Vladimir Petković: the migrant who struggled his way to the top of Swiss football

Vladimir Petković: the migrant who struggled his way to the top of Swiss football

In 1976, an energetic and exuberant 41-year-old Bosnian Croat named Miroslav Blažević was appointed as manager of the Switzerland national team. Back then, the ethnic composition of the central Europeans was largely homogenous with the coming decades bringing about waves of immigration and significantly altering the demographics of the nation known for its cheese, mountains and watches.

Having failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup, Blažević departed his post and returned to his native Yugoslavia where he later led a newly-independent Croatia to third place at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Almost 42 years have passed since Blažević’s appointment, and the man now commanding the touchline for the Swiss is another Bosnian Croat in 54-year-old Vladimir Petković. The social worker turned football manager left his hometown, Sarajevo, three decades ago and his life since then evoked the Dino Merlin hit, ‘Moj Je Život Švicarska’ (My Life is Switzerland).

Born in Sarajevo in 1963, his parents’ jobs as teachers meant Petković’s early years were spent living on the outskirts of the historical city, firstly in picturesque Vrelo Bosne and then the neighbourhood of Hadžici. A technical-gifted, towering midfielder, he progressed his way through the youth academy of FK Sarajevo – one of the city’s two big football institutions alongside Željezničar.

Having broken into the first-team aged 18, he completed his year of mandatory military service before returning to the club following the sale of their supremely-talented attacking midfielder Safet Sušić to Paris Saint-Germain. With first-team opportunities limited, Petković spent a short time in the second tier with Rudar Prijedor, where his reputation as a goalscoring midfielder was enhanced.

Upon his return to the capital, he played a peripheral role for the Bordo-bijeli, who claimed their second championship crown under the tutelage of Boško Antić. Although traditionally perceived to be the club of Sarajevo’s Bosniak aristocratic class, their supporter base was largely made up of inhabitants from the city’s central neighbourhoods and, at the time, was largely multi-ethnic.

That diversity was reflected on the field, with Antić – a Bosnian Serb – leading a team featuring stars such as Faruk Hadžibegić, Miloš Đurković, Predrag Pašić, Slaviša Vukićević, Mehmed Janjoš, Husref Mušemič, Dragan Jakovljević, Davor Jozić and Mirza Kapetanović. Interestingly, the club’s backroom staff included a psychologist by the name of Radovan Karadžić – an individual who would become synonymous with the division of the city in the 1990s.

With first-team opportunities limited once more, Petković moved back to the second tier by joining Slovene side Koper prior to his third, final and most noteworthy stint at the Koševo Stadium.

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Having just turned 24, he took what was then perceived to be a backward step by moving to the Swiss Super League in 1987 at a time when many people from Yugoslavia were beginning to migrate to the country, with the impending crisis only a few years away. However, his move to giants St. Gallen broke down and he was forced to join second tier Chur 97.

A year later, he secured a transfer to top-flight side Sion, where other Yugoslav players of Bosnian origin – Admir Smajić, Mirsad Baljić and later Semir Tuce – piled their trade. At Sion, Petković was paired up with fellow Sarajevo native Baljić, but unlike his compatriot, who was a seasoned Yugoslav international, he struggled for minutes at a time when the Swiss league only permitted two foreigners.

The following decade saw Petković become a regular in the Swiss lower leagues for the likes of Martigny-Sports, Bellinzona, Locarno and Buochs as well as a second successful stint at Chur. While battling for each contract, the father of two was also busy earning his tertiary and coaching qualifications, in addition to mastering the nation’s three predominant languages.

He also watched on from a distance as his birth city was besieged, with Petković playing an important role in helping the newly-arrived ex-Yugoslav diaspora resettle in a foreign land. He attained his first coaching role in the Locarno youth set-up in 1996, before taking charge of his first role in senior management as player-coach of Bellinzona a year later.

Upon the completion of his playing career in 1999, Petković was appointed as manager of highly-ambitious lower league side Malcantone Agno, who he helped gain promotion into the second tier Swiss Challenge League prior to their merger with financially stricken Lugano in 2004.

Located next to the Italian border, Agno’s status as a semi-professional club meant Petković had to balance full-time employment with his coaching career, spending his work hours assisting the unemployed. He then spent time working for Caritas Ticino – a homeless Catholic charity located in Locarno – before spending his evenings and weekends marauding the pitch and touchline in his quest to take one of Switzerland’s most historic clubs back to the top-flight.

