Widely known for his stern demeanour, Vahid Halilhodzic is not a man who tends to let his emotions get the upper hand. The tears nonetheless flowed for the Algeria coach last year when his side clinched a spot at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ via the play-offs, edging a 1-0 second-leg win against Burkina Faso after losing 3-2 away. As he explains in this interview, his time at the Algeria helm has "perhaps been more intense" than any other experience in his distinguished career.
Halilhodzic may have a reputation for keeping his thoughts to himself, but he certainly made an exception for FIFA.com. In a wide-ranging discussion, the Bosnian tactician shed light on his tears of joy last November, how proud he is to coach Algeria, his painful sacking by Côte d'Ivoire four years ago and his enduring love for his profession. "Football has made me suffer from time to time, but it's also given me a lot," he says. "I'm indebted to it."
FIFA.com: Vahid, what were you going through the moment your play-off victory against Burkina Faso ended?
Vahid Halilhodzic: It was a mixture of relief and pride. For a coach, pleasure only comes from winning, and to win you have to suffer. We certainly suffered a lot before finishing on a high. It's a real gift to see the joy that a success like that can bring to supporters or the people you work with. That's priceless. No money can buy it. When you see the people around you jumping for joy, two and a half years of pain just disappear.
You yourself seemed overcome by emotion as well. You even shed a few tears.
I experienced a tragedy a year ago: my brother died. He was someone who meant a lot in my life, who followed my career and pushed me to play football. A year to the day before the game against Burkina Faso, he visited me in Algeria. Nobody knew that I had gone through that tragedy. After the match, it all burst out.
Would you describe this as the most fulfilling chapter of your career emotionally?
I don't know. It's not the first time I've earned qualification for a World Cup with a team. As a coach, I've taken part in the Champions League twice and won the CAF Champions League in Africa. As a player, I won the European U-21 title, being named best player and finishing top scorer in the tournament. I've won a lot of titles, but my experience with Algeria has perhaps been more intense. It's not always a walk in the park being the coach of Algeria. You need to have a very strong personality and a certain conviction about what you're doing. The pressure is huge, and I'm a foreigner in charge of their national team. It's not always easy.
What convinced you to accept this post?
After being dismissed as Côte d'Ivoire coach, I thought I'd never take the reins of another African side. I even considered quitting football. That sacking just shows how cruel Africa can be sometimes. But you must never say never. During my first meeting with the Algeria side, a player came to me after five minutes and said: "Coach, can we talk?" That led to a discussion with the whole team. It lasted two hours, during which all the different problems rose to the surface – and there were a lot of them. I said to myself: "This isn't for me, I'm going." In the end, though, having heard so much honesty, I decided to continue the adventure. It was that sincerity, right from the start, which convinced me to carry on. You can always do something with people who are honest. A lot of things then happened between our first training camp in Marcoussis in July 2011 and December 2013; we put in a lot of work and in the end we were rewarded for it.
You spoke earlier about your misfortune four years ago, when you were sacked by Côte d'Ivoire despite having led the Elephants to the 2010 World Cup. Have you consigned that episode to the past now?
I went through a similar experience as a player some years ago. Back home in Yugoslavia, I was considered at the time to be one of the best players in the country. I played in every qualification game as we booked our place at Spain 1982, but when we got there the coach decided to change our tactics and put me on the bench. I didn't take it well, given that my ambition was to finish as the competition's top scorer. In the same way, it's awful for a coach to lead their team to the World Cup by winning all their games only to be deprived of the main event itself. It was the country's President who took the decision. Actually, just this morning, the new President of the Ivorian Football Federation came to me to apologise for what happened on his behalf, and on behalf of the players and the Ivorian people. That didn't make up for it, but it was some consolation. Of course, I regret not having gone to that World Cup in 2010. Perhaps I would have been able to achieve something with that side, as it had some great players.
Algeria has some talented individuals as well, such as Sofiane Feghouli, Saphir Taider and Ishak Belfodil. It is also a young side.
When I took charge of Algeria, the team was for the most part made up of the players who'd gone to the 2010 World Cup. They were demoralised, and I understood right away that I needed to freshen things up. I oversaw the evolution step by step. First of all, I started calling up more and more Franco-Algerian players based in France or Italy. That's a more difficult process than it looks because Algerians are very attached to their country. Someone who doesn't respect the flag just isn't welcome. So it required diplomacy to successfully integrate dual-nationality players into a squad that already had an identity. We worked tremendously hard on the social side of things, on adaption and communication. We made sure to instil a spirit in the squad that was collective, combative, unselfish and united. That's now the strong point of my squad and it's what proved decisive in our campaign. We were rewarded for that, and our qualification has done a lot of good for everyone in Algeria.
That is easy to believe, given the atmosphere in Blida on 19 November last year. Six hours before kick-off against Burkina Faso, the stadium was already full.
You need to live in Algeria to see to what extent the country is passionate about football. I actually dedicated our qualification to the Algerian people, but there was nothing populist about my message. I really felt proud to be able to give the people a place in the World Cup. When you have supporters like that behind you, it's a genuine inspiration.
You were seen dancing along to a Rai tune after you sealed qualification, and your joy was obvious. There are even rumours that you are considering applying for Algerian citizenship. Have you fallen in love with Algeria?
The only thing I'm in love with is my profession and football, but I have a lot of respect for Algeria because it's an honour to be the coach of a country like that. That said, it's also a huge responsibility. I get criticised over there. Even if we became world champions, I'd get criticised. I have trouble understanding it, but that's the way it is. When you do this job, you need to have convictions. You have to be able to listen to others, but you're the one making the sporting decisions – and, on that front, I'm very determined. I'm afraid of nothing. I love pressure because that means you have an important match to play, not a game for 15th place in some league or other. You only get tension in Champions League or World Cup games, and that's what I live and work for. I'm very respectful of football. It's my faith. Football has made me suffer from time to time, but it's also given me a lot. I'm indebted to it.
I'm very respectful of football. It's my faith. Football has made me suffer from time to time, but it's also given me a lot. I'm indebted to it.