The Watchmaker of Travnik
After six decades in football, could Ćiro Blažević’s odyssey be coming to an end in China?
The press room in the headquarters of the Chinese Football Association is packed with journalists, cameramen and photographers, there to cover the official presentation of the new head coach of China's Olympic team. This time, instead of the usual pictures on such occasions — a new player or coach holding up a shirt or tracksuit-top, or a supporter's scarf — the star of the show is dressed in a traditional Chinese red silk jacket. As he poses for the cameras, he smiles and looks ten years younger than he really is. Those who know him know that the 74-year-old Miroslav Blažević feels at least thirty years younger.
Blažević's life is so full of ups and downs, triumphs and failures, unexpected twists and the downright bizarre that it reads like a novel. In fact there's not even a biography about him, nor an autobiography. A biography will be written, but only after Blažević's death, an agreement he has struck with a journalist from Split. It will tell a remarkable story.
Blažević — Ćiro, as he is almost universally known — was born on 10 February 1937 in the Bosnian town of Travnik. He always liked sport, but football was not his first love. As a youngster, rather, he was a Nordic skier, and was even Yugoslav youth champion. Later, he switched to football and played as a right-winger for Dinamo Zagreb, Sarajevo and Rijeka, all teams in the Yugoslav First Division, and for the Swiss side FC Sion, where a knee injury brought his career to a premature end. He decided to stay in Switzerland, and there he began his education as a coach.
Football at the time was not particularly well-paid, certainly not at Blažević's level, and so during his studies he took on a second job, working in a factory that made watches. He was a good, diligent worker, taking his place on the production line and being paid according to the number of watches assembled. Gradually, though, he became dissatisfied with his salary, and devised a way he could take boxes of parts home with him. There, along with a couple of work-mates, he made extra watches in his spare time. "I'm doing OK," he joked to friends. "I'm drawing five wages."
Back then, of course, he couldn't have dreamt he would one day become a successful coach who made serious money. Or perhaps, knowing Blažević, he did dream it, and planned the whole thing; he has always been a dreamer, an optimist who set about each new challenge with enthusiasm and vigour. One day in 1968, shortly after he'd begun working as a coach at Vevey, he swept out the dressing-room with a broom. Who knows why he did it? Perhaps the dirty floor annoyed him; maybe he was just bored. The cleaner, an old woman, saw him. "Why are you doing this?" she asked. "It's not your job. You are our head coach."
"Yes, I'm the head coach," Blažević replied, "and one day I will become national coach of Switzerland." The cleaner laughed. "Yes, of course," she said. "And one day, I will become Miss Switzerland." Blažević was right; the cleaner wasn't.
After Vevey, he moved on to Sion, where he worked for five years. It wasn't a hugely successful time. Sion were relegated in 1969 and promoted again the following season, and the only obvious sign of progress was in Blažević's French. He wasn't just learning the language, though; he was also learning about management, and in 1973 he was appointed coach at a struggling Lausanne Sports.
Blažević asked the club president how many people came to league games. Around 5000, he was told. "Soon, the stadium will be packed. You will see. We will have 15,000 per game," Blažević said.
"No chance," his boss replied.
"OK," Blažević replied. "If 15,000 fans turn up, I claim 10 percent of the income of ticket sales for the extra 10,000."
His disbelieving president happily agreed. Sure enough, Blažević's prediction came true, the Stade Olympique was soon packed, and the Swiss tabloid Blick took to calculating and printing Blažević's take after each home game. Lausanne didn't win any silverware, but Blažević gained a reputation as a charismatic and innovative coach. In one game, he even played his goalkeeper in attack. It was enough to persuade the Swiss FA to name him national coach, but after an unspectacular year in charge, Blažević returned to Yugoslavia, and it was there that he really began to experience success.
First he took Rijeka to a mid-table finish. Then he took over a Dinamo Zagreb side in decline and, pioneering a 3-5-2 formation and rejuvenating the squad with young players, he guided them to fifth. They became noted for their attacking style and, particularly, the furious way they started games. They beat Crvena Zvezda 3-0, with all the goals coming in the first 20 minutes, and, away to Hajduk Split, they stunned the 60,000 home fans with two quick goals, holding out to win 2-1. That laid the foundations and, the following season, 1981-82, Blažević led Dinamo to their first league title in 24 years. Blažević became noted for his 'lucky' white silk scarf, and with his gentlemanly approach he became a huge favourite of the fans. The following year, Dinamo missed out on the title to Partizan after a three-horse race that also involved Hajduk, but lifted the Yugoslav Cup.
Blažević was hugely popular among everybody but the club president, his strong personality and desire for control generating friction; his vision of the job was more like the English-style manager than the head coach's role he was asked to fulfil. By that third summer, his relationship with the club's directors had become unsustainable and he returned to Switzerland with Grasshoppers. He won the title in the first of two seasons there, after which followed a barren spell, as he wandered through Greece, Kosovo, Croatia and France, achieving nothing more than a promotion with Priština.