In 2005, he made the short drive north to his former stomping ground, Bellinzona, who were determined to see their former player take the managerial reins and steer them back into the Swiss Super League. Located in the picturesque Italian-speaking south of the country, Petkovic ultimately achieved promotion with Grenade in 2008 as well as coaching them through an improbable run to the Swiss Cup final, which they ultimately lost to champions Basel.

Italian midfielder Iacopo La Rocca – now of Melbourne City in the A-League – was a part of that team and fondly remembers Bellinzona’s passage to the final, which saw them eliminate several top-flight sides in the process. “I have fantastic memories of that time of my life. We achieved something special in not only getting promoted but also beating the likes of Sion and Neuchâtel Xamax on our way to the final”, he told These Football Times. “It was a very emotional time for me and all of Ticino in being able to come up against Basel in front of a packed stadium. While it was disappointing not to win, we created enough opportunities to enter the break 3-1 up but ultimately it wasn’t to be.”

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Nevertheless, that feat had helped the newly-promoted outfit qualify for Europe, while also prompting several of Switzerland’s bigger names to inquire about the manager’s services. Capital city side Young Boys Bern acquired his signature and, for the first time in his coaching career, Petković was tasked with the coaching duties on a full-time basis.

Heading into that campaign, the yellow and black were not expected to challenge the likes of Basel and FC Zürich for the title following the departure of captain and Swiss legend Hakan Yakin to the Middle East. However, under the tutelage of Petković, Young Boys defied all expectations to finish second, six points behind champions Zürich and ahead of Basel, who Young Boys defeated three times that campaign.

The next campaign saw Basel emerge victorious, although Petković’s chargers finished just three points behind in second with the previously unknown Ivorian Seydou Doumbia netting 50 goals over the course of the two campaigns. Their runners-up finish saw Young Boys qualify for the Champions League playoff, famously eliminating Fenerbahçe in the process before taking a 3-0 lead over Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham only to lose the tie 6-3 on aggregate.

Undeterred by the setback, Petković and Young Boys secured qualification to the Europa League round of 32 after finishing second behind Stuttgart in their group, famously defeating the Germans 4-2 in Bern having scored three goals in four minutes to overturn a 2-1 deficit. Defeat to Russian giants Zenit in the knockout stages and a third-place finish in the league signalled the end of the Petković era at the Stade de Suisse, and the Bosnian left for newer pastures.

Tasked next with securing the top-flight status of recently-promoted Turkish side Samsunspor, he left in January 2012 with the club positioned in the relegation zone. A short stint back home with Sion preceded his next appointment, one that raised many eyebrows in his adopted home and across the border in Italy.

Having finished fourth in Serie A, Lazio were on the lookout for a new manager after the departure of veteran Edoardo Reja, who had won many plaudits for revitalising the Romans into one of the best sides on the peninsula. Despite pleas from Biancocelesti owner Claudio Lolito to stay, the 66-year-old’s exit prompted the controversial entrepreneur to task his rookie sporting director, Igli Tare, with finding a suitable successor.

The 38-year-old ex-Albanian international was perceived by many as Lolito’s puppet and a failure to find the correct candidate would have been disastrous for his standing within the club’s hierarchy. Upon a visit to Switzerland to sign one of Petković’s most esteemed pupils, Senad Lulić, Tare also inquired about the availability of his former Bellinzona and Young Boys coach. Further consultation with the local expatriate Albanian community convinced the former Kaiserslautern forward to make contact with the Bosnian and offer him an interview.

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Lolito and Tare were subsequently impressed with his personal qualities among other attributes and appointed him as the club’s new manager. The appointment sparked media and fan backlash and was seen as a step backwards for a club knocking on the Champions League door.

While acknowledging that such a move came with a certain degree of risk, Lolito talked up Petković’s character, determination and morality, his motivational skills and tactical understanding, while also stressing the importance his multi-lingual skills carried in a dressing room featuring no fewer than 13 nationalities.

La Rocca, a native Roman himself, offered an insight into why Petković’s man-management skills were so highly respected. “I remember his honesty and if he had something to say, he went directly to the point and straight to the player,” recalled the Melbourne City enforcer. “He is meticulous in his pre-game approach and knows exactly what he can get from his players, so he pushes them to their limits and ensures they provide to the team what he wants them to.”

