'Hell, they're taking the match'," Bilic recalls. "Our fans started to shout, 'Hocemo pobjedu!' [we want to win.] It's Wembley, there's 80,000 there, it's the most important sporting event anywhere that day, and from the moment our fans start shouting we start to pass. After three minutes, we scored where our fans were."
Today in Vienna, Croatia, who had already won the qualifying group before that win at Wembley and eventually finished five points ahead of Russia, open their campaign against co-hosts Austria.
Bilic proves a fascinating host, with an array of tales. And during dinner on an evening in Zagreb that stretches beyond midnight, the 39-year-old former Croatia, Hajduk Split, Karlsruher, West Ham and Everton central defender is, above everything else, honest.
A qualified lawyer ("I'd never want to try a case") Bilic also plays guitar in Rawbau, a rock band who recently wrote Vatreno Ludilo [Fiery Madness] for Croatia fans hoping to watch their team negotiate a difficult group that also features Germany and Poland. The song harks back to the 1998 World Cup, when Bilic was an integral member of a Croatia team that finished third -- just six years after gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia.
Slaven Bilic was born in Split on September 11, 1968 and in 1987 began the first of two spells with Hajduk -- he ended his playing career there in 2001, after leaving Everton a year earlier. The family had a summer house an hour away from Split, on the Adriatic, and his maternal grandmother "was sports mad. I remember the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics ... she would stay up watching water polo and everything."
Bilic is an infamous smoker, puffing his way to 44 Croatia caps. Of the habit he says: "It's normal in Europe. In my national team we have two who are smoking."
Does it concern him?
"No. Of course, they don't smoke in the dressing room. When we have our lunch together, they don't smoke in front of me. In my national team, we had maybe 10 players who were smokers."
Bilic's Croatia generation could definitely play. It included captain Zvonimir Boban, a member of the Milan team who, coached by Fabio Capello, humiliated Barcelona 4-0 to win the 1994 Champions League; Davor Suker, whose six goals won the golden boot at France 98; and Robert Prosinecki, who won the 1991 European Cup with Red Star Belgrade and who later played for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Portsmouth (who now have Bilic's charge Niko Kranjcar in their team).
Prosinecki is one of the national team's assistant coaches, alongside Aljosa Asanovic and Nikola Jurcevic, two more of Bilic's former team-mates.
Having become a shareholder in Hajduk in 2000, along with Asanovic, Igor Stimac, and Alen Boksic -- "we were all from Split and lent the club £1.5m" -- Bilic reluctantly took charge of the team. "I was 31 or 32; we sacked the coach and as no one wanted to do the job I agreed -- for just five games."
But Bilic became hooked on the adrenaline. "My idea was to learn by going round Europe. So I went to see Marcello Lippi at Juventus, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. After Euro 2004, the Croatia FA chairman asked if I wanted to be the under-21 coach."
Following Croatia's first-round exit at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Bilic was promoted to the senior job and brought with him from the under-21s Luka Modric (who has just signed for Spurs) Vedran Corluka (of Man City) and Eduardo (of Arsenal). The Arsenal man top-scored in qualifying but will miss the finals because of the shocking injury he picked up in February.
"I put them straight in, because they played regularly in Croatia and in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League and Uefa Cup.
"English under-21s don't play, they go on loan to [a lower] division club," he says, commenting that only 34 per cent of Premier League players were English this season. But would it be the same if Croatian club football was as rich? "Of course. You can't have a great league and national team."
When Bilic took over, it was not only matters on the pitch that were key to Croatia's qualifying hopes. Continued problems with racist chants and far-right activity in the stands culminated in fans forming up into the shape of a swastika during Bilic's first game in charge, a friendly in Italy in August 2006.
This led to action by Fifa and the Croatian FA had earlier been fined by Uefa for racist banners displayed at Euro 2004. The European governing body threatened them with expulsion from the 2008 tournament in the event of a repetition of these incidents.
Some fans' chants express admiration for the fascist Ustase regime, put into power by Nazi Germany. Was Bilic aware that some people, rather distastefully, nicknamed the 1998 World Cup quarter-final Croatia played against Germany the "Nazi derby"?
"I didn't. But I know that before the game in Zagreb [which England lost 2-0 in October 2006] they were saying we are a Nazi country. There are more Nazis in England -- definitely more skinheads than in Croatia.
"England I love. So I have credit to say England has more Nazis than we have -- of course you have, but it's childishness, it's not serious.
"Let's say Eduardo Da Silva played in Dinamo Zagreb [the Arsenal striker's former club], or you maybe now have four coloured guys playing in Zagreb [three Brazilians and an Ivorian] and they could be booed in Split by 100 people -- and they are cheering for them in the Dinamo Zagreb stadium -- it's not serious, we are a terrific country.
