Thursday, 25 June 2015

Obiang The Dancing Bear

It was on a derelict scrub of land in the middle of a housing estate that the young Pedro Mba Obiang Avomo first caught the eye. "He was fourteen years of age and playing in the Alcalá de Henares youth team, his local amateur side in a town about 30 kilometers from Madrid," remembers noted Fifa agent Giovanni Fiore. Scouting for Sampdoria at the time, Fiore sent word back to his Genovese paymasters that he had witnessed a 'dancing bear'; that rare combination of imposing physicality and mesmeric technical skill. "Even at that age he was head and shoulders above all his companions," says Fiore. "He had a great ease of movement and it seemed that he could do the more complicated things without much effort. Then there was his personality. He was already the undisputed reference point of the entire team; a leader his team-mates would always seek out in open play, at free kicks and with corners." As yet blissfully unaware of the burgeoning interest being shown, Obiang- known more familiarly by his nickname Perico (a type of parrot)- has a slightly different recollection of those formative years. "I have strong memories of my early days," he says. "From about the age of twelve I was continually overlooked by the big teams; there were a lot of doors slammed on me." It would be a further two years after Fiore's initial report before the Serie A club with a fast growing reputation as the benchmark for clubs plundering La Liga youth academies would make their move. In that time Obiang had finally attracted the interest of Atletico Madrid, enrolling with the Cadetes despite some initial family reservations. "My father only agreed," admits Obiang, "because he knew it was always my ambition to play for Real Madrid." A tentative step closer to what was still a distant dream but still struggling to make an impression, the young Perico was about to get a break. "When I arrived at Atletico I started as a striker," he explains. "But one of the midfielders got injured and the coach tried me there. Since that day, it became my position. I hated it, and I'm still hating (laughs) but they say I can't change."

August 4, 2008 was the date Obiang insists changed his life. Sampdoria Sporting Director Beppe Marotta and trusted lieutenant Fabio Paratici, responsible for a scouting network that is the envy of Europe, came calling. The pair have worked together for a number of years and although now deploying their collective magic at Juventus, had recently been responsible for, among others, snatching a young Roberto Soriano away from Bayern Munich and Mauro Icardi out of Barcelona. Not that Obiang would use the word 'snatch' in his case. "I would say I was almost discarded," he corrects when he considering the desultory transfer fee of €130,000 the Blucerchiati were asked to pay. "Sampdoria offered me a professional contract," says Obiang, "but also a detailed football project specifically for me." It was, he says, far more than just vague promises and was enough to convince both him and his parents that his style of play was better suited to Italian football than it ever would be in La Liga. Still, at just sixteen- the minimum age that an international transfer within the European Union is allowed- the decision by a young footballer to seek his fortune in another country is a momentous one. "It is actually quite widespread, maybe not in Spain, but in the world," says Obiang. "We tend to think that a home-grown player will have more patience to try and break through, but it is very frustrating when someone from outside will take your chance. It is also true that the player who is bought in has a different value to the club. Besides, in Spain there is far more competition at the younger level than there is in Italy, even if in Italy there is maybe a greater fear of throwing youngsters into the first team."

Life in Genoa was initially hard and the city, in Obiang's own words, was not 'an easy fit'. By his estimation it is a place to be admired rather than enjoyed and the first impression is one of remoteness. "It is created and designed more for its citizens than for tourists," thinks the Spaniard, who lists architectural study as one of his keen interests. In fact, he adds pointedly, it has one of the oldest populations in Europe. "The first trip I made was with my manager, Jose Miguel Gonzalez, and my father to see the facilities and to find out about the sports project," he recalls. "The second trip I did alone. I started living in the residence of Vila Flora with the other youth players and it was quite difficult as it would be for any child who leaves their home and changes country. At first I despaired at not understanding the language. Within two months I said to Jose, 'I want to come back, the Italians speak very fast, and the training runs are long here' (laughs). Then I began to better assimilate the tactical concepts and make friends in the locker room and I began to relax."

Although he arrived as an intended member of the 'Allievi Nazionali' youth squad, in the August of 2008 Obiang was immediately thrown in with the first team for pre-season training. By late January of the following year coach Walter Mazzarri had included him as an unused sub in games against both Lazio and Chievo. The next season, with Mazarri now departed, brought promotion to the Primavera, or reserve squad. Obiang says he was learning quickly but there were some aspects that he initially found difficult. "It was physically and especially tactical," he admits. "At first I tended to 'exaggerate' everything with elaborate flourishes, as is encouraged in Spanish football. In Italy there is very little room for such things. I also suffered a lot of blows and endured much contact. I thought 'you can not give me so many kicks'. Tactically, coaches like you to hold your position, to keep things simple, no heels or tunnels. They removed these things very quickly from my game and when I adapted, I started playing more." While still technically a youth player Obiang would go on to make 7 preseason appearances in the summer of the 2010-11 season, scoring 2 goals. His full debut would follow that September after an injury crisis ripped through the Sampdoria first team. Called off the bench to replace Vladimir Koman by new coach Domenico Di Carlo, and with his side trailing Juventus 2-1, Obiang helped his team to a credible 3-3 draw in the Stadio Olimpico di Torino. On the morning of the game he had put pen to paper on a new 5-year deal. A few months later Obiang made his European bow in a 0-2 Europa League defeat to Hungarian side Debreceni. Although disappointing on the night, it would be the start of what has become an enduring fascination for the travel-loving Spaniard. "I love doing it [European competition] because I consider myself a citizen of the world," enthuses Obiang. "To know and to discover irresistible temptations." It is also the reason he has become a self-confessed 'slave' to the Internet. "It opens the mind and satisfies my curiosity," he says, before revealing that for a recent birthday his friends gave him a computer. Surprisingly for someone known as 'Perico' to his friends he says he is not that inclined to tweet; preferring as he does to communicate with people face-to-face.

Although never establishing himself as a regular in a season that would ultimately end in the pain of relegation for Sampdoria, Obiang's education on and off the pitch was continuing apace. "The Italian practice sessions for the first team are done through repetitions," reveals Obiang. "There are sessions where we would work the same concept for an hour; sometimes it can be an hour video study." It is an idea referred to as 'Omni Particulare Cure' and is centred on preparation through obsessive attention to detail. "When you face a technically superior team," he says, "you have to be superior on a tactical and physical level." Obiang also describes with wonderment the 'thrill' of finding himself lining up next to Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini for the precious few months before they would depart. "I already knew about Antonio from his time at Madrid when I was living there," he states. "When I trained with him, I felt nervous but I also had the desire to want to prove myself." Cassano could be a little 'fussy' always wanting the ball played to his feet, Obiang explains with a smile, but insists all the veterans gave him confidence. "Even though he was very serious during training, at the end Cassano always had a joke and time to talk with me."

That April Obiang, who also holds Equatoguinean passport, earned a Spanish Under 20 call-up for Porto International Tournament. Despite the fact he never made it onto the field it only served to intensify a tug of war between the two countries that has yet to be definitively settled. After all, if Obiang has always identified himself as Spanish (having also represented the country at Under 17, Under 19 and Under 21) things can still get a little complicated when your uncle- Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo- is an African dictator. Once described as 'worse than Mugabe', the man who routinely refers to himself as El Jefe (the boss) is now the world's third longest-ruling non-royal head of state since he ousted his own uncle (Francisco Macias) in a military coup in 1979. Accused of unlawful killings, government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture, corruption, embezzlement and cannibalism, Obiang is understandably cautious when discussing the subject. "I spoke to him only once, when I first said no to the national team," he says. "I know of his life, but I do not judge. In Guinea, when we speak of family we really mean tribe; it is very different from in Italy or Spain. I have two uncles from my mother's side, and on my father's side they are in double figures." He says that he once asked his father to make a list of all his family members and it was 'so long' that most of the names on it he has never met. Obiang also has a cousin, Ruslan, who is 'Secretary of State and Sport' in the African country with direct influence on national team selection. He says he was last approached by the the Guinean Football Federation prior to their hosting of the 2012 edition of the African Cup of Nations, but declined their entreaties on the grounds he could never agree to play for a country on whose land he has never set foot. "Once my parents migrated, they made the decision to never return there before my coming of age," he states. "They still would never leave me alone, even when I was in Italy. Only now, after 25 years, have they returned to visit the country."

