Ivan the Reasonable
Ivan Jovanović explains his philosophy and how he hopes to build on Apoel's success last season
It all began with an agreement. The kind that is often made between parents and children. "We'll allow you to... only if you..." Božidar and Danica Jovanović had nothing to do with football. But they lived next to the ground of Loznica and that led them to make an agreement with their son, who was so fascinated by it that he spent many hours there. At first, he was just trying to catch a glimpse of training sessions, then he summoned up the courage to return balls that had been kicked off the pitch and, finally, it was his turn to put on a pair of boots. It was then that he made the deal with his parents: he could play football, so long as he attained excellent marks at school.
He did, all the way through to university. Only when he had to make a choice did he break the agreement. Academic studies and a professional football career did not go together and he chose the latter. Božidar and Danica never forgot, perhaps because as a football player their son never did enough to vindicate his decision. He drifted as an average midfielder through Loznica and Rad Beograd before ending up playing for Iraklis in Thessaloniki. Perhaps that's why Ivan Jovanović chose to remain in football, why he was so driven to win titles and recognition as a coach. He did that but his parents still would not be won over. Only in January, when he was named Serbia's coach of the year, did they forgive him. It might not have been the most obvious benefit derived from Apoel's run to the Champions League quarter-final but its significance to the 50 year old was real enough.
Have you fully digested exactly what you achieved last year? How would you describe it
Everything happened very quickly in terms of the magnitude of the success. In the summer, our main goal was to play again in the Champions League group stage but our successive qualifications led to the biggest success in the history of Apoel. We have surely gained a great deal but it's too soon to predict what this achievement may mean in the future. In practical terms, it means acknowledgment for the team, but also for the country, because it surely cannot be attributed to chance that a club from Cyprus twice participated in the Champions League group stage in the space of three years and actually managed to reach the quarter-finals the second time. The financial benefits are obvious but what is more significant is the greater recognition that we have received as a team despite coming from a country that is not among the strongest in terms of European football.
When referring to Apoel, Uefa characterised its achievement as "a football revolution". Do you believe that you did indeed 'rebel'?
It can obviously be regarded as a revolution in terms of the size of Apoel in relation to the opposition we faced in the group stage and knock-out games. The differences are enormous and the fact that we succeeded in getting to the last eight is a football phenomenon. My interpretation of the term "revolution" is that my team brings hope to countries and teams that may not have the football capacity and tradition of other nations and that that hope allows them to dream and follow a path similar to my team's.
Do you believe that Chelsea's victory in the Champions League and Apoel's progress to the last eight provides teams who are lacking technically with a model for how to compete with teams of higher stature?
We knew that we were confronting better teams, so we had to compensate for the difference in quality by being more compact, by running more. Apoel are a quality team and rely very much on the passing game in the Cypriot championship. We wanted to keep that up in the Champions League. We knew, however, that our opponents would control the rhythm of matches as well, perhaps for more time than we had estimated. So we needed much more running, a great deal of competitiveness, discipline and dedication in everything we had agreed to do before every game, bearing in mind also that, regardless of our opponents, we would have our own time to play our own game. Therefore, that was the time we had to take advantage of, not only to keep the ball or to rest, but to score and to create, because that was the only way to achieve the results we wanted. And the reason why we also scored in most of our games is obvious. It isn't chance that Apoel consistently ran, on average, 5-6 km more than their opponents.
What elements of Apoel's play will you be looking to maintain in the new cycle the team is beginning?
I don't know! In essence, I'm also learning through my team. We have a common journey. I had no Champions League experience before Apoel and Apoel had not previously taken part in the competition. My team and I are growing together and the experiences we are acquiring, we are gathering together. For me, the two participations in the Champions League are very important experiences. We attempted to learn from the teams we played against: the way they function, their facilities, their organisational charts, everything we can utilise in the future. This year, we are renewing the roster with new players, who may possibly not have the same experiences but they are helping us to acquire the right mix to create new dynamics and to find new incentives — which is a difficult task after our last year's success.
Which opponent played most effectively against Apoel?
Real Madrid were the only team that understood us very well because they had obviously devoted more time than the other teams to analysing our game. They managed to give form to the difference in quality that existed between our teams by using that knowledge on the pitch. And they did so by showing patience in their game. They did not treat us like a team from Cyprus that they had to do away with quickly. They had prepared differently, ran as much as we did, allowed us to exhaust ourselves [in the first game in Nikosia] and, in the end, they got what they wanted. They were by far the best team we played against and we were perhaps fortunate in the misfortune of that draw because we were given the chance to play against a top team, so we could see, in practical terms, what we are really made of.
But even so it must have been disheartening to draw Real Madrid in the quarter-final. Was that how your team reacted?
It's completely normal! We qualified top of our group [above Porto, Zenit and Shakhtar Donetsk] and we played in the last 16 in Lyon, where we were lucky that we lost just 1-0 in the Gerland. But in the second leg at home we played an exceptional game and went on with even greater confidence than before. We knew that teams such as Real, Barcelona and Bayern are in a different category, one that doesn't offer many possibilities. And that's why the first feeling after the draw with Real was one of great disappointment as we realised that our journey would be coming to an end. On the other hand, when the disappointment subsided, we thought that if our tournament was to end there, at least we were being given the opportunity to challenge the best.
If you were to change something that happened last season, what would it be?