If they were playing for Hajduk Split, they [Dinamo Zagreb] would boo them. So it's not racism, here it's important to feel a rebel, it's not serious."
Compared to, say England or France, there are not as many black people in Croatia -- is that an economic thing?
"No, no, no. Don't think we have skinheads or police standing at the border who say, 'You are black, you can't come.' The wages are not great here -- they would rather go to Italy. And we have blacks here, they live, we have nowhere near [the numbers of] some other countries, but to say -- I don't know, maybe you ask the question because you don't know the situation here.
"And I'm not saying it because [I] want to defend my people -- it's not very common in Croatia. I wouldn't think that 90 per cent of the parents here would love their daughter to be married to a coloured guy -- but that's not racism, [it's] old, special culture."
It is a view that would be a surprise from a coach in Britain, likewise from a coach who hopes to work in Britain.
Bilic laughs off any suggestion that he might feel threatened by having the high-profile Prosinecki, Asanovic and Jurcevic as assistants. But he does admit to beliefs he has learnt a lot from the pressure of his current job. "Now, I'm able to fly to the moon, talk to Osama Bin Laden. In the film Armageddon, I could be the guy who has to stop the missile destroying the earth. This is from being Croatia head coach -- mentally I'm ready for any club job."
Would he, then, like to manage England? "Who wouldn't? England is like a cool woman -- whoever says they wouldn't is afraid. They haven't got balls, or he's lying, though I'm not sure about Jose Mourinho," he says of the former Chelsea manager who was reported to have been unable to agree terms with the FA.
"He has balls, and he's not a liar. Maybe with Mourinho, the problem -- and I love him -- was that if you're a national-team manager doing a good job you know you can do it with a club because if, for example, you need a left-back, you buy.
"But too long in club management, you could face problems managing a national team because you have no time, no players to buy. Maybe this was the reason Mourinho didn't... But I don't think so, maybe every day he needs to work."
In Capello, Bilic believes England have the best available coach. But he is less sure about the continuing role of David Beckham.
"I don't know if he would play if I was manager, because I'm really impressed with David Bentley. I'm surprised he doesn't play regularly."
Bilic showed no fear when given a first test of man-managing his own national team. Ahead of his first competitive outing two years ago (against Russia in the opening game of qualification for Euro 2008), Darijo Srna, Ivica Olic and Bosko Balaban visited a Zagreb nightclub. All were thrown out of the squad -- and Croatia gained a worthy 0-0 draw in Moscow.
The players were later reinstated though, and Srna and Olic are in the squad for this month's finals.
"The [Croatia] FA chairman said, 'It's Russia, Guus Hiddink. Select them, and we'll fine them big money.' I said, 'No way. I'm going to fuck them off for this game or forever -- it depends on their reaction'. And it was unbelievable, they said, 'We're wankers,' and apologised a hundred times.
"But this helped me. Some in the media, the Croatia FA, didn't want me when I was appointed. Yet 90 per cent of people did. The FA are saying now they want me. But I know who they wanted -- Claudio Gentile [former Italy under-21 coach], Giovanni Trapattoni etcetera.
"The only question was did I have the authority. For me, the only authority is knowledge -- it's not about shouting. I have a special relationship with my players. One came crying -- I'm not going to say who -- and said, 'I broke with my girlfriend, I adore her.' He would never have done so if we weren't close."
Bilic describes his Croatia side as one of the "best national teams he has seen in the last five years", but what chance does he feel they have of winning Euro 2008?
"We are good enough. We showed during qualification that we can play any team in the world -- that's why we are not afraid of going to the championship. We passed through the most difficult group of all to finish first, so we have a good chance. We have to stay down to earth, but there's nothing wrong in self-belief."
How will Croatia play? "Systems are dying. Like 4-5-1, what does it mean? It's only for journalists or at the beginning of each half. When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other.
"Italy won the 2006 World Cup with nothing like the [defensive] Italy you usually think of. They finished the semi-final against Germany with Del Piero, Gilardino, Iaquinta and Totti -- four strikers. And two full-backs bombing up. It's about the movement of 10 players now."
What of his own future? Bilic recently signed a fresh contract -- after making public noises about his position -- that improved his salary from a paltry €60,000 to around €160,000, which is still hardly lucrative.
This should take him through to the 2010 World Cup, yet Bilic recently interested Fulham and he admits: "I would like to get to the Premier League."
For the moment he is "happy with the best job in the world. But the only certainty is you'll be sacked." And before Bilic signed the new deal, a friend had left it be known he believed that "Bilic would crawl to work at a top club like Liverpool or Chelsea".
Whatever Croatia's fortunes during Euro 2008, Bilic probably will not need to get down on his hands and knees to find future employment.