Better Late than Never
Algeria’s Vahid Halilhodžić on finally making it to the World Cup as a manager
Vahid Halilhodžić should have been at the World Cup four years ago. It had seemed his Côte d’Ivoire team was developing well when they faced Algeria in the quarter-final of the Cup of Nations in Cabinda. They even took the lead in the 89th minute through Abdul Kader Keita, only to switch off defending a cross, allowing Majid Bougherra to equalise in injury-time. Two minutes into extra-time, they did the same again and Hameur Bouazza gave Algeria a lead they didn’t relinquish. Halilhodžić was sacked — as he later put it, for “two minutes of madness”. At 61, though, the former Paris St-Germain forward will finally make his debut at the World Cup as a coach — he was in the Yugoslavia squad at the 1982 World Cup, but found playing time restricted by Safet Sušić, the present coach of Bosnia — as manager of Algeria, the team who effectively cost him his position on the bench in 2010.
When you started out with Algeria, it was already certain that they wouldn’t qualify for the 2012 African Cup of Nations. Then you qualified for the 2013 Cup of Nations, but you went out in the group stage after a draw and two defeats. What was the reaction of the FA, the media and the fans? Was your position in danger?
Of course I wasn’t happy with our results; nobody was, but the cooperation continued normally. In the build-up to that tournament we had many problems with injuries, on top of the fact that we had a new, young team. You have to take into account that when I took over Algeria in 2011, it was in a difficult situation, after elimination in the qualifiers for the Cup of Nations and a 4-0 defeat against Morocco, which was considered a disaster. So, I built a new, young team and the main two goals were to qualify for the 2013 African Cup of Nations and for the World Cup in Brazil. We achieved both targets. Naturally, for many it was a disappointment that Algeria went out after the group stage, but we played well in all three matches. Our problem was a lack of efficiency in the first two games. We didn’t make the most of our chances, but we put in good performances. I remember the statistics. We had 29 corners and 36 crosses or so. We showed a style of play with many good things. So I knew that we were on the right track and afterwards there also came good results.
You said that it’s very difficult to be national coach of Algeria. What exactly did you mean?
Of course, in this job pressure is a common thing everywhere in the world. But in Algeria the enthusiasm for football is unbelievable and most of the time the ambitions have no dose of reality. I mean in the past three years we’ve made real progress, but I think that people will only be happy if we’re African champions and win the World Cup. When I took over, Algeria were around 50th the Fifa rankings. Now we are 25th. In the African ranking Algeria were 11th, now we are 2nd. Before I came, they played with defensive tactics, virtually with eight or nine players who defended. Now we play with three forwards and score lots of goals. That attacking style is a great strong point of this team and everybody likes it. Nonetheless, the pressure is enormous. People here adore their national team. Some believe that Algeria are among the best in the world and that in Brazil we can reach the quarter-finals or semi-finals. They forget that Algeria have never got past the group stage. That enthusiasm and such high expectations you shouldn’t consider in a negative way, but you should try to look at things with reality too. I’m not afraid. I’m driven by that pressure. I’m a fanatic. The only thing I can’t stand is when lies appear about me in the media. But, unfortunately, that’s also part of this job.
In the World Cup qualifiers you comfortably got through the group stage, then in the play-offs against Burkina Faso it was tight and dramatic. When you look back at the qualifiers, what can you say about them?
I think we did a good job. We dominated our group, scored 13 goals, we left Mali trailing behind us, who are a very good team, who two years ago came third in the Cup of Nations. Then, in the first game against Burkina Faso [a 3-2 defeat], we played one of our best games. We’ve never had so many goal chances in an away game, but it was unbelievable how biased the referee was. The third goal came from a penalty, after a debatable handball that was clearly outside the box. To be honest, in those moments I feared that the referees would decide who was going to the World Cup. In the return leg [a 1-0 victory for Algeria] we were by far the better team. We practically didn’t allow Burkina Faso a single shot at goal. My team showed maturity and a high level of performance and I’m especially pleased that we scored two goals per game, that we played attacking football, which for me, as former centre-forward, is always my preferred way of playing.