Young Pedro remains the only one of his siblings yet to take the trip to Akam-Esandom, the region where his father was born. "Before they would put more pressure on me," he smiles, "but since they see that things are going well for me in football they understand things differently. They know that I travel a lot and need to focus." Part of his ambivalence can be explained thus: "There are things that scare me a little. I see it in pictures, but I only know the things that I have been told. I want to live my own experience, because not everything is always as advertised. Right now, I could go and not know if I would enjoy it. I'm waiting for the right moment, when I have a longer vacation. I wanted to go last summer, but had to cut short my break because of fitness issues." All of which is to suggest Obiang has not fully turned his back on 'his roots'. Recently, he reveals, he got a call from current Equatorial Guinea coach Andoni Goikoetxea, the legendary 'Butcher of Bilbao'. "He spoke to me again about the project," says Obiang, "but I told him we should talk later because my club were in a negative run at the time and I needed to stay focused. To address such an issue requires a lot of quiet thought but I guess I will need to decide soon." There is, of course, a third option available to Obiang. "Never, even if in theory I could play for the Italian national team," he laughs. "I like to defend the causes I believe in. If I chose the blue shirt, it would be like a betrayal."

Obiang would get a chance to fight for Sampdoria's promotion cause in the 2011-12 season following the club's ignominious fall from grace. With several of the big names- including Cassano and Pazzini- jumping ship, new manager Gianluca Atzori was forced to put his faith in young recruits and academy players. The team struggled initially but following yet another change of coach late in the year finally scraped into the playoffs with a sixth place finish. Obiang made a total of 33 league appearances during the campaign, mostly in a purely defensive midfield capacity, and then shone as the team went on an unexpected run through the promotion deciders that saw them upset both Sassuolo and Varese to return to the top flight after just a year. "I had always believed that sooner or later I would play a leading role for a club at the highest level," states Obiang. The following season he was at the heart of Sampdoria's first survival season back in Serie A; his consistently solid performances in the centre of midfield allowing the more creative players such as Andrea Poli and Icardi the freedom to work their magic. Now established as a key player in the side, his form over 34 league appearances would attract the attentions of some of Europe’s top clubs; Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City reportedly among those showing interest. "Sampdoria was the ideal club for me to mature and develop my skills," says Obiang when he thinks about the teams rumoured to be looking at him at that time. "But then I also think that dreaming about joining a top club in the future is natural and inevitable." Further evidence of his growing profile was a poll conducted at the end of that 2012-13 season by Inside Spanish Football naming Obiang among their top 15 Spanish youngsters.

As befits a player who started out as a striker, Obiang says that before he came to Italy he was a far more offensive player. Now he had developed into the player he was always meant to be. "I have become a mixture because I had learned a lot of defensive work," he says. "Clearly, I like to get into the penalty area, but now my role is more defensive." Where once he would regularly cite the 'innate elegance' of Zidane as is role-model, now his points of reference are Marcos Senna and Sergio Busquets; to Obiang's eyes the quintessential modern midfielders because they make everything easier through good positioning. "I also love Pirlo because he doesn't just play in front of the defense," he says. "In Italy that player can also control the whole game." For similar reasons he names Xabi Alonso as the player he most admires at the moment. Along with Cruyff and Guti he is the inspiration for why he likes to wear the number 14 on his back. That said, Sam Fribbins, writing for Transfer News Central, thinks there is perhaps an even more apposite comparison to be made with Manchester City's Yaya Touré. "Obiang possesses great stamina and energy enabling him to get around the pitch with ease, especially as a box-to-box midfielder," notes Fribbins. "At the height of 6”2, Obiang can be easily compared to a player such as Touré, since their roles are also fairly similar and both have strong builds, therefore making it hard for any player to push them off the ball." Though larger players, neither are necessarily slow, he observes, and this enables them to make meaningful runs from their own half and well into the opposition’s half. Another similar trait is a great passing ability, ranging from little 'one-two’s' to the more optimistic medium to long-range passes. This is one reason why the Spanish youth setup regularly employed Obiang as a deep-lying playmaker during his time with the team, since he possesses a good passing ability, as well as being able to closely dribble with the ball. "As well as all this," concludes Fribbins, "Obiang has good tackling ability, again making him a dependable option as a box-to-box player. He is known for his terrific work rate, which is a key attribute for any central midfielder to have. Moreover, his natural fitness is of the highest quality, without sustaining any major injuries throughout his professional career to date."

That latter point would be called into question during the following 2013-14 season when a lingering hernia injury meant Obiang would only feature 27 times. During a stuttering campaign which saw Sampdoria struggling to keep their heads above the relegation places, the Spaniard's meteoric rise temporarily faltered. That November, however, would see the arrival of new manager Siniša Mihajlović; the man credited with putting both the club and player back on track. "Mihajlović kept us under strict control, but it depended on how you reacted to him," reveals Obiang. "In some periods he was serious, and at other times very open." If the midfielder has one criticism of a man he credits as a great influence on his career then maybe, he says, "he takes things too much to heart" before acknowledging "but with him we got great results." The list of people who have played an important part in Obiang's journey is a long one. "The first was my discoverer, Antonio Lozano," he states. "Along with my agent, Jose Miguel, he never let me give up on football. Then I went to Atletico. Felice Tufano also, my first coach in Italy with the youth team. They are the ones who have given me a harder psychological mentality. They were very insistent that you had practiced fully and was always learning. After this the physical training troubled me far less. Now I realize that this is a requirement if you are going to be able to handle the pressure of modern football. Nor do I forget Domenico Di Carlo, who gave me my debut." Aside from Mandela and Obama, who Obiang calls his idols, the rest are what he calls his 'family'. "I need to thank the strength of my mother who convinced me to leave Madrid; the courage of my father the traveler and immigrant; the joy of my sister, who occasionally comes to visit and brings a breath of fresh Spanish air. There is also Samuel Eto'o, symbol of Africa, and then [Alfred] Duncan, [Afriyie] Acquah and [Stefano] Okaka. We feel and treat each other as brothers."

Obiang and his brothers would all play their part in what was to be a momentous return to form for the Blucerchiati in 2014-15. Far from the best set of individuals in the league, their industrious, combative style of play turned them into one of the best teams as they finished an impressive seventh. "It's Samp's level of self-sacrifice and defensive organisation that has been the most impressive aspect of their game," noted Sports Blog Nation's Jack Sargeant. "Unsurprisingly, Mihajlović emphasised rapid counter-attacks, and urged his team to get the ball forward as soon as they won it back. It was not always pretty, and it lead to them giving the ball away more often than more patient sides, but its success was undeniable." Then there was the fastidious level of training involved. Taking 'Omni Particulare Cure' to extremes, one report from a training session last season tells how the reserves were called upon to replicate Roma's 4-3-3 formation, and for almost an hour the first team practiced winning it back and instantly triggering a counter attack. "There's no doubting that Mihajlović is an excellent tactician," observed Sargeant. "However, it's not just on the field that the Serb impressed - his press calls continuously provided entertainment. In his introductory press conference, he borrowed heavily from speeches by John F. Kennedy, describing him as "a man whose ideas and words continue to make us dream." He said he'd ask his players "not what Sampdoria can do for them, but what they can do for Sampdoria." A few months later, ahead of a game against Atalanta, he began quoting Dante's epic poem Divine Comedy, urging his players to "push past the Pillars of Hercules." He added that when he arrived at the club, "we were in hell, now we are in purgatory and I want to reach paradise." However, he saved his best literary reference for Samp's trip to Verona, when, in true Shakespearean style, he threatened to "knock Juliet down from the balcony."

The idiosyncratic approach clearly worked for Obiang, whose game over 34 impressive appearances visibly improved again. "He remains neat in possession and loves to get forward, making runs from deep with or without the ball," wrote Unibet's Adam Digby, but now he has added an increased goal threat. According to statistics from, Obiang averaged 3.1 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game, the former mark (153) bettered by only four players in Serie A. That compares favourably to the likes of Song (2.6), Mark Noble (1.9) and Cheikhou Kouyate (1.8) last season, while Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic, for example, only averaged 2.8 successful tackles per 90 minutes. He also had an impressive 82.2 per cent pass completion rate. "Obiang was often deployed to man-mark a visiting playmaker, sticking to the task diligently and showing a good awareness of the game going on around him," notes Digby. "Long shots at both ends have become something of a trademark, the Alcalá native unafraid to either throw himself in the path of an opposition attempt or unleash a powerful effort of his own." At a point when Spain is still in the grip of the tiki-taka generation of shorter and more agile midfielders, Obiang thinks it is an advantage that he clearly provides another option. "Since I've been away from Spain I feel that I can bring something different," he says. "I have a special mark. My brand is the tactical and physical aspect. In Italy the ball goes faster, so tactically the players are better positioned and apply more pressure so I had to work hard to master that facet." Yet if Obiang had learned to add that physical approach to the neat passing he had learned in the Spanish capital then it is clear that he had not forgotten those lessons, as his delightful through ball to Mauro Icardi for a winning goal against Juventus showed. Then there was the composure and man marking skills displayed against AC Milan, specifically the way he effectively neutralized the threat of Boateng and Montolivo; or the long range effort against Inter Milan that Samir Handanovic somehow parried away from the goal.

