After experiencing some difficult times in recent years, the Bosnian Football Federation (FFBH) is slowly but surely moving in the right direction.
A delegation from the FFBH today paid a visit to FIFA headquarters in Zurich, and figuring among the distinguished group of guests was a familiar face in Faruk Hadzibegic. Capped 65 times by the former Yugoslavia and its very last captain, he is now an official observer for the FFBH.
The ex-central defender, who played for Sarajevo, Real Betis, Sochaux and Toulouse in a career that ran from 1976 to 1995, found time for a chat with FIFA.com. As well as discussing his new role, his fond memories of his playing days and his not so happy recollections of the Yugoslavian war, he explained his passion for coaching, a profession he hopes to return to in the near future.
FIFA.com: Faruk, what are the challenges facing the Bosnian FA?
Faruk Hadzibegic: They’re huge. We’re all from the former Yugoslavia, where football was very well organised. It was like having a little FIFA there. Everything was set up to produce football of a high quality, which was also recognised the world over. Today, Bosnia has to aim very high if it is to reach the same level of excellence as the former Yugoslavia. We’re on the right path but there is still an awful lot to be done.
Bosnia-Herzegovina seem to be making steady progress, but what do you think they need to qualify for a major international competition?
Back in the Yugoslavia days, Bosnia-Herzegovina was the main pool of talent. We have a very good team right now and I can’t find many faults in it. The worry is that there aren’t enough of us. We're a bit short on the bench. We’ve made a few play-offs, but our national association has never experienced a major finals. We lack the experience to be able to handle occasions like that.
I played in the European Championships, the World Cup and I was a league champion in my country, but what I’m most proud of is having been Yugoslavia’s very last captain.
What do you remember of your spell as Bosnia-Herzegovina coach back in 1999?
If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have accepted the job. I was in France at the time and I was happy there. But the war was over and it was my way of expressing solidarity with my people, because I never understood the war and I was against it. It was a fantastic experience and I enjoyed being in the thick of the action and making decisions. Thanks to my experience, I know that you have to let young players express themselves and play without pressure. Safet Susic, the head coach, is a real legend in Bosnia. He’s doing an excellent job and the team are on track to reach Brazil. There are some important matches left, but we’ve never been so well placed to qualify.
Your international career lasted ten years and you played at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™. What memories do you have of it all?
I only have positive memories of my playing career and I am very proud of it. Someone told me that I played 871 professional games over 20 years. I played in the European Championships, the World Cup and I was a league champion in my country, but what I’m most proud of is having been Yugoslavia’s very last captain. I was Yugoslavian and I still am. I don’t understand how a war could have destroyed the country and I can’t forgive the people who did it. But I was also the one who said “No” in 1992, just before the European Championships [in Sweden]. I didn’t want to play for Yugoslavia any more. I was tremendously proud to wear the Yugoslavia shirt but I refused to play in the tournament because of the war. I felt very proud. The irony was that Denmark, to everyone’s surprise, went on to win it after taking our place.
You were at Sochaux when the war broke out. What was it like to be so far from home when such a terrible disaster was unfolding?
That war was an awful experience for me. I was still in Seville when it first became a worry for me. My team-mates started to say: ‘Have you seen the TV? There are problems in your country”. And I would just say: “No, it’s nothing major”. Up until war broke out we just didn’t want to see the tension. We were blind. We were so happy in that country that we didn’t want to believe a war could ever happen. But happen it did. I still feel bad about it even today. I’m a little bit jealous of countries that didn’t suffer any war and where their football has developed while we’ve slipped down to the third division of world football. I’m appalled by it. During the war I had five women, 11 children, my parents and my grandparents staying at my house in Sochaux. I have to take my hat off to the club and the city of Sochaux. They were very alert to the situation and everyone got a very warm welcome. It didn’t take long for the children to be given school places and we weren’t treated like social outcasts at all.
It’s a bit like being in love with a woman. Why do you love her? You see everything in her: she’s beautiful, intelligent and kind. Other people may not see her like that, but you do.
Along with Mehmed Bazdarevic, you stayed at Sochaux for seven years. What was it that attracted the two of you there?
It’s a bit of a strange story. We knew about Sochaux in Yugoslavia because of Peugeot, and it also had a tradition of signing Yugoslavian players. We didn’t know the city or the region, though. I was at Seville at the time and though I was happy there, I wanted to be closer to home. Just after I’d signed the deal with Sochaux the club got relegated to the second division. They said I could rip up the contract, which was very nice of them and I appreciated it. But when I spoke to the national team coach and asked him what he thought, he made it clear it wouldn’t damage my chances, so I decided to honour the contract. I stayed there for seven years and got to know the Peugeot family. It was amazing. It was a bit of a shock arriving in Sochaux from Seville. When we got there I took my wife to a restaurant for dinner and she asked me why I had chosen somewhere out of town. The thing was, though, it was right in the centre. At that time only about 5,000 people lived in Sochaux and the restaurants shut at 10pm. In Seville they opened at midnight (laughs).
You stopped playing in 1995 and moved straight into coaching. Was that a smooth transition for you?
It was natural for me to stay in football. At the age of 39 I just couldn’t see myself starting from scratch in something else. Sochaux were kind enough to let me take over the team straightaway, and we got back up to the first division in my first season. I had to go and redo my certificates, which I did, and now I have my UEFA licence. I’ve already coached a lot of teams and I’ve only got good memories of them. I’m a football fanatic, and I feel in my element when I’m in a dressing room or by the pitch. It’s almost impossible to explain the feeling – you have to experience it. It’s a bit like being in love with a woman. Why do you love her? You see everything in her: she’s beautiful, intelligent and kind. Other people may not see her like that, but you do. For me, coaching is the best job in the world. The dressing room is my passion.
What has given you more pleasure: playing or coaching?
They are two totally different jobs, diametrically opposed even. It’s easy being a player: if you’re good, you play; if you’re no good, you’re on the bench. All you’re worried about is winning the game. You have a drink after the match with your friends, you travel, you play against the big teams and you’re on cloud nine. You’re oblivious to everything around you. The coach is on the other side of the fence, though. He has to deal with the players, the staff, the chairman, the football authorities and the supporters. He has to prepare for training sessions, matches and competitions, and you don’t get the same kind of enjoyment out of it at all. Players lead a carefree life. They don’t understand why their coach might be in a bad mood or stressed out. If you ask me, you really have to be passionate if you’re going to make it as a coach.