Still, in that second game, in added time, Algeria’s winger El Arbi Hillel Soudani deflected a shot and the ball hit the post. If it had gone in, you would have been eliminated. Did you see that scene clearly from your position? How did you survive it?
It was after a corner-kick at the near post. Of course, for all of us our hearts stood still at that moment. We were lucky, but it wouldn’t have been deserved if the game had ended 1-1. After the match I said to Soudani, “If you had scored an own goal, they [the fans] would have cut off both your legs.” Still, after the final whistle, nobody thought about that incident any more. Everybody celebrated. It was phenomenal. Those are the greatest moments in a career of a football player and of a coach, when you qualify for a World Cup. I experienced it once as a player and twice as coach.
You’ve been drawn with Belgium, Russia and South Korea. What do you think? Do you believe Algeria can get through?
No doubt, it’s a very difficult group. But on the other hand there are no easy groups at the World Cup. We are underdogs but we will fight to represent Algerian football in the best possible way. We play our first game against Belgium, who are at this point one of the most promising teams in Europe, who have many really quality players and who are hungry for success. I talked with friends in Belgium and the general opinion is that this is one of the most talented teams in the history of Belgian football. So that match will be a big occasion for us, a real challenge. In the second game we play against Korea. I watched them recently when they beat Greece 2-0 in Athens. They outclassed the Greeks. Not many teams can do that against Greece in Greece: Korea will be a very difficult opponent. And we have Russia, who surely are favourites against us. Nevertheless, we shall prepare well, we will take care of all the details, I won’t put extra pressure on my players, but of course we will try to achieve good results. We will try to accomplish something, but even if we don’t make it, we have to put in such performances that, if we go out, we go out with heads high and without regrets.
Recently I asked the former Yugoslavia and Japan coach Ivica Osim what he thought about the comments of two Japan internationals, Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo, who said that their goal in Brazil is to win the World Cup. I assumed that Osim would dismiss such comments as unrealistic, but actually he said that this is the right attitude, that if they don’t believe they can go all the way, they should better stay at home. You’ve done the opposite of that and stated that you shouldn’t put extra pressure on the players. So I assume you wouldn’t like to hear similar comments from your players.
Well, it costs nothing to talk rubbish, to make bombastic statements, to please the gallery. Athletes often do it in the build-up to big competitions. They are free to do so, so why not? Sometimes it’s with the purpose of diverting the attention from other things, sometimes they really think like that. But the reality you can always see after the competition. Too much bragging can also backfire. And if all ends with failure, then usually the only excuse is that it was the fault of the coach. I think it’s better to show tactfulness, regardless of the opponent you’ll face. Of course, it’s good to be positive and optimistic. You should always try. Naturally, it’s not good to say, “We are far weaker, we have no chance.”
You have many French-born players in the team. Some question their passion for Algeria. What do you think?
I’ve heard this, but it’s nonsense. All our players are loyal and play with great will and ambition. We have an excellent atmosphere in the squad. There’s never been the slightest problem in training, in games or in relations with each other. Those players proudly defend the colours of Algeria.
Earlier this year there was a tense situation after your comments in the French media, when you said that after the World Cup you would quit the Algeria job, that you don’t let anyone interfere in your job and that it makes you laugh when you hear that Algeria will qualify for the knock-out stage. At one point it looked as though they would sack you. Is that situation resolved? How is your relationship with the federation boss Mohamed Raouraoua?
I didn’t have any problems. My relations with the federation and with the president were and are excellent. The problem was artificially created, because some journalists published fabrications. The only thing that is true is that the federation wanted and wants me to sign a new contract, but that I decided to wait until the summer, until after the World Cup. The president is doing his job. He wants to extend the contract with me. That’s normal. We have a young team that can play together for the next six to eight years. And he wants me to continue working with that team. But we shall see. Right now the most important thing is the World Cup. Afterwards I will decide. I also have other options and I also have to speak with my family. I don’t want any pressure now. I will reach my decision at the right time.