Although he clearly blossomed under the guidance of Mihajlović, notes Digby, there was still a hint of a spat between the two men last season; Obiang gaining notoriety for kicking over a water cooler on the touchline after being substituted during a loss to Lazio. "I’m happy because he was angry with the team’s performance and not the substitution," the Serbian said at the time. "It’s pointless being angry afterwards, as you need to use that fire on the field." In fact, so great is the respect between the two that Obiang became the first black player to ever be named vice captain at the Genoa club. "My responsibilities remained the same," states the Spaniard. "Us younger players must always show that we are ready to take the next step." It was, nonetheless, an important symbolic gesture in a country where acts of discrimination remain an everyday occurrence. Take for example the recent comments by former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi that there are 'too many black players' at youth level in Italy and that it is evidence that the nation is now 'without dignity or pride'. "I challenge racism," insists Obiang, "but I can also agree with what he said if the criticism is not about skin color, but vocational training. I grew up in football in Italy, did years of school there, enrolled at the University of Genoa to study Political Science. I feel so at home there, that it seems like I am more a foreigner these days when I visit my father and my mother in Madrid." It helps, of course, to have a thick skin. If being likened to a 'dancing bear' is questionable enough, then regularly being referred to as the 'Coconut Hierro' in the written press is problematic in the extreme. He was fortunate, Obiang says, to live in a city that quickly learned to accept him. "I was, at first, wondering why there were so few blacks there," he admits. "Yet the Genoese people are strange. At the beginning they are suspicious but then if you make the effort they will take you in their hearts and there is no more difficulty." It is the reason, he says, the recent horrific footage of the drowning illegal immigrants 60 miles off the Libyan coast hit so hard. "I hated the way those images were portrayed on TV," he sighs. "It creates an unwarranted fear in people. Intolerance is not always racism, it can be ignorance and selfishness. The world has changed and some people are afraid of losing their status quo, their well-being, because someone else is in trouble economically."

Never one to hold back, when Genoa was hit by catastrophic floods last October for the second time in three years, Obiang could be found rolling up his sleeves to help the so-called 'mud angels' in the massive rescue and clean-up operation. Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest daily newspaper, attacked the government by announcing in its front page headline: 'The mud of Genoa, shame of a country', while the Archbishop of Genoa called for a 'timely and massive' action by the government to resolve the crisis and prevent similar disasters in future. "When your city has been rocked, it is normal to give something back," says Obiang. At times like these his mind casts back to all those who helped him when he first arrived as that bewildered sixteen year old; from the lowly employees in the club office who would give him the money for a taxi back to his digs, to his 'second mother', Mrs. Cristina, who would make him dinner and speak patiently and incessantly to him in Italian long before he was able to respond in kind. By now it is clear that Pedro Obiang is not your average footballer. A self confessed cinephile (I usually go to the movies two or three times a week) and fluent in several languages including English, his nickname in the Sampdoria dressing-room was 'The Intellectual'. "That started with Mihajlović," he laughs. It was, he says, on account of his glasses and intellectual pursuits. "I study more as a hobby these days because I never have the time to take exams" admits Obiang. "I studied architecture because of my father, although I was always attracted more to psychology. I think I'm good at talking and I am very interested in the personalities of people." So does he believe in the application of psychology to football? "Yes, it has helped," he insists. "When Sampdoria won promotion to Serie A we had a mental coach who though not specifically a psychologist, worked more on the motivation side. It helped me to relax." After all, he says, it is not always easy to carry out a normal life on the one hand and on the other a football life; to juggle two competing and often conflicting set of expectations. Not even for a dancing bear.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

From Chaos to Insanity: A Conversation With Slaven Bilic

In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form. Then came the Victorians, who codified it, and after them the theorists, who analysed it. So wrote Jonathan Wilson in his excellent book 'Inverting the Pyramid'. In his detailed study of football tactics he notes it wasn't until the late 1920s in Europe that tactics in anything resembling a modern sense came to be recognised or discussed, but as early as the 1870s there was an acknowledgement that players on the pitch made a significant difference to the way the game was played. In it's earliest form, though, football knew nothing of such sophistication. In South America, in the old days before they shrugged off the colonial order to add their finesse, there was the trainer and nobody paid him much heed. He died without a word when the game stopped being a game and professional football required a technocracy to keep people in line. The manager, wrote Eduardo Galeano, was born. His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom and maximise the productivity of the players, who were now obliged to become disciplined athletes. The trainer used to say: 'Let's play.' The manager says: 'Let's go to work.' Today they talk in numbers. The history of football in the twentieth century, a journey from daring to fear, is a trip from the 2-3-5 to the 5-4-1 by way of the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2. Any ignoramus could translate that much with a little help, notes Galeano, but the rest is impossible. The manager dreams up formulas as mysterious as the Immaculate Conception, and he uses them to develop tactical schemes more indecipherable than the Holy Trinity.

So, what makes a coach a good coach? His tactical genius? "Tactics? Pah, then every teenager could be a super coach," smiles a bearded Slaven Bilic, part charismatic rock star, part professor of philosophy and letters. "Tactics are important, but everyone can learn tactics. Make it a school subject in primary school and after ten years we would have a whole generation that knows all about tactics. But that does not make for a good coach. It is the combination of knowledge, experience, character, passion and happiness." It is he suggests, sparking up the first of what will be numerous cigarettes, one of the most complex occupations in the world. "Basically, my job does not differ much from that of a bank manager. We both have a goal that we want to achieve. He wants to multiply money, I want to win trophies. We have a bunch of young, motivated, highly trained people available to us with whom we have to work. We need to make them happy, keep them motivated. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions when they make mistakes, occasionally we need to separate one of them from the rest of the group in order to achieve our goal. But the difference is this: The bank manager can work in peace. I have millions of people watching me at my work. Fans praise me to the sky, then want to bring a plague down upon my head. Then there is the media who need a new story every day." And everyone knows better? "Of course," laughs Bilic, quickly warming to the subject. "An old friend of mine is a luminary in the field of brain surgery. He will often ask me: 'Why did you do that? Why did the team play this way?' I always reply: 'Professor, I value your opinion but imagine a time when each of your operations would be broadcast live on television. Where every incision you make is being commented on!' Then he mostly leaves me alone."

The ability to handle pressure as a coach is something Bilic credits to his years of playing in England. "There was one thing that impressed me the most, and that was a fantastic balance between pressure and freedom," he states. "Pressure is important for every job – a journalist will generally write a better article if he's under pressure or if he writes for a better newspaper. But the key is to channel that pressure into positive energy: you want it to be a drive, not a burden. And that's what the English do best. Sometimes huge investments depend on the result of a single Premier League match. The pressure is huge, but you don't feel burdened by it in a negative way regardless of the press which can be really cruel – after all, the English invented that kind of journalism. In the Premier League you learn how to overcome fear and negative emotions, how not to dread what might happen but stay motivated and fight the best you can for your team. And that can often be a decisive factor when two even teams meet." That said, for years, argues Wilson, the prime deficiency of the English game was that it thought solely in terms of the players. Yet football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment. Wilson makes clear that when he says 'tactics' he means a combination of formation and style: one 4-4-2 can be as different from another as Kevin Nolan to Robert Prosinecki. For as much as heart, soul, effort, desire, strength, power, speed, passion and skill all play their parts, there is also a theoretical dimension, and, as in other disciplines, the English have, on the whole, proved themselves unwilling to grapple with the abstract.

