Mirko Jozić: the only European manager to have won the Copa Libertadores

Mirko Jozić: the only European manager to have won the Copa Libertadores

When Croatia, even if somewhat surprisingly, qualified for the final of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Lana took to social media to express her happiness. She posted a picture of her family celebrating the win, Croatia’s greatest footballing achievement in its nascent period of nationhood.

Nothing strange or unique, one may think. Think again.

While the image showed her husband and young son dressed in the national team’s iconic colours, Lana herself was wearing a Colo-Colo jersey.

For the uninitiated, Colo-Colo are considered the most successful club of Chile. So what made Lana wear a club jersey while celebrating the success of her country’s football team? Well, she’s the daughter of Mirko Jozić, a football manager who oversaw the most successful period in the history of Los Albos. 

In the early 1990s, under the guidance of Jozić, Colo-Colo not only won the Chilean Primera División title on three occasions but, in 1991, also became the first and so far only national club to win the Copa Libertadores. Indeed, to date, Jozić remains the only European manager to have won the Copa Libertadores.

It is a fact that most of the top players and managers in South America are often on the lookout for opportunities in Europe. The Old Continent’s leagues are the most competitive, lucrative and rewarding. A breakthrough performance by a player or manager in South America is seen as stepping stone to Europe.

Mirko Jozić

Some try to grab the attention of the scouts sent by top European clubs to monitor their progress. Even the comparatively lesser talented players from South America also aspire to make it to Europe. This has been the case for decades. In such a scenario, it’s little surprise that few European managers have headed to South America, even if there is a bounty of footballing delights on offer.

Mirko Jozić’s first taste of success in South America was with the under-20 team of Yugoslavia, when Chile hosted the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987, one comprised of the likes of Davor Šuker, Predrag Mijatović, Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinečki and Zvonimir Boban. They famously won the title, beating West Germany in the final in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional.

It was the last collective triumph for Yugoslav football before its disintegration into seven separate countries.

While Jozić had done well with the youth teams, he had scant experience when it came to club football. Sensing an opportunity, Peter Dragicević, a leader of Croatian descent and the president of Colo-Colo, offered Jozić a chance to manage the junior teams at the Chilean giants.

“Yugoslavia was champion at that World Cup and I took advantage by offering him [a job]. Mirko didn’t have experience with professional teams but he had finished a long education in the academy, so he came to work in the youth sides of Colo-Colo,” Dragicević told Chilean newspaper El Deportivo-La Tercera “It was a time when Yugoslavia was not yet open to the European common market and, therefore, it was a closed economy, socialist and with all the lags that the Tito era had brought.”

The decision was a masterstroke, for Jozić not only did a commendable job with the youth teams of Colo-Colo, but also travelled across Chile scouting – and indeed training – talented players, and laying the groundwork for the future.

Read  |  Yugoslavia in the 1990s: the wonder-team that never was

When Jozic eventually took charge of the senior Colo-Colo side, in 1990, he was ready to lead them to success. The Primera División and Copa Apertura – the league and cup double – were achieved in his maiden campaign. However, the club’s greatest success was to come in 1991.

Besides conveniently regaining the league, Colo-Colo won their biggest piece of silverware to date, beating defending champions Club Olimpia of Paraguay over two legs to win the Copa Libertadores, becoming the first Chilean football team to win an official international competition.

A commendable 0-0 draw in the first leg in Asunción was followed by a comprehensive 3-0 win in Santiago, courtesy of a Luis Pérez brace and a late strike by substitute Leonel Herrera.

The players nurtured by Jozić withstood all the pressure and delivered on the biggest stage. The Croat had given Los Albos fans the success they had desired for so long. In the process, Chile entered the wider football conscious.

Jozić also led the club to the Recopa Sudamericana, the South American equivalent of the UEFA Super Cup, and another league title in 1993 in what was a golden era for the Santiago outfit. It says much about the Croat that, following his departure in 1993, Colo-Colo have failed to hit those same heights.

Read  |  Carlos Bianchi and the art of winning the Copa Libertadores

There have been some minor pieces of silverware won time and again but a period of continued success, and continental glory, has remained elusive.

While Argentine fans thronged the Santiago Bernebéu in Madrid to witness two of their clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, battle it out in the recent Copa Libertadores final, no Chilean club has made it to the decider since Los Albos’ remarkable triumph of 1991. In fact, the club has suffered a perennial decline over the last two decades. Besides their on-field struggles and repeated managerial changes, the club hit major financial woes and was declared bankrupt in 2002, remaining so until a bailout in 2006.

Jozić isn’t surprised by his former team’s struggles. “You change trainer, you change six or seven players, and that’s how difficult it is to put together a competitive team. It also seems to me that the players that are brought in have to be evaluated properly. The Colo-Colo shirt weighs a lot and is a big challenge. But you have to be with the team in good times and in bad.”

His advancing years – he is 78 now – have restricted Jozić’s travels, and he sadly hasn’t visited Santiago and Chile in 12 years now. However, his affection for the country remains intact, and he palpably pines to visit the capital with his family. “In 2005/06 we were there six months – that was the last time my father visited Chile,” Lana told Chilean tabloid Las Ultimas Noticias in October. We are always planning to go to Santiago all together, but he does not want to go alone, he wants the whole family to know the country.”

Needless to say, Chilean football, and the fans of Colo-Colo in particular, are eagerly waiting for the impending return of Mirko Jozić, one of their most beloved icons.,

By Bikash Mohapatra @vickeypedia

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