Torrential rain falls over the mountains on a bitter night in Tashkent, forming an icy gale while huddling fans shuffle into Lokomotiv Stadium. As they trudge through the gates, a blanket of fog eclipses them, basking proceedings in an ethereal haze.
The match isn’t worthy of its surreal surroundings: Mirko Jeličić‘s side are ruthlessly disciplined and suppress any hint of contest. For 90 minutes, a man in a white headscarf torments a drum, but until the final shrill of a referees whistle, the game is played in near silence.
Jeličić glances at the touchline and grins, before walking gingerly to the tunnel. It was 24 May 2016 – the Australian’s third month in professional head coaching – and he’d just led one of Uzbekistan’s least-known clubs, Lokomotiv Tashkent, to calmly dispose Asia’s biggest, Al Hilal.
He was in the final of the Uzbek Cup, ten points ahead of his nearest rival in the league, and had an Asian Champions League quarter-final the following week. In Lokomotiv, the Uzbeks had an Asian powerhouse, and in their coach, Australia had a sporting pioneer. But back home, nobody knew his name.
“I think I’ve been adventurous enough to do what I’ve wanted to do,” Mirko says. It’s 1pm in Uzbekistan and the Australian is sitting down to a lunch he describes as “almost entirely cooked in fat”. “My lifestyle doesn’t sit easy with many people,” he continues. “People are conservative, their mind can only travel so far, and it makes them very secure. I work differently.”
To the average Australian, Uzbekistan is one of the most extrinsic places imaginable. In the middle ages it was an epicentre within central Asia, a focal point along the Silk Road and a nation lavishing in exceptional wealth. But despite being among the oldest Islamic cultures on earth, today Uzbekistan’s 33 million people are vastly secular, the legacy of 70 years of USSR rule. Rather than fade from grace, Uzbekistan quietly suffocated behind the Iron Curtain for nearly a century.
“Uzbekistan runs on corruption,” Mirko says, gesturing vaguely. “When I moved here I had huge difficulty adjusting, because it extends to all walks of life. Everywhere I go, people with personal agendas backstab and undermine each other.
“The professional outlook is very short term – it’s still like that across most of Asia – and the Lokomotiv board are frustrating to work with. I try to stay away from managing the club, and concentrate on what’s happening on the field. Our success is due to that approach, it’s enabled me to form a strong family atmosphere among the players.” He pauses for a moment, before adding: “That doesn’t extend to outside the club.”
Like many of the former Bolshevik states that never truly relinquished communism, Uzbekistan’s national railway company owns the country’s leading football club, Lokomotiv Tashkent. The club and its stadium are named after the ageing Soviet-era trains that run along the roadsides of the Uzbek capital, but Lokomotiv’s stadium is, by contrast, a pillar of modernity in a city dotted with relics of its tumultuous past.
Given the comparative advantages Jeličić has over the Uzbeks he works with, including a personal chauffeur, gym and favourable salary, his willingness to criticise his employers is surprising. Yet it’s soon evident that just as Uzbekistan is unlike other countries, Jeličić is unlike other coaches.
At first, the Australian offers glaring contradictions. His softly spoken, studious demeanour is at odds with a stocky six foot two inch frame, shaved head and manicured goatee. He’s understated; most comfortable in a Lokomotiv tracksuit or polo shirt and shorts, but during training in the summer he wears designer sunglasses and in winter a steel-grey, fashionably sagging beanie.
Despite his success, Mirko has little fondness towards the country he works in. He’s growing tired of Uzbekistan and despite rarely raising his voice, when he speaks about dishonesty, his tone becomes matter-of-fact, almost didactic. “None of the former Soviet states have escaped bribery,” he says. “It’s ingrained into each facet of life, everything from the daily shopping to the running of a football club, to the running of the country.
“The ground-staff won’t even maintain the pitch,” he shrugs. “As a foreigner in Uzbekistan, if you try to challenge it, you’ll be the first to go. You can bash your head against the wall trying to change things, but you’re better off turning a blind eye and working with what you can control.”