In contrast, Bilic has always proved flexible when it comes to such matters. The new West Ham manager has switched seamlessly from 4‑1‑3‑2 to 4‑2‑3‑1, 4‑3‑3 or 4‑4‑2 throughout his managerial career – but usually in some sort of modified, unorthodox fashion. As a strategist, there has often been an emphasis on individual instructions rather than specific formations. "My opinion is that formations are slowly dying out and a large number of experts will confirm that," nods Bilic. "It has become increasingly difficult to mark the movement of the players, with regards to the ball, just by assigning numbers to each line." Whisper it quietly but the Croatian is in the vanguard of modern football thinkers who believe the notion of formation is a fraud perpetuated by those with a desire to justify coaches' salaries and make TV commentators sound smart. "Like 4-5-1, what does it mean?" he asks. "It’s only for journalists or at the beginning of each half. When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now." In a sport which has few stoppages and is often decided by individual acts of spontaneity, formations are one of the only ways coaches can endeavor to shape the action on the field. Yet, argues Bilic, we are now at a point where every responsible way of deploying 11 players has been exhausted. The game, he believes, is still largely an exercise in chaos once the whistle blows; at some point most teams look like they are playing with nine defenders and one striker. The formation is thus only ever the first snapshot. After that, the players are always on the move because the ball is on the move, so the formation no longer exists. In any case, a team's style of play is related to an idea, not to a geographic positioning on the pitch. "Fluidity is much more important – you want your team to stay compact, and your lines to remain close to one another, so they can flow over," explains Bilic. "You need to make sure that no gaps emerge, and that tends to happen often to teams who play with strict lines. A quality opponent will always find your weak spot and massacre you. But that doesn't mean the system is any less important. Organisation and automatism are the foundations for everything – only if you have that, will the individual quality of your players show in a positive way. I will never underestimate the value of individualism and inspiration – but without a solid system, improvisation is just anarchy. And anarchy can also sometimes bring you a result, sometimes even better than your established schemes, but it cannot be a long-term solution."

The use of space always used to be the unique defining element of Dutch football. Other nations and football cultures may have produced greater goalscorers, more dazzling individual ball artists and more dependable and efficient tournament-winning teams but no one, wrote David Winner, has ever imaged or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch. In his master work 'Brilliant Orange', Winner states that the Total Football of the 70s was, among other things, a conceptual revolution built on a new theory of flexible space; that the size of any football field could be altered by a team playing on it. In possession you could aim to make the pitch as large as possible by spreading play to the wings and seeing every run, movement and constant positional rotation as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When you lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of your opponents. You pressed deep in the other side's half, hunted for the ball, defended a line ten yards inside their own half and used the offside trap to aggressively squeeze space further. When he first saw Cruyff play, David Miller marvelled at a 'Pythagoras in boots', yet an acute sense of the fluid structure and dimensions of the pitch was shared by everyone in the Ajax and Dutch national team. This was not abstract, playful exploration of perspective in the style of M.C. Escher. Partly it was instinctive but partly it was based on mathematical calculations and designed pragmatically to maximise athletic capacity. It did not matter what 'position' a player was given: the immediate position of play itself determined when and where the players moved within the game. Quick and precise calculations were made by each player in order that every manoeuvre made the most effective use of pitch-space and player energy. The genesis of this spacial awareness was the spoken word. Football was always unconsciously about space, just as the good players were always the ones who instinctively found positions to receive the ball. The big change happened when these ideas became words because no one had ever looked at things in that way before. By drawing attention to it, notes Winner, something came into existence which had always been there but no one had ever noticed before and thus opened up a whole vista of seeing football differently. If this teaches us anything insists Bilic it is that we should never be afraid to discuss any aspect of football. "What I learned from Wenger and Lippi," he says, "is that the only authority you need is the authority of knowledge."

There is a theory that winning the World Cup in 1966- just a few years before the true 'neurotic genius' of the Dutch flowered- was actually the worst thing that could have happened to English football. Rob Steen, in The Mavericks, posits that success set the country back because it established deep in the national footballing consciousness the notion that the functionality of Alf Ramsey's side was the only way to achieve success; that in the minds of generations of fans and coaches in England, it laid out a 'right' way of playing. Just because something was correct in a particular circumstance, with particular players and at a particular stage of football's development, does not mean it will always be effective. If there is one thing that distinguishes the coaches who have had success over a prolonged period- Sir Alex Ferguson, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Bill Shankley, Boris Arkadiev- it is that they have always been able to evolve. Their teams played in very different ways, but what they all shared was the clarity of vision to successfully recognise when the time was right to abandon a winning formula and the courage to implement a new one. When you ask Bilic to articulate what has changed the most in his opinion it is the perfect cue for another Marlboro Light. "It used to be quite a different game tactically – think those Chelsea v Liverpool clashes in the Champions League, those were chess games between Mourinho and Benítez," he observes through a cloud of smoke. "The goal justified the means. But then Pep Guardiola was crucial in changing that with his Barcelona team, so I have nothing but respect for him. He initiated a revolution in the way coaches look at football. It's true that Barcelona played attractive, attacking football before, and that tiki-taka comes from Cruyff and Rexach, but never before did they play the way they did under Guardiola. And that has had a profound influence on other coaches, because everyone wants to emulate the best: most teams today try to play football, they strive to creation, not destruction. Even the Italians took part in that – both the national team and their clubs, with the exception of Inter and a few minor clubs in Serie A. That was unheard of before Guardiola. Now almost everyone realises that apart from getting a result, it's very important how you play. The fans will accept almost anything as long as there's success, but in the long run, people want to be entertained, they want to enjoy themselves at matches and this is why football needs to be attractive and fun. With Croatia we always tried to play and we always looked better when our opponents played positive football. Because of the way we played, it's much easier for us when the game was a two-way street. It is right though that football has changed so much in the last few years and it's extremely important to keep pace with that development."

It helps, of course, that Croatia always had strong individuals. One only has to think of Miroslav Blazevic, a cross between Sir Bobby Robson's prestige and Peter Cooke's eccentricity, the godfather of Croatian football and the coach of the golden generation. "I wanted gentlemen in my team!" he once proclaimed, proceeding to run through the line-up with escalating fervour. "Bilic? Gentleman. Stimac? Gentleman. Jarni? Gentleman. Prosinecki? Super gentleman. Boban? King gentleman. Suker? Ambassador gentleman. Everyone knows about Croatia because of them." When Bilic took over the national team, promoted after two years in charge of the U21s, he completely revolutionised the way Croatia played: the stodgy, predictable and decadent 3-4-1-2 system of his predecessor Zlatko Kranjcar was replaced by highly-dynamic football with a defensive four and one holding midfielder, with all the other players attack-minded, but with defensive responsibilities. So how much of Bilic's own tactical outlook is influenced by the fact that he was part of the team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup, and played with three consummate play-makers – Boban, Prosinecki and Asanovic? "A lot, because that's when I realised what kind of football is best suited for the Croatian character," he admits before adding that the team he managed for six years had strong individuals too. "My intention wasn't to build a system around them, but I didn't want to fit them into a system either. I simply tried to give each of them a mandatory frame in which their lucidity would hopefully flourish." Bilic would become known for being one of few managers, especially in international football, who would regularly use five, sometimes even six offensive-minded players in the team at the same time. Not that it was necessarily a reflection of a desire to play attacking football. "It was pure pragmatism," agrees Bilic when thinking about his time in charge of the Vatreni. "Of course I prefer a passing, possession-based attacking game more than destructive, defensive play, but you have to look at what's best for the team with regards to the players at your disposition. When I took that job, my assistants and I analysed our pool of players and realised we were much better covered in attacking positions. We concluded that our chances against the stronger teams would be better if we tried to build our play with more offensive players. If we had decided to go the other way, we just wouldn't have been as good and the players would have become unhappy. But even though we used many offensive-minded players, solid defence was the foundation of our play. You can never score as many goals as you can concede if your defence is porous. You know, for a long time the people have been saying that strikers are the first line of defence, but that was just a phrase intended to motivate the team. However, today the strikers have the obligation to fulfill their defensive assignments, and that especially applied to my boys. We were more dangerous when we played with two strikers, but then those two really had to work hard defensively."

