The Professor of Mostar
Sulejman Rebac never won a trophy as a manager, but 35 years after his retirement, his influence continues to be felt across Europe
There are two ways a coach can become part of legend. The less difficult way is obvious even to those unfamiliar with football: to have great results. No matter his nature, winning matches and trophies will lift a coach into football's pantheon. That is the path most choose.
The road less travelled, the tougher path, is to create great players and new generations, to have an eye on the future even when the present is at its most fraught. It is a path not many are prepared to take, chosen only by those who truly love football and everything about it, by those who are not afraid of innovation and who are willing to risk the result for the joy of the game. One of that special breed was Sulejman Rebac, coach of the small Bosnia-Herzegovinian club Velež of Mostar between 1968 and 1976, and one of the five members of the coaching commission that led the Yugoslav national team during the World Cup in West Germany in 1974.
Rebac was born on 29 March 1928 in Mostar, and learnt his football on the streets. He showed early promise, but any thought of a career in the sport was interrupted by the war, and he joined the Partisans, the guerrilla units that fought Nazi occupation, as a 14 year old. He was recognised as a war hero, but lost three brothers in the conflict. He disliked talking about his experiences in the war, but those who knew him said it made him not only a stronger man, but also taught him the importance of enjoying life, with football an integral part of that.
"He was the biggest joker of anybody I knew," said the great Hajduk Split player Vladimir Schönauer, a noted bon viveur. "He loved life; that says everything about him. He was a great singer. At first it was Bosnian evdalinke [a traditional folk music of Bosnia and Herzegovina], but later on he learned the most famous Dalmatian songs and Italian canzone. Once in Turkey, he and Nikola Radović [another Hajduk great], who was an excellent flute player, entertained guests from ten in the evening until dawn. Nikola played, Sula [as Rebac was nicknamed] sang. Another time after we'd beaten Partizan in Split — we'd played a great game –Rebac ordered a horse-drawn carriage to wait for him at the entrance to the House of Hajduk [a coffee house where the players spent most of their spare time]. On the front seat there was the carriage driver and an accordion player and on the back seat Sulejman Rebac who was singing. The Split locals loved it. Can you imagine that?"
He never made the national side, but Rebac played over 1000 games in a career that took him from Velež to Hajduk, where he won the Yugoslav title, and finally to FK Sarajevo. "He was a great player, and an even greater bohemian," said the former Velež forward Marijan Kvesić, the current chair of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Olympic Committee. "He joined in every song and every drink every night. That's why he was a legend of Mostar and Split, of smaller areas, but he didn't have the career of which he was capable. Maybe that's why he was such a good coach. He was a friend to all of the players, but he was a tutor as well. He knew each and every move on the pitch and off it in advance."
During Rebac's playing career and beyond, Yugoslav football was dominated by the big four — Partizan, Crvena Zvezda, Dinamo and Hajduk — who between them won every league title from the end of the Second World War to 1965. They were by far the strongest sides and had the political and financial muscle to sign anybody who showed promise, while being protected from overseas predators by the rule that prevented any player leaving Yugoslavia until the age of 28. Anybody with ambition had to join one of the Big Four and essentially it became the role of the smaller clubs to generate talent for those teams.
That was Rebac's task when he was appointed as youth coach at Velež. He spent his days on the streets of Mostar, watching boys kicking balls about on the asphalt, analysing their abilities and working out how they could be incorporated into a team. He found real talent, and began recruiting players and offering them a football education. Up to 1968, Velež had played 14 seasons in the Yugoslav top-flight, but had finished no higher than third. Even that, given their status, was an achievement of note. They had no power in the market, and their best players would simply leave for one of the Big Four, as Rebac himself had done. Previously the tendency had been for the club to rely on coaches from the major footballing centres, but Rebac had impressed with his youth team, and became only the second Mostar-born coach to take charge of Velež.
Those earlier coaches had kept Velež in the top flight by packing the team with experienced players. Rebac's approach was rather different, and he began to promote the players he had discovered on the streets, and to sign youngsters from other local clubs. In the first crop were the forward Dušan Bajević and the goalkeeper Enver Marić. Later came Franjo Vladić, one of the greatest virtuosos in Yugoslav football, who scored on his debut for Yugoslavia against England at Wembley in 1972, the goal set up by Bajević.
Results in the first two years were average, but Rebac stayed true to his vision of creating the greatest generation Velež had known. They began the 1969-70 season as outsiders, but they soon established a reputation for playing the most beautiful football in Yugoslavia. Bajević, Marić and Vladić formed the spine, becoming known as the BMV, a reference to the fact that the BMW was the car of choice for political leaders and celebrities at the time. Marko Čolić added aggression and a goal threat on the right side of midfield, his long-range shooting so feared that it was joked he didn't have to travel with the team to away games because he could score from Mostar. That season Bajević finished as joint top-scorer in the Yugoslav league; Vladić was a classical playmaker, the sort of player, as the Yugoslav phrase has it, whose passes had eyes; while Marić proved himself one of the best goalkeepers in Europe.