I truly don't know! Everything happened — in football time — very quickly. I don't think I could expect anything more from myself and my players, given the spirit we had during the entire year. No one else could know how we dealt with each game, because, for us, each game was not a simple matter; it was unique. And what we strived for, and what we did to the point of excellence, was at least to learn as much as possible. We knew that we could not take advantage of our opponents' shortcomings, so we had to focus more on adjusting our game to their strengths and preparing to limit them. Up to a point in our first games, there was a certain enthusiasm. After the first results, we felt pressured to qualify for the Europa League and then to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League, something that was historic for Apoel. It's not an easy task to manage, going from enthusiasm to fulfilling an obligation. And at the same time always trying not to get carried away and go to the other extreme, believing that we've reached the level of our competitors. What I certainly didn't want to happen in the course of pursuing something truly wonderful was to harm the egos and the spirit of my players, whom I knew had given me all they had to give.
As a football player you won nothing. Did this determine your coaching philosophy?
I believe I was a good football player but it's true that I didn't win anything. I didn't change clubs and environments easily. I only played for three teams throughout my career: that of my city, Loznica, playing there from 12 to 21, in Rad Belgrade from 21 to 27 and Iraklis Thessaloniki where I played until I was 37. The truth is that as a football player I didn't achieve much. And when I began to do this job, that of coach, I remember saying to myself over and over again that I had to make an effort to win at least something, since I didn't make it as a football player. And thank God, I was lucky that the players themselves had goals and that others who came to Apoel realised that this team gave them the right to hope that they could achieve something special. And this is because in a team everything does not depend only on you but on your teammates as well and the spirit with which they desire and attempt to succeed.
Jovanović's career was shaped by a fight at the end of an InterToto Cup tie between Rad and Carl Zeiss Jena in 1988. He wasn't even on the pitch, having been substituted 10 minutes from time but, although he played no part in the brawl, his role as captain was taken into account and Uefa banned him from European competition for two years. That led to Metz pulling out of a deal to sign him and he went instead to Iraklis, who qualified for the Uefa Cup on three occasions. The first two seasons, Jovanovic could not play. The third time, in 1996-7, he did but Iraklis were eliminated in the second qualifying round — by Apoel.
Consequently, the focal point of your professional career as a football player and a coach must have been that InterToto game in East Germany…
Perhaps so. Football is very unpredictable. For good and for bad, you can only judge its every moment after your career is over. For example, that Uefa punishment forced me to go to Iraklis instead of Metz without the right to play in European competition. This changed my entire career. It determined my subsequent activities in football, since I began my coaching career from Iraklis. Even here, at Apoel, you see the unpredictability. Before I came, it was normal for Apoel to change coaches frequently[as he knows, having been sacked by them in 2005 after two years in the job]. I am now, however, completing the fifth year of my second term, something unprecedented at the club.
What future do you see for yourself at Apoel?
The only reason I would leave would be to join a team with similar goals — not just for a good contract. What is important to me is to create a new team and through that effort to find a new incentive, to pursue something similar to last year's success. Very carefully, however, because we can't allow ourselves to get carried away by what happened last season. It should serve as a guide, not be an end in itself. We are not a Champions League quarter->finals level team because we got there last year. We reached the limit of our potential and I don't know if this can be an objective standard for setting the team's future goals. We must start over, with an awareness of our abilities and our potential, because I think it is difficult for a team, for any team whatsoever, to repeat such a feat in such a short time. That said, we realise that the expectations on us, our obligations, have now increased.
And what about the Serbia national team? After you were named Serbian coach of the year you were mentioned as a candidate for national coach…
I have been away from my country for 22 years. It was fascinating and touching for me that Apoel's success received so much publicity in Serbia. It's the greatest recognition I could hope for, especially in light of the fears I may have, never having worked in my country. The national team is something else. It would be a great honour. But you> must also feel ready because it's very different from the work done at a club and I don't know if I am ready for something like that. I'm a coach who is on the training pitch on a daily basis and I'm not yet sure that the job of a selector is something I could do well.
How long can you coach like that?
You can't place boundaries on coaching. As long as you are willing to learn, as long as you are willing to be informed, as long you feel that something is missing and that there is something you haven't accomplished, you continue. And as long as I have this feeling I believe that I can do this job in a dignified manner. When I judge and when I feel that I have no desire to reach for more, I will know that this cycle has closed for me, even though I know that football will always be a part of my life.
Jovanović keeps his passion alive through his two sons, Nikola and Nemanja. Having lived alone in Cyprus for two years, he has brought them — together with his wife, Tania, who is, he says,the only positive to arise from his time at university — from Thessaloniki and they are now in the Apoel academies. The 15-year old Nikola, who is a central defender, has yet to experience his father as a coach. Nemanja, an 18-year-old winger, got his first taste in Apoel's summer preparations. This coexistence creates a strange feeling ("to say the very least" according to Jovanović). But his strictness during coaching will seem even stranger. Following the standards his own parents set for him, he has made exactly the same agreement with his sons. "I will allow you to... only if you..."
"I want them to derive pleasure from what they do, but their studies are my priority," he says. "This was the only way to keep them devoted to their school obligations when they began playing football."
His reconciliation with his own father came through bees. They are Božidar's passion. Even before retiring — and almost exclusively since then — Jovanović's father supplied the family with honey he produced from breeding thousands of bees. Ivan followed him — just as he has done in (almost) everything. Even now, during every summer visit to Loznica, he and his father collect the year's honey. This is the honey that he supplies his own home with, the honey he shares with a few good friends in Cyprus. And even though Ivan has not embraced his father's love for beekeeping, not even as a hobby, in his industriousness he has perhaps accepted the logic of the bee in his career, his work, his team and even his family.