Working hard defensively is an ethos that would also resonate through his Beşiktaş side. Creative midfielder Oğuzhan Özyakup averaged 0.3 tackles per game in his first season under Bilic but that figure increased to 1.2 per match the following year. Bilic demands that his players defend collectively, press the opposition and force mistakes, notes Emre Sarigul. No other Süper Lig side would regularly attempt as many tackles per game – 25.1 – as Beşiktaş. Holding midfielders Atiba Hutchinson and Veli Kavlak were usually accompanied by the likes of Özyakup as well as wingers Olcay Şahan and Gökhan Töre trying to win back the ball after losing possession. Compact and well organised, the Kara Kartallar conceded less than a goal a game and regularly finished among the Super Lig leaders in blocks, interceptions and clearances made. If they had any weaknesses, it is said, then Bilic’s side could be caught out by opposition teams playing on the counter-attack, where their offensive attitude and high defensive line sometimes made them susceptible to attackers breaking their offside trap. One other issue might be discipline – Beşiktaş players were shown ten red cards in the league last season. To the latter point Bilic reaches for pen and paper to illustrate why this heightened aggressive approach combined with the Turkish mentality proved so combustible. "The Turk is very similar in nature to the Croatian," he says while sketching three lines on a pad. "This is the normal state of mind (baseline) and the maximum emotional high and low for central and northern Europeans." Now adding a further couple of lines to the extremes of the page he continues: "And here are our highs and lows. We are either shouting for joy or dying of sorrow. I would never say this mentality is a disadvantage though because what are emotions if not the fuel of life?"

Whether shouting for joy or dying of sorrow the image of Bilic the rebel has always been slightly misleading. As a player he was committed and intelligent. As a manager, he has a serious and ambitious core. "It was never my plan to become a coach," he sighs as if ultimately he never had a choice. "But then my club Hajduk Split called and I had to answer so I caught the coaching virus." One day he simply woke up and was suddenly a coach? "Nonsense," he says nonplussed at the suggestion. "It was a new job and I worked myself into. As a player and as a person I am conditioned to always a give 100 percent when I do something. So I just trained, studied, learned and worked the licenses. Suddenly it occurred to me that the processes I was now adopting in my professional life were running parallel to my experiences as a student when I graduated in law." Replacing his legal texts with American psychology books Bilic sought to understand his players and the job at a deeper level. "Balkan culture is too macho for psychology to be part of everyday life," he says. "When you say 'shrink' in Croatia they think about players lying on a couch. It is a sensitive thing." A voracious consumer of information with a particular predilection for sporting biographies, assistant coach Edin Terzic confides that his boss "absorbs their teachings and then weaves them into his work." Bilic names 'Sacred Hoops' by legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson as one of his major sources of coaching inspiration. The Chicago Bulls icon became famous for several pioneering techniques, among them the use of visualization as a successful training method. Jackson describes in his book how he implemented it with his players; chiefly BJ Armstrong, who mostly came off the bench to contribute at very important moments. "Before he came on," Bilic explains as he stands up to mimic the action, "Armstrong had already played through the available plays in his head... Pippen to Jordan, Armstrong runs to his right to create space on the left, Jordan exploits it and scores- Bam!" Having this kind of vision, he states, where everybody can visualise moves and positions drilled during training before they even happen is a dream in football right now. During his playing years, Michael Jordan would take an hour or two before games to meditate. He'd visualize himself making shots with a hand in his face. He could see himself stealing a pass that would be the turning point of the game. He would visualize setting up his defender for the game winning shot. Why would one of the greatest athlete of our time make time to do this? Well, Jordan recognized the power of the mind and that in every game, no matter the sport, success is 90% mental and 10% physical. "Very few players have this sort of vision to be able to know where everyone is and what is going around them with their eyes closed," believes Bilic. "I can only think of Rooney who has this sort of vision, he is able to draw a mental picture of what the opponent is thinking. It is a really powerful tool. Before away games the Manchester United striker will ask the kit man: 'In what shirts will we play tomorrow?' Then he places a towel over his head and puts himself in the stadium, sees himself in the jersey. He calculates in his mind the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent then he sees himself exploit it to score a goal. The whole thing is absolutely fascinating."

'The Score Takes Care of Itself' a lecture on leadership by one of the NFL's greatest football coaches, Bill Walsh, is another book on the Bilic bookshelf. "Legend. Incredible! Read it!" he enthuses, before adding that he recently finished the biography of Alex Ferguson, which he says also helped him. "Ferguson describes in it a dispute with Roy Keane which almost came to blows. When I read that section, I was extremely grateful. I thought to myself: If this can happen to one of the best coaches of all time, then it may happen to you also." For anyone who has witnessed a Bilic training session such an altercation would be hard to envisage; before it even starts he has probably embraced more than a dozen of his coaching staff as you would a long lost friend. "That's just my way of working," he smiles. "This is my team and my club. I think it is a matter of course to know my people by name, to communicate with them and convey the feeling that they are an important part of the club." He has made it a tradition that on his birthday he takes all club employees out for a meal. "In my opinion there is no other option," he shrugs. "You must treat your staff well if you require them to follow an idea." The atmosphere of inclusiveness extends to an open exchange of ideas with his coaches and senior players. It derives from Bilic's own formative experience as a player under Winfried Schäfer at Karlsruher SC. "Before each game, he would take me and four other players into his office and ask for our opinions on the tactic against the upcoming opponent. Of course, Winnie had the final decision, but he was just like a fox killing two birds with one stone. He made his lead players feel that their opinion was important to him, and at the same time, he benefited from our collective insider knowledge. There is a Croatian proverb: 'A man and a donkey together know more than one man alone' that pretty well sums it up." There are many rules for dealing with players, says Bilic, but only two are crucial. "First, never lie," he states. "Second, never make promises. In this matter footballers are like women. They only hear what they want to believe is possible and ignore the fact that there is also the possibility of not getting it. Therefore, I will never say: 'You're in good shape, in two months you'll get your chance'. If the player is then not used in two months, he feels betrayed and my promise is broken. As a result he does not trust me anymore and I've lost him."

So it follows that an integral part of the manager's mandate is to be ductile; to intuitively understand that just as each individual, nationality and country has a distinct identity with specific character and personality traits, so each club has a certain philosophy hewn from the rocks of tradition and history. By the time Bilic departed Beşiktaş he was one of the longer-serving coaches in Turkish football even though he admits the entire job had been one long struggle. "In the current football climate, a coach can never be sure of his future employment," he says; all you can do is research, prepare and then, embracing the fatalism, accept what comes. As Galeano observed, the manager is as disposable as any other product of consumer society. Today the crowd screams, 'Never die!' and next weekend they invite him to kill himself. "I am a football maniac, so no one had to explain to me who and what Besiktas is," he says. "I'd looked at videos, let everything run through my mind during the contract talks and then just decided to take the leap" albeit initially with a knot in his stomach because he could not speak Turkish. He had started work directly after leaving Croatia in the Euro 2012 as coach of Lokomotiv Moscow, he explains, but despite preparing thoroughly had never anticipated or had no way of knowing just what a barrier not speaking the language could be. "I did not speak Russian and that was a problem," he states. "Because as a coach, you need to communicate 24 hours a day with your staff and players. You have to be able to understand the people around you, if you want to have success. Crucially, in Istanbul he quickly realized that he had arrived at a multi-national team and multilingual organization. "We were talking English, German, Spanish; my assistant Nikola Jurcevic is Croat, my second assistant coach Edin Terzic is German with Croatian roots."

There were other challenges as well. Did he, for example, fully understand about the Çarşı Grubu; the notorious anarchist faction of Beşiktaş support? Although officially disbanded before Bilic's arrival, the left-leaning organisation- anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist, pluralist and ecologist- became heavily involved in the fighting during the 2013 protests in Taksim Square, resisting police attacks and even famously chasing a water cannon away with an excavator. "Of course, I am a political person and was coach of Beşiktaş," says the staunch socialist who names Che Guevara among his personal heroes. He did not, however, become overtly involved in the issue. "I admire how intensively active those fans were politically. But if I had started to concern myself with it then I would not have had time to do my job. Because then I would have needed to know everything, wanted to talk to all the key people involved. For this reason I forced myself to be very restrained." Some observers claimed that because the Çarşı members fought on the front line against Prime Minister Erdogan, Beşiktaş would be regularly punished in the form of strange refereeing decisions and overly harsh sanctions. "These are conjectures and therefore it did not matter for my work," insists Bilic. "What should I do? Launch into general whining after a controversial defeat and tell my players: 'Go home, training doesn't matter, we will lose anyway?' No, of course not! It didn't prevent me from speaking to the media about the referee though, if in my opinion he did a poor job."