Is it true that it is written in your contract that Algeria have to qualify for the last 16 in Brazil?
As a matter of fact, it’s written that we have to win the 2013 Cup of Nations and that at the World Cup we have to reach the semi-finals. I’m not happy to go into details about this, but I do know that such a thing won’t happen to me again. I was naive. It was my fault that I agreed to it. First I thought that it was a joke. I mean, I took over the national team after they failed to qualify for the Cup of Nations and after a 4-0 defeat against Morocco, and within 12 months you demand to win the Cup of Nations and to reach the semi-finals at the World Cup. It’s a little unserious.
Are there any consequences stipulated in case of not fulfilling those goals?
Well, as you see, I’m still here. I am still the national coach of Algeria. You don’t know what we will achieve at the World Cup, but they’ve still asked me to sign a new contract. I’ve been here three years and I’m not a coach who likes to brag. The only promise I make is that there will be quality work and that that the results will come. There’s been success everywhere I’ve worked — with Algeria, with Dinamo Zagreb, Côte d’Ivoire…
Your home is in Lille, but now you are practically permanently based in Algiers. How do you feel there?
I don’t have any problems whatsoever. Usually, I’m three weeks in Algeria and one week in Europe, when I follow the players who play in the European leagues. When I’m in Algeria, I feel fine. People like me. When I go to a café or a restaurant, people often stop me for a chat, or to take pictures. Once, when I was on my way to the sports centre, there was a traffic jam because they saw me and improvised some celebrations. It’s really amazing how people in Algeria love their national team.
You’ve been unlucky with World Cups. Back in 1982 with Yugoslavia you got little playing time. Four years ago you qualified with Côte d’Ivoire, only to be controversially sacked a few months before the World Cup. Do you think it will be third time lucky?
In Spain in 1982, I was in top shape and I was confident that I would be in the team, but in the end I spent more time on the bench. Unfortunately, in those times with Yugoslavia, such cases were nothing unusual, as players from the big clubs were always favoured. [Halilhodzić played for Velez Mostar.]
And in spring 2010, when Côte d’Ivoire fired you by fax?
Yes, I received a fax from the federation’s general secretary with a short message that our cooperation was terminated because I didn’t win the African Cup of Nations. It was our only defeat in 24 games. I was shocked. It was unreal. The players were disappointed that I didn’t go with them to the World Cup in South Africa. They felt sorry about what happened. Later I learned that it was a decision by the political leadership of the country. It had to do with the presidential elections. What hurt me most was the manner in which I was informed that I was no longer national coach — with a fax from the general secretary. It was humiliating. I learned the lesson that in football everything is possible. Also I believe, that if I had guided the team in South Africa, that we would have achieved a better result [under Sven-Göran Eriksson, Côte d’Ivoire drew with Portugal, lost to Brazil and beat North Korea and were eliminated on goal difference]. In Brazil, during the draw for the World Cup, the new president of the Ivorian football federation approached me and apologised in the name of the federation and the people of Côte d’Ivoire. He also told me twice that if I wish, I am welcome to go back to be national coach of Côte d’Ivoire again. I was popular over there. The fans liked me. There was never whistling at our games. Also last year at the Cup of Nations, when we played against Côte d’Ivoire, all players from the Côte d’Ivoire team came to say hello.
Back then you told me that you were so disappointed that you didn’t want to watch the World Cup on TV. Did you change your mind eventually? Did you follow the World Cup?
I didn’t watch any of the three games Côte d’Ivoire played. But I did watch other matches.
You also said that you hoped that at least they would pay you the bonus for the successful World Cup qualification. Did they pay you?
Yes, they did, but to be honest I didn’t care about that money. The biggest prize is when you go to a World Cup. Afterwards you can take the money.
You were successful in France, both as player and a coach. When you coached PSG, you were made a knight of the Legion d’Honneur. That must make you very proud.
