In the cool and collected world of international coaching, it is fair to say Slaven Bilic cuts an unusually animated figure. While many of his fellow strategists prefer to keep their emotions in check, the Croatia boss gives his feelings free rein, thus underlining his fierce passion for the job and the beautiful game as a whole.
Hugely popular with the Croatian players and supporters alike, the former West Ham and Everton centre-back spoke fully and frankly in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. He touched on topics including his passion for the job, Croatia’s agonising defeat to Turkey at UEFA EURO 2008 and subsequent failure to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, plus his high hopes for Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: Slaven, when watching you stalk the dugout, the first word that springs to mind is ‘passionate’. Is that an apt description of your personality?
Slaven Bilic: Of course. I was full of fire and passion as a child, as a player and now as a coach. You can’t dedicate your whole life to a sport if you’re not crazy about it. Sometimes I think I’m unusual but then I look at everyone else doing the same things and I think ‘either I’m normal or they’re all crazy too!’ (Laughs) But I really enjoy myself. People think that being a national-team coach is a part-time job but I do it 24/7. I spend all my team reading, speaking to my players, analysing opponents. It’s an ideal situation: doing something you love and being able to support your family at the same time.
Listening to you evokes memories of that defeat against Turkey at EURO 2008, when you were visibly distraught by their equaliser in the dying seconds of extra time. Do you think your emotions get the better of you at times?
Ah, that game! Firstly I was angry with the referee because I hadn’t been able to make a substitution. Then I spoke to my players and tried to convince them we still had just as good a chance of winning (on penalties) as the Turkish team. But they were so downbeat and deeply in shock that I simply wasn’t able to lift their spirits. I don’t know if anybody could have to be honest, we were all so devastated.
Let us turn to the current crop of Croatian players. Do you think your players are ready to hit the heights once more?
They should be. I thought that would happen on the way to the 2010 World Cup but we fell short. Now, given how young our team are, I still don’t think we’ve even come close to hitting our peak, which will happen in Brazil (in 2014). Of course there’ll be changes, people will come in and others will make way. But within two years we’re going to be in an enviable position and in four years’ time even more so.
Your team have certainly started EURO 2012 qualifying on the right foot…
We’re happy with the situation we’re in. We’re currently top of our group (Editors’ note: at time of publication Croatia were a point behind section leaders Greece with a game in hand) and have a good chance of qualifying. If you compare this group to those we were drawn in prior to the previous EURO and World Cup then this one seems easier on paper. But it’d be stupid of us to get carried away, because our group’s not just about us, Greece and Israel. There’s Lithuania and Georgia to contend with too. We’ll have to work hard.
Teams from the Balkans have fallen just short at vital moments at recent tournaments. What do you think is behind this trend?
People have been saying it’s a mental thing but I’m not sure. For example, it’s been said that we weren’t strong enough mentally in that game against Turkey, whereas in fact they just got a slice of luck in the last minute and scored from a rebound. It’s tricky, something like that happens and you say ‘that wouldn’t happen to Italy’, but then you see the way they were beaten by Slovakia at the World Cup. Or you think that wouldn’t happen to a German team, and then you remember the way Bayern [Munich] were beaten by Manchester [United] when conceding those two late goals (in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final). There’s a psychological factor, but luck plays a big part too.
Would you agree that the last truly great Croatia side was the one you were a part of at France 1998? What set that team apart?
We had real character in that side but, again on the subject of luck, we had a better team at EURO ’96 and lost (2-1) against Germany in the quarter-finals. And we played better in that match than in our 3-0 win over them (in the quarter-finals at France 1998), a game in which they were all over us in the first half without being able to score. I think what set us apart was our personalities. We weren’t playing for the best clubs in the world but we were important players for our teams, we shouldered responsibility. We were all big characters, we were friends and we were leaders on and off the pitch.
Would it be possible to recreate that with the current squad?
Not exactly, because every generation is different. But the good thing about Croatia is that, however much money they have or whichever club they play for, the players love their country and always want to turn out for the national team. That’s a big advantage for us.
A lot of coaches claim not to pay attention to the media, but do you read the papers?
Of course I read them, but not every day. I’m not obsessed, nor is it the first thing I do in the morning. I prefer to chat with my friends, enjoy myself or spend time with my kids. But I’m not scared of the press, in fact I thrive on criticism when it’s constructive. Croatia is a small country and I know who’s behind every comment I read. My secret for not letting it get to me is something I call my ‘circles’. I’m the boss. Then around me I have a circle made up of [Robert] Prosinecki, [Aljosa] Asanovic, other former players and my public relations manager. Then I have another consisting of my brother and a group of deep thinkers, another made up of coaches, my family etc. If the circles are strong, then nobody can break them.
It still must be tough, however, particularly in a country like Croatia where fans and journalists alike are so passionate about the national team…
They’re crazy! (Laughs) The stress levels are incredible, sometimes I think I’d have to endure less pressure if I joined Real Madrid. It’s purely because I’m coaching my own country, and what a country it is! But I can’t complain, everybody goes through the same thing. I’m going to finish off with an anecdote. A few days ago I went to buy a pizza and, while I was waiting, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen for years and who was working at that restaurant as a delivery guy. He came up to me and asked if I could give him a job, telling me that he couldn't stand the pressure, how he had to get things delivered in 30 minutes, jump red lights, deal with furious clients and so on. That’s when you realise how lucky you are to have a wonderful job like this.