For the entirety of Bilic's tenure at Beşiktaş the club was also effectively homeless. Due to the unique location and its legal status as a historic monument the conversion of the famous Inonu stadium had been delayed massively and its opening postponed numerous times. "That was a very big disadvantage," concedes Bilic. "Beşiktaş fans set a volume record years ago (141 decibel), and it would have been a fantastic asset to have. Due to the renovations we mostly played our home games in the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. This is a 80,000 capacity boiler at the city limits, and is very difficult to reach because the transport conditions are miserable there. In addition, the majority of the fans boycotted games because they had been heavily and repeatedly punished in the recent past by the football authorities. As a result we had an average attendance of about 3,000 in some home games. 3000 spectators in a 80,000-man stadium! If you ask me, this is a tragedy." Not least because Bilic places more importance than most on the significance of the fans. "Their impact is enormous," he insists. "I describe it like this: In order to win a Formula 1 race, the driver must sometimes push his car to the extremities of its capability so that he drives in the red zone. In football a team can only reach this red area solely on the back of the fans because you as a coach during a game cannot affect it. This red area we lacked last season. A few years ago Galatasaray had a whole season playing at home in the Olympic Stadium. With a team that should have become champions they finished seventh." Ultimately Bilic decided the only approach was to ignore circumstances as best he could. "I did not even acknowledge the situation at the time because if I stood there after poorer games and complained about the lack of fans, my players would also have done that too," he says. "And that would have a negative impact in the long term on their performance. So I said: Fuck it, we still want to win titles!"

It would seem to suggest that the ability to be adaptable is a key weapon in the manager's armoury? "The foundation [for any coach] is self-confidence and the desire to compete," believes Bilic. "That which you need as a player, you also need as a coach. When I started in Istanbul it was clear to me that this would be a new task with new challenges and of course I had to respect the philosophy of the club. I could not be coach of Beşiktaş and offer boring results based football. Even if I were to win the championship in that manner, they would still fire me. It had to be football with plenty of room for creative freedom, wilder and more detached from the norms but all without drifting into chaos. If you could understand this philosophy and see it as a weapon rather than a handicap, then it would therefore be possible to succeed but also satisfy everyone."

For his latest job Bilic succeeds a manager who hardly went out of his way to win over the home crowd and ultimately paid the price. When asked how he perceived the 'West Ham way' of playing, a belligerent Sam Allardyce would routinely respond by denying its existence. "It sounds like not winning," he would answer. "No one can tell me what it is because it's a delusion." The problem with such a nebulous concept, of course, is that if you need to ask then you'll never understand. "At its heart it has little to do with football but much to do with Cockney values," wrote Peter Thorne. "Anybody outside criticising the family - or the football team - does so at their own risk. The folk at Upton Park don't expect to see their team winning regularly but they do expect some entertainment, some local talent to cheer through the ranks and to be able to employ a little gallows humour occasionally. It's the reason why Allardyce so antagonised the fans. When the Hammers were booed off the pitch after a vital but dire 2-1 win against Hull in the 2013-14 season, an incredulous Allardyce cupped his ear. Many outside the club understood this, those inside seethed with anger." On the day Bilic arrived to take up the hot-seat he immediately adopted the rhetoric that would carry the fans with him. "I remember West Ham as a special club," he said. "It's not about the size although West Ham is a big club. It is a great place to play and I feel like I am at home. It is a big privilege and a big responsibility because this club is a cult." By instinct or design Bilic had issued a tacit signal to the fans that he 'got it'.

For while they may never have won the championship, the Hammers have acquired a reputation for doing things in a certain style while producing a constant supply of dazzling young players over the years. According to Ron Greenwood's philosophy: "The crowds at West Ham have never been rewarded by results but they keep turning up because of the good football they see. Other clubs will suffer from the old bugbear that results count more than anything. This has been the ruination of English soccer." None of which is to suggest that there actually is a correct way to play, notes Wilson. You can, for example from an emotional and aesthetic point of view, warm to the passing of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal more than to the pragmatism of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, but that is a personal preference; it is not to say one is right and one is wrong. It is obvious, he argues, that compromises have to be made between theory and practice. On a theoretical level West Ham fans respond to the Greenwood ethos but amid the beer-soaked celebrations that followed the very Allardycian mugging of Blackpool in the 2012 Championship play-off final, I'm not sure anybody was too bothered.

It is not even so simple, though, as to say that the 'correct' way of playing is the one that wins most often, for only the dourest of Gradgrinds would claim that success is measured merely in points and trophies; there must be room for romance. As Wilson notes, that tension between beauty and cynicism, between what the Brazilians call futebol d'arte and futebol de resultados- is a constant, perhaps because it is so fundamental, not merely to sport, but also to life: to win, or to play the game well? For Bilic, now inhaling languidly, it is hard to think of any significant actions that are not in some way a negotiation between the two extremes of pragmatism and idealism. His natural inclination is always towards the Dutch vision of total football with 'magicians' as he calls his playmakers, but he recognises that if you want to achieve positive results in whatever form you can’t have just one way of playing. "To be successful you have to be good enough in every aspect of the team, you have to defend with numbers, you have to be very compact, very organised but also you have to attack with numbers and be good on the ball," he says. "A solid defensive approach gives you the privilege to play with expression. Everything comes from good configuration." The sides that he has managed so far, whether that be Croatia, Lokomotiv Moscow, Besiktas or Hadjuk Split, were all teams with very lofty aims. "With Besiktas, in 90 per cent of our games we had more possession, you are the better side, you are the one that is attacking and the opponent is on the counter," he notes. "But in the games where we had to be compact like against Arsenal, we weren't dominant. So you have to be both. But I like my team to play football, to play good football." His ambition for West Ham is to try to be top ten and then improve on that. "First season, if we can finish eighth, ninth or tenth," he says. "Then, in the space of a few seasons, with the Stadium and everything, with hype, with probably a little bit more budget, with good planning and good play, nobody can stop us dreaming of European places or if we have a brilliant season to try to break into the Champions League places." His ultimate aim is to win a trophy. Taking a leaf from one of his well-thumbed psychology books, he adds: "You have to believe in that to achieve it. It doesn't have to be an obsession in a negative way but if you don't believe it, who will believe it? Where it's going to take us, I don't know, but logically if you play well and you improve your squad, if your players are playing more compact and more fluid with the ball, it should get you up the league."

Bilic says he ultimately decided to try the immersive nature of club management because when working at international level you can only ever look for temporary solutions and improvisations. What he wanted was to have enough time and scope to wrestle with the intractable – "maybe if we can't ever completely eradicate problems, we can still do everything in our power to minimise their impact on our play, as well as maximise our strengths." The problem is that takes times and patience and in a sport where the machinery of spectacle grinds up everything in its path, nothing lasts for long. The manager believes football is a science and the field a laboratory, wrote Galeano, but the genius of Einstein and the subtlety of Freud isn't enough for the owners and the fans. They want a miracle worker like the Virgin of Lourdes, with the stamina of Gandhi. Even acknowledging that football is ultimately about more than simply winning, it would be ludicrous to deny the importance of victory. Wenger can be frustratingly quixotic at times, but, as his negative tactics in the 2005 FA Cup final showed, even he at times acknowledges the need to win. To condemn Ramsey, when he brought the only international success England has known is a luxury English fans cannot afford; to accuse him of ruining English football rather than saluting his tactical acuity seems willfully perverse. Ultimately, argues Wilson, the history of tactics is the history of two interlinked tensions: aesthetics verses results on the one side and technique verses physique on the other. What confuses the issue is that those who grow up in a technical culture tend to see a more robust approach as a way of getting results, while those from a physical culture see pragmatism in technique; and beauty- or at least what fans want to watch- remains very much in the eye of the beholder. In those circumstances then how can you still enjoy this job? "By being myself aware and accepting of these conditions," Bilic says. "If I were to cry myself to sleep every night because of the uncertain future, this job would hold nothing for me. But I know the risk and it does not bother me. I just start to work." Picking up his earlier drawing it seems the right time to ask what makes Slaven shout for joy? "It can only ever be if my team is playing the football that I want to see," he answers, "because results are not always dependent on whether a team plays well or not. In basketball or handball the better team will nearly always win, but in football refereeing decisions, good and bad luck can all play a much greater role." Doesn't that drive a football coach insane? "Of course you can reduce with good work the percentage chance for unhappiness. This is what everyone seeks. But it will still always be the case that a goal is enough to decide in football whether you win or lose. You are right, it is insane," laughs Bilic as he stubs out his final cigarette. "But that's why I love it so."

