Miroslav Blažević: Croatia’s “coach of all coaches” and the man who led them at France 98

Miroslav Blažević: Croatia’s “coach of all coaches” and the man who led them at France 98

One of the most annoying by-products of the blanket coverage that football has enjoyed over the last decade is that it’s impossible to express appreciation for a relatively up-and-coming team without being accused of jumping on the bandwagon.

Mesmerised by Borussia Dortmund’s run to the Champions League final in 2013? Too late, the real experts began drooling over Gegenpressing at least 12 months earlier. Thrilled by Monaco’s attacking last football season? Easy to show interest once they appeared on TV; what about those who discussed the tactical merits of deploying Fabinho in central midfield the previous season?

Mercifully, before the concept of a hipster team became a widely accepted term, it was possible to be taken aback by a side emerging from relative obscurity to challenge football’s established order. The Croatia team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup was arguably the finest exponent of this particular art over the last two decades.

The tale of Zvonimir Boban’s mercurial genius and Robert Prosinečki’s capricious talent has been told numerous times, while Slaven Bilić’s rugged determination and Davor Šuker’s goalscoring exploits have entered folklore the world over. And yet, in comparison, remarkably little attention was devoted to Miroslav ‘Ćiro’ Blažević, the chief architect of what still remains one of the greatest football stories ever told.

By the time Blažević took over the role of Croatia manager, it had been less than a year since the country’s federation had been officially recognised by UEFA. Croatia had been recognised by FIFA in 1992 but European football’s governing body didn’t admit it until 12 months later, meaning the Vatreni – Blazers – missed out on qualification for the 1994 World Cup.

Admittedly football didn’t top anyone’s priority list in a country dealing with a war that saw approximately 20,000 victims and 500,000 people displaced on both sides, between Croatia’s declaration of independence in October 1991 and the end of hostilities in November 1995. Conversely, however, football also proved to be a powerful symbol for the 4.7 million Croats who identified with their national team by the time it reached its first major tournament in 1996 and its first World Cup as an independent nation two years later.

Despite hailing from Bosnia – where he was born into a Catholic family in Travnik – Blažević knew the feeling of patriotism and national pride could play an important role in focusing a team packed with talent prone to mental lapses. “I had wonderful players, full of a sense of patriotism,” he said after Croatia finished third at the 1998 World Cup. “Players who were ready to do big things for their country. One of the biggest advantages Croatia has in sport is that patriotic feeling.”

Blažević’s rhetoric might have been distinctly unimpressive for those who believe sports and politics should not mix, but it was typical of a man who knew motivation was as integral to success as tactics and formation. It was also typical of a man whose love for football was only matched by his braggadocio.

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“He would always say he was the best coach in the world,” Bilić told Jonathan Wilson for Beyond the Curtain, a seminal book eastern European football. “I’m not saying he was a bad coach or a great coach, but he was the ideal coach for us. If you’d given us [Fabio] Capello or [Sir Alex] Ferguson or [Arsène] Wenger, it wouldn’t have worked. He was everybody’s father, a great motivator.”

A charismatic and opinionated character, Blažević was never scared of making his point, usually by mean of hyperbolic statements. Having famously claimed that a unified Yugoslavia could have won a World Cup in the 1990s “so long as they appointed me as their coach”, Blažević also rejected a young Prosinečki. declaring, in customarily understated fashion, that he would eat his degree certificate if the latter ever made it as a professional footballer.

In a career littered with outlandish statements, the former Croatia manager also claimed to have invented the 3-5-2 formation in the 1980s. “My son, let me tell you the truth,” he told Wilson for his book Inverting the Pyramid. “3-5-2 was invented in 1982 by Ćiro Blažević.”

Whether he could indeed claim intellectual property over the system remains to be seen, given Denmark and Argentina both deployed a similar formation in the 1980s and Sepp Piontek and Carlos Bilardo could both put forward a valid case for themselves. However, when the latter attempted to do so, Blažević described him as a “prick” for having the audacity of suggesting the Bosnian did not have paternal rights over the tactic.

Regardless of whether Blažević invented the formation or not, he certainly applied it to great effect, particularly with Croatia, who continued to employ the same system until 2006, six years on since he had left his post.

Back in 1982, however, Blažević’s tactical revolution saw Dinamo Zagreb break a 24-year drought by clinching the Yugoslav title in his second season in charge. The following year, Dinamo won the domestic cup but failed to defend the title after a long battle against Hajduk Split and Partizan Belgrad, which saw Blažević leave the Croatian capital.

Dinamo’s loss was Grasshoppers’ gain, as Blažević took the Zürich-based club to the title in his first season back in Switzerland. The Bosnian had spent almost 15 years in the country, ending his playing career with Sion in 1966 before beginning his managing career with Vevey in 1968. “The club were in the fourth division,” he told Elvir Islamović for a piece published on UEFA’s official website in 2012. “I was not only a coach, I was a player too. In four years I took them to the first division.” 

Following his stint with Vevey, Blažević returned to Sion – this time as a manager – between 1971 and 1976, followed by spells in charge of Switzerland and Lausanne, before returning to Yugoslavia in 1979 to manage Rijeka. Stints in France and Greece were sandwiched in between his second and third spells with Dinamo, which were characterised by contrasting fortunes. 