A modest seventh-place finish was characterised by inconsistency, although a run to the Europa League quarter-finals and a Coppa Italia final appearance against city rivals Roma earned Petković acclaim. A 1-0 triumph over the Giallorossi at the Stadio Olimpico forever enshrined the naturalised Swiss national into Lazio folklore, with Lulić grabbing the winner.

Five years earlier, the unheralded Bosnian pair had lost a cup final in their adoptive homeland but were now the toast of the Italian capital. The success vindicated Lolito and Tare’s high-risk decision, but Petković and the club hierarchy fell out midway through the 2013/14 campaign.

Prior to Christmas, the Swiss FA announced the 50-year-old as Ottmar Hitzfeld’s successor as national team manager following the 2014 World Cup. With results in the league underwhelming, a furious Lolito – who had not been told about the negotiations – fired him four days into the new year.

A disappointing start to the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign saw the Swiss defeated 2-0 at home to England before falling to a 1-0 away loss against Slovenia. With the pressure on, the multi-ethnic Swiss won seven of their next eight qualifying games as Josip Drmić’s late winner against the Slovenes proved pivotal in helping secure their passage through to the Euros.

During the course of his time as manager of the Swiss national team, Petković has made a point about protecting players of foreign backgrounds from unfair criticism by the national media. In a 2016 interview, Petković told Vladimir Novak of World Soccer: “If a player with an immigrant background has a poor day, this can simply happen and it’s completely normal. But it doesn’t mean he didn’t play with his full heart for Switzerland. They don’t deny their roots, but they always play with a full heart for the country.”

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That stance was on full display in the lead-up to their opening game at the Euros against Albania, with the Swiss starting line-up featuring no fewer than five players of Albanian descent, including new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka, who came up against his brother Taulant.

An unconvincing 1-0 win over 10-man Albania was followed by successive draws against Romania and France, as the Swiss finished second behind the hosts. A spectacular Xherdan Shaqiri strike took their round of 16 tie against Poland into extra time and ultimately penalties, but Xhaka’s spot-kick failure proved decisive as Petković’s men exited the competition having conceded just twice in nearly 400 minutes of tournament football.

A 2-0 win over newly-crowned European champions Portugal kickstarted their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign only for their 100 percent record to be ended by the Iberians on the final day of qualifying, a result which forced the Swiss to the playoffs. A rigid and somewhat controversial 1-0 win over Northern Ireland highlighted their defensive solidarity and attacking deficiencies, something the Swiss-Bosnian is hoping to correct in Russia next month.

While often criticised for his pragmatism, La Rocca is not surprised to see Petković in charge of his adopted country’s national team, one which features several members of Switzerland’s 2009 under-17 World Cup-winning squad. “He deserves everything he is achieving because he loves what he does, and he transcends this onto his players. His achievements with Bellinzona were unbelievable considering the low budget he worked with and he is an idol in Lazio for winning the final against Roma.”

Petković’s plight is a testament to the hard-working nature of the man himself and the many migrants that have inhabited the central European nation in recent decades. Upon his arrival from Sarajevo in the late 1980s, the Switzerland he encountered was vastly different to the one of today. Names like Bonvin, Knup, Sutter and Zuffi were considered to be the norm, while players such as Kubilay Türkyilmaz were the exception and, at the time, viewed as trailblazers for the nation’s increasing migrant community.

In a country where immigration is often a contentious political issue, Petković presides over a national team comprising of players of Albanian, Bosnian, Cameroonian, Cape Verdean, Chilean, Congolese, Croatian, Ivorian, Nigerian, Spanish, South Sudanese and Turkish heritage.

Although question-marks still remain as to whether he can guide Switzerland to the knockout stages of the World Cup, Petković’s ascent to the pinnacle of his adopted nation’s game should not be understated. Three decades years ago, he arrived in the country as just another foreigner forced to adapt to new languages and cultural experiences.

It took him just 10 years to make his first foray into senior coaching. He landed his first professional coaching role a decade on and is now lauded by many as the nation’s finest coaching mind. His path to the top has seen him overcome numerous obstacles, and many of the Swiss players can take comfort in the fact that in the dugout they have a figure whose journey to national acclaim mirrors and reflects their very own.

By Damir Kulas @DamirKulas

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