He returned to Dinamo for a third spell in 1990 and as tensions between Yugoslavia's component republics heightened, he became friendly with Dr Franjo Tudjman, the leading Croatian nationalist politician, joining his party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Eight years later, as Blažević led Croatia to third place at the World Cup, Tudjman came to watch the quarter-final victory over Germany. "Before the game I was looking at the tribune and I saw our president Franjo Tudjman," Blažević said. "He looked so small, standing right next to German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who looked massive. Later on, shortly before the final whistle, when we were 3-0 up, I looked up again to the tribune and I spotted Tudjman and Kohl. All of a sudden, Tudjman looked big, while Kohl looked much smaller."
Blažević won the league with Dinamo in 1993 and the Cup the following year, before becoming national manager. They qualified for Euro 96 as group winners — ahead of Italy — but stuttered to a 1-0 win over Turkey in their opening game, Goran Vlaović getting the goal with four minutes remaining. That prompted much criticism, which was eased when Croatia beat Denmark 3-0 in their second game. But Blažević rested players for the third game, against Portugal, and when Croatia lost 3-0, the media and fans attacked him again. It was suggested that he'd preferred to finish second so he could face Germany in the last eight, but if that was his plan it failed, as his side lost 2-1 to the team who would go on to win the tournament. In Croatia there was an outcry, and the Executive Committee of the Croatian Football Federation reached a decision to sack him. It was then that Tudjman intervened, and Blažević stayed on.
Croatia struggled through the qualifiers for the World Cup, drawing home games against Greece, Denmark and Slovenia, but they took second place in the group and beat Ukraine in a qualifier to secure their place in France. There, they beat Jamaica 3-1 and Japan 1-0, only to lose 1-0 to Argentina in their third game. This time Blažević fielded his strongest team, but there are still those who believe Croatia took it easy because they preferred to face Romania in the second round rather than England. If there was again a calculation, this time Blažević got it right, and Croatia beat Romania 1-0 to advance to the quarter-final. With Dinamo, he had had his lucky scarf; in France, his totem was a gendarme's cap which he wore in a series of photo-shoots.
That game against Germany, played on 4 July in Lyon, was perhaps the highlight of Blažević's career. The Germans started well, but that night the goalkeeper Dražen Ladić, an inconsistent presence, was inspired, and five minutes before half-time the German defender Christian Wörns was sent off for a foul on Davor Šuker. Robert Jarni struck in the final minute of the half, and late goals from Vlaović and Šuker completed a 3-0 win.
There was euphoria, and a huge amount of media attention, something that is to Blažević as water to a fish. Each day he gave dozens of interviews to journalists from all round the world, treating them to soft drinks and fruit and revelling in the fame and the glory. But Croatia lost 2-1 to the hosts France in the semi-final, and Blažević was blamed. Zvonimir Boban had told him at half-time that he couldn't go on, but Blažević refused to substitute him and, although Šuker put Croatia ahead two minutes into the second half, it was Boban who, a minute later, conceded possession allowing Lilian Thuram to equalise. Thuram scored again and Blažević was criticised for not making substitutions quickly enough, bringing on Robert Prosinečki only in the 89th minute. Still, after beating Holland in the third-and-fourth place play-off, Croatia were greeted back in Zagreb as heroes, with around 300,000 people turning out to welcome them home.
The luck that had been with Blažević in the World Cup, though, soon turned against him, most notably in their final game in Euro 2000 qualifying, against the rump Yugoslavia. Ladić conceded two bizarre goals in a 2-2 draw that left Croatia third in their group, behind Yugoslavia and the Republic of Ireland. Blažević kept his job, but not for long, his reign coming to an end after draws against Scotland and Belgium at the start of World Cup qualifying.
Blažević, though, was never a man to be still for long, and he soon took up an offer to coach Iran's national team. He led them to a play-off for World Cup qualification, but they lost 2-1 on aggregate to the Republic of Ireland.
He wandered on. He saved Osijek from relegation, and then returned for a fourth stint at Dinamo, where he won the league for a third time. Over the next five years, he drifted through a series of smaller clubs — Mura in Slovenia, Varteks and NK Zagreb in Croatia and Xamax in Switzerland — and endured a disastrous spell at Hajduk in 2005. It seemed the magic had gone, but in 2008 Blažević took charge of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He had, he said, come home. Against all expectation, they came second in qualifying behind Spain, finishing above Turkey and Belgium, whom they hammered twice. Two 1-0 defeats to Portugal in the play-off, though, denied him a farewell at another World Cup.
