Smart, confident and ambitious – Bilic is no wally in Croatia's dugout
Slaven Bilic, Steve McClaren's nemesis, has a plan. See off England again, impress at the 2010 World Cup – then take a big job in club management, writes Jason Burt in Zagreb
To West Ham and Newcastle United a thank you – from the Croatian nation, the football team and their sparky coach, Slaven Bilic. "It can only help me and my team when I read that some English clubs are interested in me," Bilic said yesterday.
"It can only help my confidence and morale." Given both are, according to the man who has already turned down opportunities to manage Fulham and Hamburg, already "sky-high" then goodness knows what levels they are now touching as Bilic and his team prepare to take on England here tonight.
If he had wished, Bilic could, in all probability, be celebrating his 40th birthday tomorrow by becoming a Premier League manager. Instead he has set his sights higher – it is the Champions League and a team of the stature of Liverpool and Chelsea that attract him. But first there is a World Cup campaign. His plan is simple – unless something drastic happens in the meantime – and he wants to dominate England again before leading Croatia to South Africa in 2010. Then he can move on with, hopefully, those big clubs after him.
"All I can say is that I'm staying as Croatia manager for the next two years," Bilic said. "I said that last May [when he signed a new two-year contract] and that's it. In football you never know, but my plan, although in football there are no long-term plans, is to finish the job with Croatia."
Finishing it would constitute going further than Croatia did in Euro 2008 where, for all the strength and vibrancy of their football, there was the lingering sense that, actually, they underachieved in being dumped out at the quarter-final stage by Turkey on penalties. Privately, Bilic felt the competition was theirs for the taking.
He feels the same about Group Six. While England have a new manager – and one Bilic has clear respect for – they have, to his mind, still got the same players, same system and, maybe, the same mindset. "I wouldn't say that England's confidence is low because before every game they are like three lions," Bilic said. "It's hard for me to say why they don't perform sometimes. I can't see the situation in their heads. But these players are big enough that they can definitely lift themselves up individually and as a team, whoever the manager is."
The sense is that Bilic's belief has helped shape his own side, however. His route to becoming coach was rapid. After a career as an uncompromising defender with Hajduk Split, Karlsruher SC, West Ham and Everton, winning 44 caps along the way, he became a shareholder in Hajduk in 2000 along with his friends and former team-mates Aljosa Asanovic (who works with him now as an assistant coach), Igor Stimac and Alen Boksic. Bilic soon took charge of the team, partly because there was nobody else.
It was no surprise that this chain-smoking, bag of energy became, he admitted, hooked on the "adrenalin". Interestingly, and another sign of both Bilic's plan and his self-belief, he visited coaches such as Marcello Lippi at Juventus and Arsène Wenger at Arsenal – not to gain ideas but to have it confirmed in his own mind that he was already on the right track.
After Euro 2004 the Croatia Football Association asked whether he wanted to be the Under-21 coach and then, following the country's disappointing performance at the 2006 World Cup finals, he was promoted to the senior side and took key players such as Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka and Eduardo da Silva with him.
There was also an immediate glimpse of his tough streak. Ahead of his first competitive fixture against Russia in the opening qualifier for Euro 2008, Darijo Srna, Ivica Olic and Bosko Balaban visited a Zagreb nightclub. All three were thrown out of the squad and Croatia gained a 0-0 draw in Moscow. Not that Bilic held grudges. The players were later reinstated but now knew their place.
That has since risen, not least in the Fifa rankings, steadily under Bilic. "We are always under pressure," he said of the levels of expectation that he has helped to create. "We don't run from pressure. We don't run away from it. The Croatian national team are under new pressure. If we want to be No 5 in the world or if you want to compete with the best or qualify for the World Cup, then you have to cope with the pressure."
Part of that, he said, is to be bold. "Like any other country we could choose four defensive players in midfield but we can be more brave and fortunately we have the players who are good enough at this level on every part of the pitch," Bilic said. "We are favourites for this game. It reminds me of the European Cup final in 1994. Barcelona against Milan. Barcelona had [Johan] Cruyff, Romario, [Hristo] Stoichkov. And [Fabio] Capello was in charge of Milan. Everyone was saying that Barcelona were going to win and Milan killed them 4-0. Barcelona gave the appearance it was easy, but we would never give that appearance. We are full of respect but we are very confident, of course."
Playing for Milan that night in Athens was Zvonimir Boban, Bilic's Croatia team-mate, while another, Davor Suker played for Capello at Real Madrid. He should be well-versed in the Italian's ways. "I don't know what he is going to do," Bilic said somewhat unconvincingly. But he is sure what his own plan is. "We know what we have to do and we are good enough," he added. "We are much better. We have better players, we are better as a team because we have trained more. Before Zagreb [two years ago when Croatia beat England 2-0] we had been together for 20 or 30 coaching sessions. Now we have had 150."
For the past few days, following the comfortable 3-0 victory over Kazakhstan, these sessions have taken place in a secluded retreat across the border in Slovenia. There Bilic, who claimed not to have spoken to anyone "from England" about taking a club job, has observed the goings on and speculation surrounding. "We are enjoying our stay here," he said. And he expects to enjoy this evening.
Handball kings and beauty queens: The lowdown on Croatia
* The food on the Adriatic coast is largely influenced by Italy, where fish and soups are prominent in the diet. The mainland around Zagreb is more Austrian/Hungarian-oriented and meaty stews are popular. Cheese and wine are just as regionally influenced, including sheep's cheese from the island of Pag.
* Apart from football, popular sports include handball and water polo, at both of which Croatia are the current world champions. Ivano Balic, widely considered the best handballer in the world, hails from Croatia, and Zagreb's HAVK Mladost were voted the best water polo team of the 20th century.
* The current Miss Universe, Snjezana Loncarevic, comes from Slavonia, a region of eastern Croatia.
* The capital of Croatia is Zagreb, where 800,000 of the country's 4.5 million population live.
* The country declared independence in 1991, having previously been part of Yugoslavia.