Velež finished third, but Rebac carried on recruiting. In came, among others, the left-sided defender Aleksandar Ristić and the centre-half Boro Primorac. Velež finished only eighth, then sixth, but there was a slow sense of progress being made. "Rebac was a pioneer of modern football in Yugoslavia," said Tomislav Ivić, who won three titles as coach of Hajduk, and picked up further honours in the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, Spain and France. "Before him our game was old-fashioned, cautious, aimed at avoiding conceding goals especially when small teams played against one of the Big Four. Rebac refused to acknowledge that style. He ensured his team had authority with the ball or without it. He had them press the opponent when out of possession and demanded a rapid transition from defence to attack. He imposed a fast game, and wanted simply to score more than the opposition, which is what made Velež a favourite team across the country. Back then the stadiums were crowded with people going to enjoy the way Velež played. I remember people from Split going to see Velež play, even though we were higher in the table. They were beautiful on the eye. I remember we went there as champions and lost 5-0: that was the Velež of Sulejman Rebac."
In came the right-back Džemal Hadžiabdić and the forward Vahid Halilhodžić, and the team was complete. It was never, though, quite fulfilled, finishing as runners-up behind Crvena Zvezda in 1973 and then losing out on goal-difference to Hajduk in 1974. "We'd go to Split, Zagreb or Belgrade and fill the net of Partizan or Hajduk, we'd crush Red Star or Dinamo," Marić explained. "Then we'd play a weak team like Radnički Kragujevac or Sloboda Tuzla and we'd drop points. We were motivated by great opponents, but we shut down against small ones. That's why we never won the league."
Rebac's football made its mark in Europe as well, most notably in 1973-74, when they eliminated Spartak Moscow and Rapid Vienna to set up a tie against Derby County in the third round of the Uefa Cup. "Tonight's Uefa Cup visitors Velež Mostar are the homespun club of Yugoslav football," explained Derby's programme, capturing the spirit of the club perfectly. "Nobody in the picturesque and historical town of Mostar remembers the last time the club went into the transfer market. The whole of the Board of Directors, manager Sulejman Rebac, and the entire squad of players, with the exception of two who came as juniors from other clubs, are from the Mostar Region. This is the reason why everyone in the area regards Velež as 'their' team. It's the club they all love, and live for." On a rain-sodden pitch at the Baseball Ground, they lost 3-1, but struck back in Mostar, winning 4-1 in front of a crowd of 30,000, almost half the population of the city. Twente put them out 2-1 in the quarter-final.
"Rebac had already made some revolutionary tactical moves, which we all admired," Halilhodžić said. "He never suffocated us, didn't put too many restrictions on what we could do when we had the ball. He only demanded discipline. Rebac was an innovator. He was the first to use 4-2-4 in Yugoslavia, even from the late 60s. It was unknown here, but he developed the system according to the abilities of the team. When I arrived, we played true total football, which Ajax and the Dutch had used to conquer the Europe. Our transformation from defence to attack was the best; we would walk over opponents. We played 4-2-4 in attack, and transformed quickly to 4-3-3 in defence and vice-versa."
Brilliant as their football was, though, the failure to win silverware gnawed at Rebac, as he admitted shortly before his death in November 2006. "I'll never get over the fact that I didn't become the Yugoslav champion with that team," he said. "It was a brilliant generation; I dare to say the best one of the time and it is a real misfortune that we did not make it. We had fantastic players, fantastic spirit, but we simply had no luck. That is the way of football." Velež finished fifth in 1975 and, despite the emergence of Blaž Slišković, one of the greatest dribblers Yugoslav football has known, ninth a year later, after which Rebac retired without a trophy to his name. He had offers from clubs at home and abroad, but he knew no side could ever mean as much to him as his Velež.
His legacy, though, was arguably even more important than titles: his squad became an extraordinary generation of coaches, winning dozens of titles across the world. "He was a teacher to everybody, a mentor and a role model," said Bajević, who was probably Rebac's true heir. "He was a man we learned from, first of all how to be good men, then how to be good players and friends, how to be teachers and finally coaches. He was a great coach, and even a greater man." Bajević won eight Greek league titles — four with AEK Athens and four with Olympiakos — in a career that yielded 16 trophies, including the 1986 Yugoslav Cup with Velež.
Ristić served as caretaker at SV Hamburg for six months and as assistant coach there lifted the European Cup, before a stint at Schalke 04 and three spells at Fortuna Düsseldorf in which he became a legend there, leading them to their best finish in three decades. Primorac was a coach of Cannes and Valenciennes, and as an assistant coach to Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, he has won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups playing a style similar to that employed by Rebac at Velež.
Dragan Okuka won the Yugoslav title with Obilić and a Polish title with Legia Warsaw. Marić led Velež in the late eighties and took them to second in the championship, then moved to Fortuna Düsseldorf before becoming one of Europe's foremost goalkeeping coaches. Colić served as assistant to Miloš Milutinović as Velež won the Cup and also worked with Bajević both in Mostar and in Greece. Hadžiabdić led the Qatar national team (as well as working as development officer at Swansea City). Blaž Slišković, in a peripatetic career, was sacked with Hajduk top of the league and led the Bosnia national team to within two points of qualification for Euro 2004.
Then there is Halilhodžić, probably the most active of that generation of coaches today. He took Lille from the third division into the Champions League, won an African Champions League with Raja Casablanca and a French Cup with Paris St-Germain."I never thought I would do a coaching job, but when I think about it today, Sulejman had a great impact on me," he said. "He is the coach I value the most and from whom I learned a lot about work."
He may never have won a trophy, but Rebac created a generation who took his ideas to the world, and won the silverware that was denied to him. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, he is known simply as 'the Professor'; he followed the path of principle, and his legacy lives on.