The great Bosnian coach reflects on the war, Japan and Alan Mullery's lack of fair play.
It was midmorning when I first pressed the buzzer outside the apartment block where Ivica Osim now lives in Sarajevo. His wife answered and, apologetically, asked if I could come back at noon because he was still in bed. Osim sleeps a lot these days, exhausted by the stroke that ended his time as manager of Japan in 2007. He had been watching a Premier League game when he fell unconscious; when he came round, the first thing he said to his wife was to ask what the final score had been. She now protects him, sheltering him from the demands of a football world that still reveres him. In April 2011, for instance, he was appointed head of a committee to oversee Bosnian football while the issues that had led to the Bosnian federation being suspended from Fifa were resolved.
"Don't wear him out," she said, when I buzzed for him again. He looks old now, the skin sagging over a frame no longer as powerful as it was when he was one of Europe's most dynamic midfielders. There is an air of melancholy about him too, although perhaps less about his own mortality than about the conflicts that have ravaged his homeland, the constant setbacks and betrayals of life. Football, as well, he feels has changed, is less pure than it was. Yet beneath the frail exterior, his energy still shines through; he may be disappointed with football but he has not fallen out of love with it.
Let's start with the crisis point, the 1990 World Cup, when you were coach of a great Yugoslavia team that included the likes of Dragan Stojković, Safet Sušić and Darko Pančev with the youthful talent of Robert Prosinečki, Dejan Savićević and Davor Šuker in the squad. Is it even possible to begin talking about that team and its promise given what was going on politically at the time?
The team was far, far better than the country. That generation was really young. I'm not sure it's good to talk about it because football is football and life is life. Football is a pretty game but it's not larger than life. I don't like to talk about this because it would be an illusion to make a lamentation about that generation of players and not to talk about what happened afterwards. Lots of people have been killed. The country was destroyed. It's not fair for me to talk about the players and not to talk about what happened next. Sometimes there are things that are more important than football. One thing is sure: if the players were in charge instead of the politicians nothing could ever be like this.
Were you under pressure to pick certain players?
Unfortunately it was the same thing then as now. Instead of all the other things, you had to be careful about the name, about religion, about the club, about the region of the country a player's from. You had to calculate everything. Everything is politics. Every club was politics and especially the national team was politics. Let an Englishman try to pick the national team of Britain and Ireland…. So you choose two from Scotland, three from England but nobody from Ireland, it would be a riot…
Was there a quota system?
Nothing happened overnight. You can't create these things in one night. The key players, they had been working on that for a long time so in the end it looked like the normal pattern of the things that had to happen.
Having lost to West Germany you then beat Colombia and the UAE, but the last 16 victory over Spain was probably the best performance in that tournament…
From my perspective, you see the result and you see a positive result so automatically you think it's the best game of the tournament. But also I think that game was the best because Spain were always a football force. It was important in showing that we had the same number of good individuals as Spain. And it was the sort of game in which players could make sure they stood out from the crowd. Stojković did that but even without that game he would have been a great player. But sometimes you need that kind of game so the players and the fans can see they have a good player.
And then, despite being down to 10 men from the 30th minute after Refik Šabanadzović was sent off, you drew 0-0 with Argentina in the quarter-final, only to lose on penalties. You must think about what might have been…
That should have been the biggest game. It had everything to be the biggest game. It had all the attributes. But that game was played at the wrong time because we had a lot of other problems and the team could not concentrate. And when the players are not sure about their quality, it's really hard to play.
What do you mean by "the wrong time"?
I had a case with one player who said a few hours before the game, "Please, don't pick me because I received a threat in my city, so I am afraid to play for the national team." That was Srečko Katanec, who was a really, really important player for us. He was afraid to walk around in Ljubljana because of threats. I can understand that's not a nice position. How can he play? If he goes to play in Italy and his family stays in Ljubljana then they are under threat. I can't persuade anybody not to think about that.
Did you feel any pressure personally?
The pressure was not on me. After the game you can feel the effects, what happened with football. You must end up in hospital, whether in 1990 or in 2007. Everybody ends up n the hospital.
And then in 1992, what did you think of the decision to expel Yugoslavia from the European Championship?
I wasn't disappointed by the decision not to let us compete at Euro 92. You have to expect these decisions in these circumstances. We put ourselves in a position that enabled Uefa to make that decision. But I felt like a lot of people couldn't wait to get rid of us, because we were such a dangerous side.
