Success as a coach hasn’t always come easy for Safet Susic. After cutting his teeth at a number of club sides during a 15-year period, the 58-year-old took charge of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2009 and went on to see his team narrowly miss out on qualification for both the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and UEFA EURO 2012.
On 15 October last year, however, the young nation finally booked their place in a first major international tournament: a 1-0 victory over Lithuania sealing direct qualification for Brazil 2014.
And though nerves were made to jangle throughout their campaign, the Zmajevi nevertheless left a lasting positive impression. Finishing with the fourth best attack in European Zone qualifying, they exhibited an attractive brand of flowing football moulded in the image of Susic’s own playing style.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the former Yugoslavia international and legendary Paris Saint-Germain attacking midfielder spoke of his side’s strengths and ambitions with only a few months to go until the biggest footballing occasion in their history.
FIFA.com: Safet, Bosnia-Herzegovina are set to play in their first ever World Cup. What did you feel at the final whistle of the game against Lithuania?
Safet Susic: Above all a huge sense of relief! That struck me first because we’d aimed to finish top of our group to avoid the play-offs at all costs after being eliminated at that stage twice in the past. After the relief came a huge sense of joy!
You’ve been in charge of Bosnia for four years. Do you think your team has now reached its peak?
I don’t know. Even I couldn’t tell you how far we can go. We’ve been playing really well against smaller teams but so far haven’t beaten a big side like France, Portugal or Brazil. I think that to be a great team, you need to be able to field two sides. We have ten or so very good players, but the players on the bench aren’t at the same level. When we’re at full strength we can give anyone a run for their money, but that changes if we’re missing one or two players
Your side is extremely adventurous, you often say that they don’t know how to stay back…
I like my team to attack, hold onto the ball and try to out-score the opposition. Sometimes we do neglect the defensive side of the game a little and concede goals, but we don’t have the resources to play any other way. We have some exceptional attackers, so we play to our strengths, but that will certainly pose us a few problems against bigger teams.
All the same, this extremely attacking style of play was key to your qualification, as you scored 30 goals throughout the campaign...
We certainly scored a lot of goals. We’d already gained some important experience before the qualifiers as, when we were trailing, we’d often find a way to get back level. We kept this confidence going and we always believe we're capable of levelling the score and taking the lead, even when we've conceded. In our final qualifying matches, when we had to win, we practically played without a defensive midfielder…
Partial to going forward and easy on the eye, your team is certainly built in your own image. Could you tell us a little more about your footballing philosophy?
I really don’t know what coaches do if they prefer defensive football… Personally, I don’t like it and I don’t believe in that style of play. As I said before, I prefer my teams to score one more than the opposition. That’s my footballing philosophy, and for now at least it’s working quite well. But I know full well if our attackers have an off-day and we’re up against a great team, we could easily ship three or four goals.
Do you think that this attacking outlook can work on the big stage at the World Cup?
Definitely! The problem is our first match against Lionel Messi’s Argentina. They’ll be playing with two or three strikers and an extremely attacking midfield. On my part, I can swap an attacking midfielder for a defensive one, but I want to play both of my strikers, Vedad Ibisevic and Edin Dzeko, even though it’s risky!
Apart from Argentina, what do you think of the rest of Group F, with Iran and Nigeria also involved?
We certainly could’ve ended up in a more difficult group, so we can’t complain too much. There’s one huge side who will undoubtedly finish first, Nigeria who always get to the World Cup and Iran who are completely unknown to us but finished top in qualifying so are definitely a good team. What’s certain is that we’ll be playing for qualification in the second match against Nigeria
What are Bosnia’s ambitions for Brazil?
There’s not one coach or team who will go to the World Cup saying “we're going there to see what happens”. The aim is to get through the first round. That’s what we want to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll succeed.
Would you say that the pleasure of playing is comparable to that of watching your players in action?
You get the same pleasure, yes, but you suffer a little more when you’re on the touchline! (laughs) There’s so much pressure and when things go wrong it’s the coach who is responsible. But it’s ok, I have enough experience to know how to deal with it. When we lose a match, it’s not worth looking for excuses. It’s best to just avoid reading the papers, not speak about it too much and certainly avoid trying to justify it. In the end, things work out.
Do you model yourself on a particular coach or style of play? Who inspires you?
I don’t have a particular role model, but there are many coaches that I look up to and admire. Above all there’s Ivan Osim, who was my coach in the Yugoslavia team towards the end of my career. He was a former great and didn’t speak much. His pre-match team talks lasted ten minutes maximum and I’m the same. I don’t like to bore my players with epic speeches, especially as I know from experience that players don’t listen at all if you go on too long! (laughs) I also really like Vicente del Bosque, Arsene Wenger… but I’ve never tried to copy anyone.