Hadzibegic: Montenegro is at the start of something amazing
Faruk Hadzibegic has been in charge of Montenegro since July 2019
Coach has transformed a struggling side
Discusses his job, the draw for Qatar 2022 and his playing days
When Faruk Hadzibegic was appointed Montenegro coach in July 2019, he inherited a side that was very much down on its luck. Bottom of their UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying group – a position they remained in – the crisis-stricken Brave Falcons needed all the 63-year-old Bosnian’s patience and human touch to get back on track. And get back on track they did, stringing together some fine results in the last few months and reaping the rewards of his diligent work.
Such has been Montenegro’s recovery, in fact, that Hadzibegic believes they have what it takes to reach the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, the UEFA preliminary draw for which takes place on Monday 7 December. In an interview with FIFA.com, the former Yugoslavia international discusses his current job, his ambitions for the future and his experience of playing at Italy 1990.
FIFA.com: What was going through your head when you were appointed Montenegro coach in July 2019?
Faruk Hadzibegic: I had mixed emotions. I was returning to a part of former Yugoslavia where political tensions had never really gone away and where the plight of the national team was causing a lot of stress, concern and sadness. It was a challenging situation and I had to think it through. In the end, though, my love for football and my desire to go back to my roots won out.
The team was in poor form. What was the mood like when you started?
All those bad results had knocked the team off course but my feeling was that the players wanted to turn things around. We needed to spend time together, to talk things through and get out on the pitch. The whole coaching staff rallied around the team, and the mood and the atmosphere couldn’t be better now.
The results have taken a little while to come.
I’ve got a lot of experience so I knew there were going to be some tough times at the start and a few mood swings involved. Everyone needed to take time out from the situation, on both a football and mental level. We also had injuries to the likes of Stevan Jovetic, who’s our most technically gifted player. Everything happened at once: morale was low, the results were bad and we had injuries too.
What targets were you set by Dejan Savicevic, the head of the national FA since 2006?
He didn’t give me any specific target other than getting the team back on a stable footing and restoring confidence and a sense of commitment to the national team. I played with him and against him in [former] Yugoslavia. He was known throughout his career for his qualities as a person and a player. He’s the best president I’ve ever had in my career, at club and national team level. He knows the game inside out and talks about nothing else. He runs the national association like a family, as if it were his home.
The population of Montenegro is only 600,000. Does that limit your chances of success?
It goes without saying that when you only have 100,000 registered players you’re going to have a much smaller player pool than Spain, France or Germany, who’ve got millions. We get by, though. It’s a drawback but it’s not a problem for me. When we’re at full strength, which hasn’t happened since I’ve been here, we’ve got a chance against any team.
What are your views ahead of the UEFA preliminary draw for Qatar 2022, which is coming up on Monday 7 December?
My only hope for the qualifiers is to be able to go into them in the best possible shape, without any injury problems or anything like that. We’re in a good place right now. We’ll have to wait and see what the draw has got in store for us, but I’m hoping we get an exciting group with teams from the world’s top ten and some fixtures that will excite the players and the whole nation. Montenegro is a sporting country with a winning culture.
Do you think Montenegro are ready to play in the World Cup?
Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.
Your home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina qualified for Brazil 2014, of course. Is that a source of inspiration for you?
I helped out with the reconstruction of the country and the national team after the war [the Bosnian War of 1992-95]. They were very intelligent and brave in doing the work they did. We are looking at what our neighbours are doing and we are taking it slowly. You have to be ambitious but you can’t get ahead of yourself. If you ask me, though, Montenegro is at the start of something amazing.
Are you the type to talk about your playing career to your players?
Oh that! Never. I don’t allow myself to do that. It was another time. What’s the use in me saying I played with the likes of [Diego] Maradona, [Michel] Platini, [Lothar] Matthaus and [Emilio] Butragueno? They’re good memories and I cherish them but I don’t use those experiences to get on the same level as my players.
What memories do you have of your run with Yugoslavia at Italy 1990?
It was an amazing experience, a really exciting adventure for us. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. I was at the peak of my powers, both mentally and physically. It was a World Cup of artists. You had [Roberto] Baggio with Italy, [Rene] Higuita with Colombia, and Butragueno with Spain, to name but three. There was a lot of skill on show at that World Cup.
What impact did your performances have in former Yugoslavia, which was on the brink of war at the time?
We always got a lot of support from the fans. When we beat Spain in the last 16 it was completely normal for us, and I’m not being arrogant when I say that. We believed in ourselves. We respected the opposition but we had the quality to beat them.
You then played Argentina in the quarter-finals. As a defender, what goes through your head when you’re about to face Diego Maradona?
Diego was an outstanding player. It’s a pleasure to take on one of the best players in the world, but that’s something you think about after the match. During the game you don’t have time to think. We were playing the reigning world champions, so we were just looking at ourselves. I could see, though, that Maradona had an amazing attitude. He played for the team, was really up for it, and had a lot of respect for us. I admired him but I was focused.
That was Yugoslavia’s last international match and you missed the last penalty. Does it still hurt?
It’s just one of those things. I tend to put things into context. There are regrets because I would have preferred to score. But everyone reminds me about that penalty and talks to me about it. There was even a book about it and a film, which asks if my penalty started the war (laughs). I take it all with a pinch of salt. I played for 20 years and that’s the only thing people remember. But I laugh about it and I see the funny side. I went down in World Cup and in history full stop thanks to that penalty (laughs).