Like the winter smog that hangs unevenly over Tashkent, corruption permeates everything in Jeličić‘s life. As if to distract from a more damning example of inequality, Lokomotiv Stadium was built between the Uzbek capital’s decaying city centre and its decadent Presidential Palace. From their perch upon a lush green chateau, the Siyosachti cast a watchful gaze over their favourite football clubs.
State ownership means Lokomotiv are relatively wealthy, however their position is not unique, nor does it make Mirko’s life easier. Loko, as they’re affectionately known, broke a formidable stranglehold on Uzbek football upon his arrival. If usurping traditional giant Pakhtakor – for decades Uzbekistan’s only Soviet Top League club – was an unlikely accomplishment, then dethroning the oil rich Bunyodkor was akin to sehr – magic.
Such is the wealth of Bunyodkor’s owners that, in 2008, they offered Samuel Eto’o almost $50m to play in Uzbekistan for two to three months. It’s unclear whether it says more about Eto’o or Uzbekistan that he still refused.
But where Barcelona stars fear to tread, a then 40-year-old Australian took the plunge. Despite a resume spanning seven countries, two national sides and a World Cup campaign, Lokomotiv is Mirko’s debut as a professional head coach; his only previous head coaching experience was semi-professional in 1994, a year in charge of Cowburn City in the Western Australian state league.
In his first season, Mirko led a club mired in bureaucracy – that had never won a trophy – to the Uzbek league double and an Asian Champions League quarter-final. The next season, he won the double again. “Lokomotiv’s a young club, which struggled for most of their history,” he says. “It’s only over the last two years that they’ve reached a truly professional level.
“Working here is different to almost any other place on earth. You only try to change what affects the game on a large scale, and ignore those one percenters that the theory books tell you to change. Here, they don’t work and you upset more people than you help.”
He pauses again, before returning to the mixture of mutton and noodles soaking in the pale soup in front of him. “Most Uzbeks come from a very impoverished background, so they eat whatever sustains them for a long period,” he says, rolling a stringy slice of meat around with his spoon. “It’s very heavy, hearty food,” he grins. “It’s pleasant to eat, but it’s not good for you, and changing my players minds about that is extremely difficult.”
Jeličić grew up in Thornlie, a quiet suburb 18 kilometres north-west of Perth. He was the son of a Serbian immigrant and fell in love with football as young as he “can remember.”
Unlike his parents, who fled Yugoslavia for a safer life in Perth’s dreary northern suburbs, there were hints during Mirko’s upbringing that he longed for more excitement than West Australia could offer. He rode “fast, dangerous” Japanese trailbikes with mates, tinkered with classic cars, and when he wasn’t playing football, he was constantly “out and about” in the scorching Perth heat – camping, seeing films, chasing girls.
No one predicted that by middle age, he would have coached across three continents in 25 positions, eventually settling in one of Asia’s most remote, unknown states. But from an early age, it was clear that adventurism would dictate Mirko’s life. “I had no intention of working in football,” he says.
“My family moved to Perth from Belgrade when I was five. Dad was always involved in football, so I played at junior levels throughout Perth. There was little organisation at the time, so there were limited opportunities to progress. I never planned for my future, and before I knew it I was 31-years-old, approaching the end of my playing career and working as a physical education teacher. Then I had the accident.”
On 5 May 1996, Mirko had woken up early like any other Sunday. He rode his motorbike to the barren football pitches surrounding Perth every weekend, and this was no different. But as he sped through the winding suburban streets and narrow roundabouts, his bike was struck by an oncoming car. That’s the last that he remembers.
In one moment, Jeličić‘s life was mangled in the wreckage of a Harley Davidson. His physical education and playing careers were over. For a man who characterised himself as “constantly on the move”, six months in hospital was a sickening blow and, 20 years later, he still walks with a noticeable limp.
“The doctors told me, ‘You’ll probably never walk again, so you’re better off looking for something less active’,” he says, bitterness at that diagnosis still resonating in his voice. “If it hadn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I did a lot of my own rehab work so my progress defied their logic, but I’m still not fully mobile. It’s been 20 years of daily pain. I’ve just learnt to deal with it.”