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Fiery Madness Of Comandante Bilic

Unchain the colours before my eyes,
Yesterday's sorrows, tomorrow's white lies.
Scan the horizon, the clouds take me higher,
I shall return from out of fire.
In January 2012 Slaven Bilic had an operation. Doctors attended to an old injury, one that had made him walk a little funny for years, putting all his weight on one foot as he made every other step. The injury dated back to the most glorious episode of his playing days but it also effectively ended his career. Just two weeks before the 1998 World Cup, explains Aleksander Holiga, Bilic’s hip was partially fractured. Against all medical advice, despite not being able to train at all because of the pain, he decided to travel to France with the Croatia team and played the whole tournament with painkillers, further aggravating the injury. Most people will have remembered him for getting Laurent Blanc sent off in the semi-finals ("I panicked. I was paranoid that I would get a yellow card which would prevent me from playing in the final if we got there, so I theatrically went down to save myself from getting booked – although he did hit me") but this was Bilic sacrificing his health and career for his country. Croatia spectacularly finished third in their first World Cup appearance but the consequences for Bilic were serious: at 30, he was effectively done. Unable to fully recover, he played a handful of games for Everton the next season and was released in July 1999 – but not before picking up a hefty pay-off for the two years he had left on his contract.

The following year he put some of that money to good use when coming to the aid of former hometown club Hajduk Split. Joining forces with former team-mates Aljosa Asanovic, Igor Stimac and Alen Boksic they become shareholders- "we were all from Split and lent the club £1.5million". He soon took charge of the team, if reluctantly at first. "I was 31, 32, we sacked the coach and as no one wanted to do the job I agreed for just five games," only for Bilic to become hooked on the adrenaline. "My idea was to learn by going round Europe. So I went to see Marcello Lippi at Juventus, Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. Sometimes club managers, to protect their jobs, say, 'Oh, it's like nuclear physics.' The only question is can you cope with 25 guys who think they're great, can you change the game, and [deal] with journalists. I'm not big-headed, but Wenger and Lippi didn't tell me something new. They proved to me that I'm right." After Euro 2004, the Croatia FA chairman invited Bilic to become the under-21 coach.

One story goes that having given his young squad the afternoon off on a subsequent tour of Sweden, Bilic was perturbed to see his best player Luka Modric loitering with best mate Vedran Corluka by the team coach rather than going into town to have a coffee or chat up the local girls. Writing in the Mail, Joe Bernstein describes Bilic going over to investigate only to discover there was nothing sinister in the teenagers' behaviour, they just didn't have any money. Without a moment's hesitation, the manager dipped into his own pocket and sent them on their merry way. The story is instructive, thinks Bernstein, about assessing what kind of manager West Ham are getting. Yes, Bilic can deliver an entertaining press conference in several languages, but his main strength is man-management; treating the players as friends yet still retaining their all-important respect. When Manchester City introduced the word 'holistic' into the footballing vernacular, they could have been describing Bilic. His philosophy is that players given confidence off the pitch will ultimately take responsibility in big matches. For someone like Modric, the transformation from an introverted child refugee from the Balkans conflict into a self-assured superstar, is perhaps an example of how Bilic can help. Certainly neither Modric nor Corluka ever forgot it and repaid Bilic many times with many outstanding performances, most notably when the senior Croatia team beat England at Wembley and reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2008. Incidentally that would not be the first or last time Bilic schooled a former England manager; as anybody who witnessed the amazing footage of the Croatian delicately explaining to a wide-eyed Glenn Hoddle just how female football fans could use 'nature's pocket' to smuggle flares into a football ground can testify. But I digress.

It was following Croatia's first-round exit at the 2006 World Cup in Germany that Bilic was promoted to the senior job. On taking over it was not only matters on the pitch that were key to Croatia's qualifying hopes. Continued problems with racist chants and far-right activity in the stands- more flares- had culminated in fans forming into the shape of a swastika during Bilic's first game in charge, a friendly in Italy in August 2006. This led to action by Fifa and the Croatian FA had earlier been fined by Uefa for racist banners displayed at Euro 2004. The European governing body threatened expulsion from Euro 2008 in the event of a repetition of these incidents. Some fans' chants express admiration for the fascist Ustasha regime, put into power by Nazi Germany. Was Bilic aware that some in England, rather distastefully, had named that 1998 World Cup quarter-final he played in 'the Nazi derby'? "I didn't. But I know that before the game in Zagreb [which England lost 2-0 in October 2006] they were saying we are a Nazi country," he recalls. "There are more Nazis in England - definitely you have more skinheads than Croatia. I can say anything against England only because I'm well known here as the biggest non-English England fan. Not just football - music, cab drivers, everything - even the adverts. England I love." It is the reason London tourists were astonished to see the Croatia players- at Bilic's eager encouragement- shopping and sightseeing on the day of their big match in 2007 while the England players were trapped in their hotel stressing. As related in the Observer, Jamie Jackson still winces at the memory of that night, of a rain soaked Wembley and Bilic punching the air. Mladen Petric has just scored for Croatia and Steve McClaren's sorry reign as England head coach is finishing with a defeat that ends any hope of qualification for Euro 2008. "When England got back to 2-2, I thought, 'Hell, they're taking the match'," Bilic recalls. "Our fans started to shout, 'Hocemo pobjedu! Hocemo pobjedu!' - 'we want to win'. So it's Wembley, there's 80,000 there, it's the most important sporting event anywhere that day, and from the moment our fans start shouting we start to pass. And, after three minutes, we scored where our fans were. Perfect, an unbelievable feeling."

Croatia won 3-2 and were one of the most popular teams at Euro 2008 the following year, beating Germany in a group game and only going out on penalties after a dramatic quarter-final against Turkey. In the seventh minute of that match against Germany, remembers Jeffrey Marcus, Bilic executed the game’s first bit of skill: looking to his right up field, he deftly flicked the ball left — a perfect rainbow arc — to Corluka … for a throw in. The manager was lucky not to scuff his oxfords. When in the 24th minute Darijo Srna slid in at the far post to put Croatia up 1-0 on the Germans, it was Bilic who sprinted down the line, leaping spread-eagle to straddle his assistant and celebrate the goal as if he, still playing fullback for Croatia, not Danijel Pranjic, sent the fortunate cross. Few watching him frantically dart from the bench to the touchline at that day, states Marcus, would be surprised if the then 39-year-old coach tore off his slim-fit but disheveled looking gray suit and crooked red tie to reveal a red-and-white checked jersey, ready to play. He would have had to stub out his cigarette before subbing himself in, for sure. Although he never earned more than £80,000-a-year the patriotic Bilic stayed in charge of the Croatia national team for a further four years. They reached the finals of Euro 2012 where they were unluckily drawn with both eventual finalists Italy and Spain. He regretted not qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa but went anyway and took his eldest two children on safari. Bilic, though, believes he has learnt a lot from the pressure of international management. "Now, I'm able to fly to the moon," he smiles. "In the film Armageddon, I could be the guy who has to stop the missile destroying the earth. This is from being Croatia head coach - mentally I'm ready for any club job."

He certainly showed no fear when given a first test of man-managing his own national team. Ahead of his first competitive outing, against Russia in the opening game of qualification for Euro 2008, Darijo Srna, Ivica Olic and Bosko Balaban visited Fontana, a Zagreb nightclub famed for the combination of folk music and women who dress like porn stars. Bilic banished them from the squad and fined them the equivalent of £17,000 each as Croatia gained a worthy 0-0 draw in Moscow. "It's a situation that has really helped me in terms of understanding how you cope being friends with some of the players and their manager," says Bilic. "We missed them in Russia. But my idea is that our work should be hard. Disciplined." The players were later reinstated - Srna and Olic both included in the squad for that year's finals. "The FA chairman said, 'It's Russia, Guus Hiddink. Select them and I'll fine them big money.' I said, 'No way. I'm going to fuck them off for this game or forever - it depends on their reaction.' And it was unbelievable, they said, 'We're wankers,' and apologised a hundred times," reveals Bilic. "But this helped me. Some in the media, the Croatia FA, didn't want me when I was appointed. Yet 90 per cent of people did. The FA are saying now they always wanted me but I know who they wanted - Claudio Gentile or Giovanni Trapattoni. The only question was, did I have the authority. For me, the only authority is knowledge - it's not about shouting. I have a special relationship with my players. One came crying - I'm not going to say who - and said, "I broke with my girlfriend, I adore her." He would never have done so if we weren't close."