You felt people had a prejudice against Yugoslavia?
It's all politics and business as well, you have to understand. What can a team from Yugoslavia bring to the Euros? They can only cause problems, in terms of the game or in terms of riots. We were too dangerous for Europe in 1992.
Do you ask yourself what might have happened if there'd been no politics, no war, and Yugoslavia had been allowed to compete?
People often talk about the fact that Denmark came instead of us, so they wonder what would have happened if we had stayed in the tournament and they think that probably we would have won the European Championship. I don't know about that, but I think about the World Cup in 1990, what might have happened if we'd got past Argentina. Maybe I am optimistic, but in my private illusion I wonder what would have happened if Yugoslavia had played in the semi-final or the final, what would have happened in the country. Maybe there would have been no war if we'd won the World Cup. I don't think things would have changed in that way, but sometimes you dream about what might have happened. Things might have been better after the World Cup.
Is there any comparison, whether in terms of internal politics or the way the outside world looks at the country, between the situation then and in Bosnia now?
Thank God we are not in a situation like Yugoslavia was in 1990 and we're really lucky not to be in that kind of situation. I think back then things had gone too far and nobody or nothing could have prevented what happened in the next years. I would be happy if football could have changed that, but I don't think it was possible.
This Bosnia team seems highly promising, reaching play-offs for qualifying for both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. How important was Ćiro Blažević in pulling together Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs?
We had a man who could bring peace between people who would be on opposite sides. And football doesn't always cause wars. Sometimes it brings peace. You can see how the city streets are when the national team plays. This is good for the politicians because they can see how important football is. It's not just in Bosnia – it's all around the world. If you win the games you have a peaceful time among the people. And we are people like that: when we have a good result, we spend more, we celebrate more.
He's very charismatic, somebody who's very good with words…
You can make philosophical arguments about tactics and football but when you talk with players and journalists, the most important thing is to choose your words when you talk about your rival. You can never talk in a way that makes your rival feel underestimated or overestimated. If you talk in the wrong way, your rival could be motivated. After the game, people can see it was your words that motivated your rival. And that's a really delicate issue, because today you have to be careful about nearly everything. Anything can be manipulated. And it's really hard to avoid that kind of situation because, as I always say, everything is politics. A war can be started because of two words. Football is just like war because there is an enormous amount of money in the game.
You regret that?
What would happen if England failed to qualify for a tournament and they had invested a huge amount of money in their football? There is an obligation for the players because they have to think about that also. I'm afraid that football will eat itself one day. Every step seems to lead towards that. Football now is money, money, money and I can't understand where that money comes from. It's gone too far. I don't believe that football was ever just a sport. From the early days, it was a professional way of thinking. In football nobody can do anything for free. If you make better biscuits than the next man you are more professional. Ordinary people cannot understand the figures involved. We are not excited by how Džeko is playing; we are waiting to see which club he will join next and what price he will be. Everybody forgets he is a normal guy, 1.90m [6'3"] tall, who plays good football.
And the present team, under Šušić, looks well set in qualifying for 2014…
When you find yourself in the situation of the kind we are in now, when every point is like a house, it's not easy to play. Especially when you have that feeling that you're very close to something that you've chased for so long, you cannot pick holes. Now we are entering a period in which we need slowly to prepare the team, prepare the crowd to accept the fact that this team should not depend on one player. That's dangerous and we're sick of it. But now we have Džeko and also [Miralem] Pjanić who can raise us to the heavens. That's good but we have to make a collective that will thrive together. The path is there; the question is how long we can follow it.
Osim was born in Sarajevo and began his career there with Željezničar before moving, briefly, to the Netherlands and then France. Noted for his close control and dribbling ability, he also played 16 games for the Yugoslavia national side, including the final stages of the 1968 European Championship.
What are your memories of the 1968 semi-final and the 1-0 win over England?
You can never play an easy game against England. They were the world champions at the time and the team that played us was almost the same team that played in the World Cup. We had to have respect for them. We thought that we were in a good position to play against England, even though they were a really interesting team and we were maybe not so dangerous.