Thirty-two-years-old and with debilitating injuries, Jeličić enrolled in university to study physiotherapy. Losing the ability to play football sparked a sudden necessity. “Football’s my life,” he says. “I needed to remain involved.”
He started volunteering with Perth Glory’s injured players, at a time when that list contained the likes of Con Boutsianis, Ivan Ergic and Ljubo Milicevic. When people noticed the results the novice was getting, his career opened up from there. “We ended up opening our own gym and fitness centre,” he says. “Soon we had a lot of Perth Glory boys come in for their own private training. After a couple of months I was offered the head coaching job at Cowburn City and I jumped at it.”
Jeličić grew up in the 1970s – the Johan Cruyff era – but quickly became disillusioned with Total Football. At Cowburn he began to develop a tender philosophy, but over the years he’s witnessed football becoming “faster and stronger” and says that if teams fail to adapt, they’ll regress like the Dutch.
“Australia will have problems pursuing a slower, more technical style,” he says. “Especially given our physicality’s our major strength. Improving the technical side of our game is very positive, but technique cannot be the sole focus. If you want to be stronger then you have to do strength work, if you want to be quicker then you have to run sprints.
“It’s no good always throwing a ball in there and saying ‘we use a ball so we’re very progressive’. If you prioritise technique above all else, as a team you’ll never reach your full potential.”
Mirko lasted one season at Cowburn, losing the league title on the final day, before grasping the opportunity to escape Australia. In his mind, Perth had squandered his dream of becoming a professional footballer, and at 31, had robbed him of the chance to play at all. Although his wife and two children live there – “Australia’s education is incomparable to Uzbekistan” – he worked happily overseas for the next 22 years.
After Cowburn, Jeličić excelled in fitness coaching roles across New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore before he was offered his breakthrough: the chance to travel with China’s national team to their first World Cup.
“The second I could move overseas I was going to,” he says. “When you grow up in Perth, which isn’t an epicentre of global football, and opportunities start to open up, you grab them with both hands. The 2002 World Cup was another dimension. I saw national teams operating at a major tournament and witnessed how much is involved in the setup, and how to cover all areas of the game. It gave me the taste for foreign coaching – I wanted to see more and experience different things. From that moment, I had the appetite to go further and see what I could do.”
China suffered an early exit, but like in Perth, his work rehabilitating injured players was quickly noticed. It wasn’t long before the Australian’s adventurism was put to the test. “Uzbekistan were looking for a fitness coach and I was recommended to them,” he says. “One day an agent called me and said the Uzbek FA had offered me a six week contract. He said, ‘They need someone to prepare them for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, and if you could go out there they’d really appreciate it.’
“I had no clue where Uzbekistan was. But I wasn’t doing anything important at the time, so I decided to head over.”
That was in 2005, and he’s rarely returned since. Successful periods working as an assistant for the Uzbek national side and Pakhtakor followed, and with Jeličić‘s focus on player conditioning, Uzbekistan had the best period in its history, finishing fourth at the 2011 Asian Cup.
Eventually the chance emerged for Mirko, 23 years after his first coaching appointment, to become a professional head coach. “I didn’t expect to be immediately successful,” he crows, stretching out the words unconvincingly, “but I believed in my philosophy, and how the game should be developed. I’d worked with over 20 coaches in major tournaments around the world, so I siphoned what I liked and enhanced it. The most important factors are always discipline and persistence.”
Mirko’s accent is refined, with the slightest hint of West Australian twang. He sounds placid, almost snobbish – it’s hard to imagine him in the Neil Warnock role, throwing teacups – instead, everything about the Australian is precise.
Like many coaches, his manner represents his football. Yet mere persona doesn’t explain why Jeličić has succeeded where almost every other Australian expatriate coach has failed. Why is the former Thornlie PE teacher – who never dreamt of coaching, never played professionally, and still hasn’t completed all his licences – now Australia’s most successful coaching export?