Yet you wonder if he'll ever stop. His relationship with the Bosnian Football Federation soured and he quit. Many thought he would retire, but a couple of months later, he was off to China, where he led a young Shanghai Shenhua team to fourth in the league. That persuaded the Chinese Football Association to make him manager of their Olympic squad, charged with qualifying them for the 2012 Olympics. Will it be his last job? It's best not to ask, because any suggestion of retirement sends him into a fury in which he insists he'll never stop. These days, though, there is a coda. "You know," he said, "when a swan dies, it lets out it loudest scream. Therefore, I am sure that this will be the crowning glory of my career."
Blažević divides opinion. There are those in Croatia who adore him and refer to him as 'Trener svih trenera' (the coach of all coaches), but there are those who say he is only a moderate manager and that he knows more about self-publicity than about football. The latter group always point out his biggest mistake, that he failed to recognise the potential of Prosinečki. He could have signed him for Dinamo in 1987 when he was 18, but let him go, saying "if he becomes a player, I'll eat my coaching diploma." Prosinečki, of course, then went to Crvena Zvezda, where he won the European Cup. They never had a great relationship, and eventually, after the 1998 World Cup, Prosinečki refused to play for Croatia as long as Blažević was national coach.
Most players, though, seem to have been able to able to deal with Blažević's eccentricities with a mix of bemusement and resignation. "Ćiro is a crazy guy, but positive, a positive crazy guy," Edin Džeko, a key member of his Bosnia side, said with a smile and a shake of the head. Slaven Bilić said that in 1998, Blažević "was everybody's father, a great motivator... He knows every day in his head 'Look, I'm going to make a small incident to wake everybody up a bit, and then I'm going to do this, then I'm going to tell them to go out to a nightclub.' Then at team-meetings he'd be talking about Estonia like it's fucking Brazil."
It was unorthodox and it might not have met with everybody's approval, but Blažević has been defying expectations for over four decades now. Whatever his method, it has brought trophies to major sides, and lifted lesser ones beyond their expectations. China is another challenge again, perhaps Blažević's last, but he is pursuing it with typical energy. Logically it should be his last job, but Blažević and logic have never had much in common.
Motivation, the Ćiro way
- If Blažević is not happy with the performance and attitude of his players, he can become very demonstrative in the dressing-room, and he was famous for his ability to fire players up with his pre-match team-talks. Once, with Dinamo Zagreb, before a crucial game against Vojvodina, he took the Rolex from his wrist and smashed it to the floor shouting, "I want you to crush them like this." The players, knowing Blažević's passion for expensive watches, were incredulous, and went out, fought like lions, and won the game. What they didn't know was that Blažević had swapped his original Rolex for a cheap imitation.
- During a training camp with Dinamo Zagreb, Blažević became frustrated by how much time his players were spending playing cards. One night he went into one of their hotel rooms and found a card-school in full swing. Furious, he seized all the money on the table, put it in his pockets and announced that the game was over. The next day, he approached a player who didn't play cards and wasn't especially prominent, and said, "Because of your exemplary performance in training, I have decided to award you with a special bonus." He then took the money — not a small amount — and handed it over.
- Blažević never drinks alcohol. When he was asked why not, he replied, "My father was a drinker. He drank so much, that it was enough for both his life and mine."
- During World Cup in 1998 one of the major players wanted to go from the training camp at Vittel to Paris, several hours away, to meet up with a girl with whom he was having an affair. He didn't want to sneak out, so he explained the situation to Blažević and asked for permission to spend the night in Paris. Blažević, who treated his players like sons, said, "No problem. You can go, but only on one condition: that my son drives you."
- After the 1998 World Cup, the goalkeeper Dražen Ladić decided to end his international career. Blažević tried to persuade him to change his mind, but Ladić — then 35 years old — insisted he didn't want to play on any longer for the national team. So, during their meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Zagreb, Blažević took out his mobile phone, dialed a number and, when he had a connection, passed the handset to Ladić. "Now tell him that you won't play any more for Croatia," Blažević said as Ladić realized he was speaking to the country's president, Franjo Tudjman. Ladić changed his mind and continued playing for the national team."
- During the 2002 World Cup, Blažević was in Japan working as a columnist for a leading Croatian daily newspaper. He had a close relationship with a journalist who helped him to write the stories. Shortly before Croatia's first game, Blažević and that journalist prepared until late in the night, thinking up questions for an interview with the national coach Mirko Jožić. The next morning, he woke up the journalist and asked him to join him for the interview, replacing a photographer who hadn't shown up. Unfortunately, Jožić couldn't stand that particular journalist and when he saw him, the coach turned to Blažević and said, "What the fuck is this guy is doing here?" Blažević replied, "I've no idea. He follows around me the whole day." Then Blažević turned to his friend, the journalist, and told him brusquely to "get out of here!"
- When I asked Blažević of his impressions of his official presentation as new head coach of China's Olympic team, he replied, "It was great. Everybody treats me so nicely here. Everybody treats me as if I'm Maradona." Then he paused and added, "Actually, I'm a little bit more than Maradona."