It was a unique opportunity for us to see these players, even to touch them. The calmness of the way they played was the most impressive thing about them. They were fully focused on their plan, and that was something we didn't have. For them everything happens with the head, everything else is not so important. They did that all the time, changed the ball from wide to the middle. We had to be careful of that. They played a very good style. They all played with great heart and you had to be fully concentrated against them. They were great runners. You play against Stiles, Mullery, Bobby Charlton, and you thought they must be playing their twins as well, because it seemed there were such a lot of them, always more than us.
Was that down to fitness or organisation?
They were run from the bench. They always had individual quality, but that was the first time they started to use individuals. You can't say that Gerrard or Lampard don't have quality, but their first quality is their fluency, and it was the same situation then.
Dragan Džajić scored the winner and was hailed as one of the world greats by the English press after that game. How good was he?
He was a great individual, very hard to play against. It was not easy to control him. Džajić was a player who could always make it seem like you had one player more, and when you play against a team, an extra player is always important. He was always thinking ahead. I think maybe he was inspired by playing England, because he scored a goal in the English style, with his head. I think before that he never scored with his head. I think — I'm not sure; you'll have to be careful about this because Džajić might read it and be angry, but he didn't score many goals with his head.
And that game is famous for Alan Mullery becoming the first England player to be sent off. What are your memories of that?
It was a big surprise, because Englishmen were famous for fair play at that time. In football, in games like that from time to time you forget yourself. Today it has gone too far as a business for fair play to matter. Even fair play is a business today. He made two or three fouls in a row: it was like in basketball — second mistake, third mistake and off he went. He was frustrated, probably because at 1-0 all we were doing was fighting to maintain the lead, keeping the ball away from the English players, trying to stop them getting a kick. And today everybody plays like that, just keeping the ball, stopping the opposition getting a kick.
Osim ended his playing career with Strasbourg in 1978 and returned to Sarajevo to manage Željezničar. After leaving Yugoslavia in 1992, he coached Panathinaikos and Sturm Graz before moving to Japan in 2003. There he became manager of JEF United and, in 2006, was appointed to replace Zico as national manager. He became hugely popular, a book of his sayings selling almost half a million copies.
How strong would you say Japanese football is?
They have a lot of complexes and they are trying to heal these complexes. Unfortunately they are a really big nation but with a lot of complexes. They are not tall enough, and so you can't make a player look like Drogba or Crouch. You can't teach him to be two metres tall. They are not made from rubber so you can't stretch them to whatever you want. They have covered everything with full attention and they know they need that. They know everything they need, but they simply do not have that. They have an inferiority complex and also you can't buy tradition. In some ways they are the same as Arabic nations. They want to jump over something like the Arabs do. They want to buy the new stadium, buy the club, buy the coach, buy the tradition, and that simply can't be done.
Did you find it difficult to adapt?
The big problem for all coaches when they come to a different culture is that they want to copy what they left behind and that's not always possible. In Japan, you have to understand the way that they live their lives. There is always somebody above them and you always have to ask somebody because he always knows more than you. Their biggest problem is — and this was my feeling when I was working there — that there is no risk, there is no improvisation in Japan, and football can't exist without that. And also players were so afraid of the coaches that they didn't want to do anything on their own initiative. I had the feeling that players could go into the box, get in front of the goal and then stop and ask me what they should do: should I shoot at the goal or pass the ball away? On the other hand, it's very easy to work in Japan because the discipline is very strong. But maybe that isn't so good because it kills a coach. Inevitably you start to lose ideas and authority. You don't want to provoke crises, but you need problems so you can create solutions. The most important thing in Japan is to make them think with their own heads, not with somebody else's.
But they have some football qualities other nations don't have. They are very determined when they play, they have a lot of aggression and these are important things in today's football. But maybe they need a little more imagination. They need a big player, a big name on the pitch to drive them forward. They need contact with big clubs like Manchester United.
How does a player like Hidetoshi Nakata, a real superstar, fit the culture you describe?
If you don't have a player like him in the team then you have to invent him. All teams need a player like David Beckham or Ronaldo, players like this. You must have a player like that in your team. They feel a lot of pressure because they are really responsible people, responsible in terms of their nation, their flag, their country. Their biggest problem is that they are the country of samurai and kamikaze, and that is a difficult history to live up to.
Did you enjoy your time there?