“I had a first-hand education,” he says. “It’s incomparable to sitting in front of whiteboards, going to courses and learning the game from behind a desk. Australian coaching methodology has improved dramatically, but the coaching courses were very poor when I was young.
“I grasped the opportunities to learn directly from World Cup coaches and European Cup finalists, and I defined my ideas around those good and bad experiences. Despite working with some of the world’s best coaches, I never met one who I thought was the full bottle.”
There’s an inextricable link between adventurism and tenacity, but coaches must also have a willingness to learn, and to adapt. Australian classrooms can’t simulate the rigours of working in Europe or Asia. To be successful, Jeličić endures the slog, the racism, the corruption. Many Australians have a fitness-first mentality and ultimately suffer for its perceived simplicity, but Jeličić disguises fundamentals within a glamorous wrapping, achieving a package that’s both practical and electrifying.
Over the past 23 years, he’s matured into one of Australia’s most experienced, composed coaches, but half a lifetime away from home is finally taking its toll. Over 9,000km separate Mirko from his family, and despite his success, he’s begun to dislike the organisation – even the country – which he works for.
He increasingly speaks about Lokomotiv as a foreign entity. It’s always “them” never “we”. His older son is now 18-years-old – “the teen tantrum year” – and Jeličić wants to support his family, but nothing’s that simple for the 52-year-old. “Licensing wasn’t a priority when I started coaching,” he says. “They’ve only changed the boundaries in the last eight to ten years, to narrow where you can work without your accreditation. Without my paperwork, I can’t work anywhere else.”
Jeličić has no A-level coaching licence, meaning he’s professionally trapped in Uzbekistan. His dismay at Australian courses meant he never finished his badges and isn’t qualified to coach in Australia – or most other nations around the world.
While he’s currently attempting to earn his licence, he says he cannot complete his requirements while employed full-time, and can’t afford the time off work. Hence, one of Australia’s most promising coaches is bound to Central Asia. “Money can work wonders,” he says. “I can get away with it here, they throw me in and jig a few things around, and I can work to full capacity. It’s a luxury you’re not given anywhere else.
“If I was pulling in millions perhaps my family could understand, and I could bring them with me.” He sighs, “If I could set them up well, it might have worked here. Because I’m not at that level, there’s a lot of decision-making to do and I have to prioritise what’s important to me.”
He stops short of what that may be. Balancing the desire of ambition against familial responsibility is the struggle for many professionals. For Mirko, distance intensifies the pain. “I definitely can’t stay here alone any further,” he says. “But bringing my younger son and wife over here, I don’t know.
“I really need to decide what’s impacting the other side of my life. I speak to coaches around the world and they all say the same thing – they’ve had to make so many personal sacrifices for football.”
It’s not a glamorous life for the Lokomotiv coach. While Jeličić is exposed to the exorbitant wealth of Uzbekistan’s elite, fame and fortune, his friends, wife and children are far removed from the Australian.
His community are the other foreign coaches. They meet for breakfast most mornings in one of Tashkent’s rustic cafés, where they sit and discuss tactics, players, the national set up. It’s a camaraderie that would baffle most coaches, but in countries where the religiosity of football is poisoned by ulterior motives, solidarity overrules competition.
Jeličić increasingly holds court at these meetings, one of the more enjoyable aspects of his day. Lokomotiv’s dominance of Uzbek football since his arrival, coupled with his eloquent demeanour, garners respect among his peers, something he’s very proud of.
He’s reluctant to admit it, but now comfortably nestled into middle age, Jeličić‘s adventurism – like his once jet-black hairline – is slowly disappearing. He balances his outlook with youthful endeavour, but as his rebelliousness fades, he’s gradually showing his age. If his uncertain future makes the Lokomotiv coach nervous, however, he’s determined not to show it.
“I don’t need people to make me feel comfortable,” he says. “I think that’s rare, not many people have the mentality to cope in my situation. What I do is definitely not for everyone. I’ve been lucky enough that my character agrees with the travel and the work. It’s a journey that I look back on with no regrets. Ultimately, I would do it all again at the drop of a hat.”
By Lucas Radbourne @lucasradbourne