Yes, of course it was a great honour. I was born and brought up in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but France has become my second homeland. I was awarded that title both for my sporting success and for my charity work, as I helped a lot of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the civil war in the 1990s. In the war I lost my house in Mostar and my belongings within one day, but later on, after I moved to France, I was involved in humanitarian work. I helped people in my hometown, I can look everyone in the eye. I didn’t need recognition for that. Still, 10 years later [in 2004] in France I received that title and I’m very proud of it.
But your relationship with the French media is not so good?
I never chased popularity. Also, in the former Yugoslavia I wasn’t quite the darling of the media. My contacts with journalists are rather rare; perhaps it’s my mistake. I see that nowadays some coaches earn 50% of their success because of skilful communication with media and 50% because of their work on the field. I was and I am always fully focused on my work. It’s true that the French media seem unhappy with me. There I have an image of being very demanding, that I’m rigorous, that I’m a disciplinarian and so on. I don’t care. I can’t change that. But fact is, when you look at my CV, everywhere I’ve worked I had outstanding results. So, this time I’ll definitely consider very carefully where I go next. It would be great to coach a club that plays in the Champions League, that has the chance to go far in the Champions League, or to coach a national team that can challenge for success at the Euros or the World Cup.
Does that mean you’ve already decided not to sign a new contract with Algeria?
I didn’t say that. I’ve already told you that I would consider the new offer from Algeria only after Brazil. Whether I will accept it, or if I will look for some other option, I’ll decide after the World Cup.
Once you said that it’s your dream one day to work in England.
Yes, it’s true. I would love to coach a club in England or Germany. In both countries the atmosphere is fantastic, the stadiums are always packed. Actually, this winter I had an offer from England, but I wasn’t interested. [He refused to say which club.] Naturally, my aim is to sign with a big club. But you also have to have luck. Just look at PSG. Now they have a budget that is eight times bigger than while I was there. Perhaps it’s my destiny to start from scratch. Maybe I’m a masochist. In Algeria I practically started from zero. In the last two and a half years I tried 75 players. Other coaches maybe have more luck. Anyway, I hope that I too one day will come to a club with a line-up already in place.
Is it true that while you worked in France, sometimes you joked with players, mentioning Nietzsche and Hegel?
[Laughs] Yes, there were some funny stories. Once I told a PSG player, after I saw some comment of him in media, that he is too smart; that if Nietzsche and Hegel had read his comments, they wouldn’t have written their famous literary works. Nowadays it’s not easy to make the team cohesive, to have a good atmosphere and togetherness — which is so important for work. Things have changed. People are alienated. Players have three mobile phones and two laptops. They walk around with large headphones. The social contact is at a minimum. I always was seeking and I still aim to create a good atmosphere, to have a lot of fun and jokes and constant interaction with players. Fun and jokes are part of youth. Once, while I was with PSG, I remember that during the warm-up, we marked circles with hats in different colours. It looked to me like a collage. I said to the players, “Do you see that? It looks like a painting by Chagall. You know who Chagall was, don’t you?” In the end it turned out that our right back had no idea who Chagall was. It was crazy. We were all laughing.
But you didn’t tell players about Nietzsche and Hegel, that you played against them? Or did you?
[Laughs] I can’t remember. Maybe I did mention that Nietzsche was a hard central defender I’d played against.
While you were Dinamo Zagreb coach, several times you treated local journalists at press conferences with baklava. Did you do the same in Algeria?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t. In Algeria you have that on every corner. In Zagreb I did it whenever my relatives or friends from Bosnia brought me baklava, and there was lot of it, so I wanted to share it with the journalists. After all, back home in Bosnia-Herzegovina, when you are host, it’s the nicest thing when you treat your guests with burek and afterwards, as dessert, with baklava.
If in Brazil you reach a success with Algeria, perhaps you will treat Algerian journalists with baklava.
Yes, maybe, who knows? That would be fantastic. Let’s wait and see.