I didn't have enough time to enjoy my life in Japan. My responsibilities were very, very big, so I didn't have time to enjoy the country and the people. I made special preparations for every practice because they had an enormous number of journalists. They want to know everything, every detail. Why this? Why that? So I made special preparations for that. I had to explain even the smallest details. Somehow you have the feeling you're being underestimated by them with those kind of questions. You get the feeling that you have been provoked by them. Questions like why is this player playing and the other one not playing. And these are things that are very hard to explain to them. Football is a complex game. When you talk to the players you can't always tell them exactly what you feel, because that's a question of their personality and their character. You have to be careful with that.
On one occasion Osim shouted so vehemently at a translator he felt wasn't expressing his anger that he made him cry.
Did you find it hard to get your ideas across when you had to use a translator?
The first thing you have to do is teach the translator to think like you, and that's a really hard task. You can't really, because he is also Japanese. That's a real danger of the job. And if somebody doesn't translate properly, that can be really dangerous. You can make a simple joke and somebody can take it as a provocation or an insult. That's why you have to be really careful and not say everything you feel. And you can't have the atmosphere in a dressing-room without jokes.
They say if you tell people what's on your mind you are crazy, but I've always had a problem saying what I don't feel. I always say automatically what's in my head. And that's not good in life and football always to say what's on your mind. You can't tell the players directly that they have played at a low level. You have to think through all the circumstances. And Japan is not easy because they are very proud people and when you say something that looks like criticism, they start to shake and to watch you with different eyes. But you can't go and work without criticising people. If you don't accept your mistakes you can't go forward. They have a problem with that, but that's how they act in Japan.
Do you think Japan can win the World Cup in the next 20-30 years?
The tradition, the history, the past they have… they have been a big world force in history. They have been rulers of Asia for years, and on that basis of their power, tradition, force, they have problems in football. And it's always buried somewhere, these factors. When I first arrived in Japan, I said to them that it would be a handicap for the World Cup to be without Japan because of the traditions. It's the same thing with England; a World Cup without England would be completely stupid. Japan is a big country, financially very wealthy, with a big tradition and history and it would be a handicap for the World Cup to be without Japan. They must be in the World Cup every time. It's a good thing for the World Cup to have a team like Japan with such a bright and long history and tradition. Maybe in a football way they maybe don't earn much by having Japan in the tournament, but in the other side it's a great plus. You get somebody who really, really likes football. It's a wealthy country, and a country that can always be relied on.
Can't you say the same of other countries?
It would be good also to have India, but the English made a historical mistake and left them cricket instead of football. I hope they choose football. They're a big market, them and China, but we have to wait for them. Things are moving rapidly in India. Money is the most important thing, of course, and they have money. They're moving very quickly, building the stadiums, making the teams, bringing in one good player to be the basis of the team.
You seem very disillusioned by modern football. Do you still like the game?
I can't say I don't have a passion for football. I was born and raised with football. I don't want to spoil my life because somebody today is earning more than I was when I was playing. Football is so much to me that when I don't have anything to do, I go to the playground and watch kids play football. Japanese journalists still call me to see what I think of games. It's still the group of players I chose when I was with Japan. Maybe they — coaches and journalists — send the DVDs to me to show me that I didn't do a good job… They let you think you are free, but day after day you have to think about what they are thinking. They [coaches and journalists] are here every 10 days.
And the modern game?
It's like when you play chess for money. When you play without money you just play, like Kasparov; when there is money on the table you are not so free. That's what we are seeing right now in the Champions League. You can see that they players are controlling each other and that they are scared of making mistakes and that's a sign that football has gone the wrong way. All tactics are the same just not to lose the game. Coaches are always afraid of losing their job and they pass that to their players and that is not the way to play. It's like some kind of disease. Everybody is afraid: coaches, fans, players, media, the chairman of the club.
Osim is 71 now, although as he shuffled across the stadium car-park in Zenica after Bosnia's 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Lithuania in October, he looked older. But he still goes to games, he still thinks about football, he still points out to anybody who might have forgotten that he twice turned down offers to manage Real Madrid. And when a journalist stopped him to ask what he had thought of the game, of a Bosnia side managed by a player who was once his captain for Yugoslavia, as the lights of a television camera lit up his soft pink face, the pale eyes shone with passion. The delivery may not have the force it once had but the wisdom is there, the energy laced with caution. Osim may talk about wanting to be free of football, but it is has sustained him all his life and it is still sustaining him now.