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Blažević’s first return to Zagreb proved to be unsuccessful but his second coming saw Dinamo – who by then had been renamed Croatia Zagreb – clinch the league title in the Prva NHL’s inaugural season, followed by the domestic cup the following season. If the results on the pitch reminded everyone in Croatia of his managerial talent, Blažević’s stock was also rising in the political arena.

At the beginning of the decade, the Dinamo manager had joined the Croatian Democratic Union party (HDZ), led by Franjo Tuđman, who would go on to become the first president of an independent Croatia.

Blažević never attempted to hide his friendship for Tuđman – who 19 years after his death still remains a divisive figure in Croatia – and the latter often attended the national team’s games and training sessions. “President Tuđman was a big football enthusiast, a crucial man in Croatia’s football success,” Blažević once said. “I was very close to him and we had a special relationship. He helped a lot.”

Blažević would remain a member of HDZ until 2000 when public disagreement with Tuđman’s successor Ivo Sanader saw him leave the party. Five years later, he would contest the presidential election as an independent candidate, before a surprising u-turn saw him re-join HDZ and successfully represent the party at the local elections in Zagreb four years later.

If Tuđman helped Blažević, then the opposite was also true, as Croatia’s president exploited the national team’s success as a way to present Croatia as an up-and-coming nation. As Igor Štimac, a linchpin of Croatia’s defence until 2002, explained, the country’s new-found identity was particularly palpable on a football pitch and in the stands. “When I used to play for Yugoslavia it meant nothing,” he said. “It was only sport, nothing else. Now the feeling is incomparable. We were expected to sing the Yugoslavian national anthem but we didn’t want to. Now we can think we are Croatian and we can say we are Croatian. We couldn’t do that before.”

With the added motivation of finally representing their country and Blažević’s tactical nous, Croatia reached their first major tournament in 1996, qualifying for their European Championships. Croatia’s sojourn in England will be remembered for some sparkling football and for Šuker’s impudent chip over Peter Schmeichel in his side’s 3-0 win over Denmark. Šuker would score again in the quarter-finals but Croatia fell to a 2-1 defeat against eventual tournament winners Germany.

Two years later, Blažević and his men got their revenge on the biggest stage of all, dispatching Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals of the World Cup thanks to goals from Robert Jarni, Goran Vlaović and Šuker. 

As good as Croatia had been up until that point – they had emerged from a group containing Argentina, Japan and Jamaica, losing only to the South Americans and winning their other two games before beating Romania in the round of 16 – the result was a major shock. Typically, it was Blažević who did not consider it a surprise at all. “I convinced my players we were the best in the world and they accepted it,” he said. “We were packed with confidence. We destroyed the German machine and we showed them how Croatians play football.”

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Perhaps Blažević had reasons not to be surprised by the result. A keen astrologist, he would regularly consult astrological charts before picking his team, but it was not the only quirk he was famous for.

During Croatia’s stay in France, he famously carried around the cap of a gendarme who had been savagely beaten by German hooligans earlier in the tournament but had somehow survived as a mark of respect, while he wore the same lucky white scarf to every game when he guided Dinamo to the title in 1982.

Following their exploits against Germany, Croatia looked to be on the verge of securing a spot in the final before Lillian Thuram emerged as France’s unlikely hero, scoring twice to take the host to their first ever World Cup final. Croatia finished third after beating the Netherlands in the third-place playoff and reached the number four in the FIFA rankings, having been ranked 122nd in July 1992. 

Unfortunately for the nation and Blažević, neither could replicate the brilliance they showed over that two-year period and he resigned in the autumn of 2000 after a poor start to the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup had exacerbated the disappointment of missing out on Euro 2000 a few months earlier.

Less than a year later, Blažević was in charge of Iran, where he was again frustrated in his bid to reach the World Cup as his side lost 2-1 on aggregate to Ireland in the playoff. True to form, Blažević had vowed to hang himself from the goalpost if Iran failed to progress, but mercifully he did not follow up his threat.

A swift return to Croatia ensued, with Blažević saving Osijek from relegation before winning yet another title with Dinamo in 2003 and then sparking controversy by joining their arch-rivals Hajduk following short spells at NK Mura in Slovenia and at Varteks in Croatia.

A fleeting return to Switzerland with Neuchatel Xamax was followed by another spell in the Croatian capital, this time with NK Zagreb, before taking the reins of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian federation had offered Blažević the role in 2002 but, by his own admission, his ties with Tuđman had made him unsuitable for the job in the eyes of Jusuf Pušina, then an influential member of the Bosnian FA.

Blažević took Bosnia to the brink of the 2010 World Cup, only to lose a qualification playoff for the second time in his career – this time 2-0 on aggregate to Portugal – and resign soon afterward. At 75 years of age, Blažević treated the thought of retirement as anathema and embarked on yet another tour of the world’s dugouts, which took him to China, Iran, Croatia and back to Bosnia again where, in 2014, he finally retired. It is little wonder, then, that in Croatia, Blažević is known as the “Coach of all Coaches”.

By Dan Cancian

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