Despite several offers, Bilic chose Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia to restart his club career. He followed that with two seasons in Turkey with Besiktas. The buzz of big cities like Moscow and Istanbul appealed to him, even when camera crews would wait for him to come out of restaurants to get their shots. "Croatians don't live in mansions, we like to mix with people. We drink our coffee with friends from childhood, not in five-star hotels," he has explained. The buzz of people is why London and West Ham has appealed to him for a long time now. Last season, he faced Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool in European competition and always thought about returning to the Premier League. "Who wouldn't?" he reasons. "England is like a cool woman - whoever says they wouldn't is afraid. They haven't got balls, or he's lying."

When Slaven Bilic was asked recently to explain his love of football, he put it succinctly. "With the greatest respect to women," he proclaimed, "football is the most beautiful thing in the world." That passion for the sport was learned young in the seaside town of Split, then part of communist Yugoslavia but now the second city of Croatia. Born in early September 1968 he has an elder brother who would later become his agent. The family had a summer house an hour away from Split, on the Adriatic and his maternal grandmother "was sports mad. I remember the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics she would stay up watching water polo and everything." The people of Split are naturally tall and sporty. Wit. God. Patriotism. The common touch. Croatia have all this on their side, according to Bilic. "We are talented people for sport in general, not only football, especially sport where wit is important, where it isn't only physics that matter," he insists. "Of course we're not the only small nation with good sports people but people are crazy about football in Croatia. Children play it everywhere. The stars of football in Croatia are perhaps closer to kids and common-folk than in some larger, wealthier countries."

From the age of five, Bilic became buddies with another boy from across the hall in their block of flats. He turned out to be Toni Kukoc who played NBA basketball for the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan. Former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic is another sporting great from that generation in Split. In 1987 he began the first of his two spells with Hajduk but unlike some footballers, Bilic refused to be one-dimensional. He played in a band and whenever the game took him to quiet hotel rooms far from home, he'd fill the void playing his guitar. Music remains another enduring love in his life. He famously cranks out alternative rock in the dressing room to inspire his players and actually plays guitar in a group called Rawbau and before that in the less renowned NewEra. At the end of 2004 they recorded their 10 song self-titled album and released a single to inspire the country's team. It is called "Vatreno ludilo" (Fiery Madness) - a title that says a lot about the man- but he confesses it is not the best song ever. It naturally harks back to that 1998 World Cup, when Bilic was a grievously injured but integral member of that Croatia team that finished third just six years after the split-up of Yugoslavia. The birth of Croatia as an independent nation had allowed its sportsmen greater opportunity for travel. Bilic first moved to Germany, joining Karlsruhe in a £750,000 deal in 1993. Although he would help them to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup, by his admission it wasn't until he arrived at West Ham, at the age of 29 in 1996, that he fell in love. He only stayed 15 months and played 58 games but his influence on the club and vice-versa was far greater than those statistics would suggest. He mentored a young Rio Ferdinand who also played in his position of centre-half. The others admired his individuality. While they went dog racing at Romford, he flew to New York for one night to see a Guns N' Roses gig.

In keeping with the rock star image he'd enjoy the odd crafty cigarette, puffing his way to 44 Croatia caps. He still does but has cut down drastically. Of the habit he told Jackson: "It's normal in Europe. Under my national management we had two who were smoking." Did it concern him? "No. Of course, they didn't smoke in the dressing room, when we had our lunch together, they didn't smoke in front of me. But if we're in a hotel bar and they are sitting over there and I'm here then, I mean, why stop them? It's better to see them than if they're going to go to their room and smoke three in a row. When I played in the national team, we had maybe 10 players who were smokers." What did Miroslav Blazevic - Croatia's head coach from 1994 to 2000 - think? "Nothing. He used to ask me for a cigarette because he was always short. In Germany, maybe 20 per cent were smoking. In England it was different - only the foreigners and Julian Dicks, of course. The players were like, 'Oh you're smoking', and were totally pissed. I said, 'How can you drink so much?'" Bilic was a rare foreigner in the top flight back then, an addition to an existing English core. The Premiership, as it was called, was very different to what it is now. Bilic warmly remembers the atmosphere at Goodison Park, St James’ Park, Anfield and Upton Park – more intense than they are now – and tells a story about a West Ham v Chelsea game there in March 1997. West Ham were 2-1 up with two minutes left and had a free-kick in their own box. "Ludek [Miklosko] goes to take the free-kick. I try to waste some time, going to take it, but then I tell Ludek to take it. So we try to waste 30 seconds but our crowd go mad, shouting 'come on! Any chance!' I am thinking 'do you want us to stay in the Premier League?'" Mark Hughes equalised for Chelsea, but Paul Kitson scored a winner anyway. That is why Bilic always wanted to come back to England to manage. "I have been there, I’ve played there, I liked it there," he told Jack Pitt-Brooke. "I spent my best years – not only in football – there. Of course I would say that one day I would be interested."

Unsurprisingly Ferdinand has little doubt that the man he looked up to all those years ago will prove to be an astute choice as West Ham's new manager. "He's a really nice guy, I've met him since through a number of friends," reveals Ferdinand. "It seems he's got a good future at West Ham and it'll be a good place for him to be. He was a fantastic guy, a great professional. That's what he'll bring to West Ham and he'll put his stamp on the team. I think West Ham fans will see good things with him as manager." Bilic has always retained an affection for Ferdinand which started when the pair would stay often after training, just practising and talking. "I go back to when I started in Hajduk Split and when older players hug you, talk to you, it means a lot," states Bilic. "I tried to be the same when I was a so-called 'star' at West Ham. In the spring of 1997 we were strong in defence. It was Marc Rieper from Denmark, Dicks - legend - and myself and we played some games together with Rio, and Frank Lampard as well. When I moved, that opened the door for Rio, although he was sad that I left."

His manager at Upton Park during the time, Harry Redknapp, also had the traits of getting the best out of players whatever their characters. Bilic has stayed in touch. "Harry liked to take risks as a manager, to try and give talented players their freedom," said an admiring Bilic subsequently. "I had some great arguments with Harry when we were at West Ham. But once I became a manager myself, I realised just how good he was at his job. He seemed to get inside ever player's head to get the maximum out of them and that is what being a manager is about. My only criticism was that he used to get so low after losing games, it was like the end of the world. But I later understood the pressures of management." His allegiance to his new employers was also displayed when he was at West Ham and Everton first announced their intent to sign the defender in March, 1997. Bilic, recounts John Ley, insisted on remaining at Upton Park to help the club secure their Premier League status, moving to Goodison Park the following summer. There had also been the question of a £200k loyalty bonus to be picked at the end of the season. Typically Redknapp has a slightly different take on events. Harry insists Bilic had a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave for £2.5m. Bilic came to see him one day to say he was fed up playing for a struggling team, at a club that had no money for new players, and that he had heard that Spurs wanted to pay the release fee. His information was correct and it was then Redknapp told him to check the small print. The clause had been carefully worded so it was only applicable if West Ham agreed to it. In other words, it was worthless if West Ham did not want to sell. Bilic the qualified lawyer ("I'd never want to try a case") who is fluent in English, German and Italian had been schooled by a man whose local in the 1960s was the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, the pub where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell. "Bilic must have thought his contract was watertight," Redknapp laughs. "But I went to the University of the Street in Stepney and I had done him up like a kipper."

Bilic's eventual move from West Ham to Everton in 1997 was meant to be a step up, they had won the FA Cup two years previously. But it didn't work out. Persistent injury problems meant he struggled to get on the pitch. Though certainly no prude, he found the drinking culture under, and sometimes led by, manager Howard Kendall, difficult to contend with. On one occasion following a team-bonding trip, Bilic was left hiding with Kendall and the other players in the team coach with all the lights turned out. The plan was to drive into the training ground at Bellefield but once Kendall realised there were autograph-hunters waiting, he ordered the coach to park round the corner and impose a blackout because it was so obvious they were the worse for wear. Bilic was one of the few who hadn't been drinking and argued with his manager to let him out. In listening to him recount this story it is possible to discern a palpable regret in ever having left his "spiritual home" in east London. It is no surprise that in the interview Bilic gave on Tuesday to herald his arrival as the new West Ham manager he spoke in eloquent terms of a 'special club.' As always the Croatian gave great copy, as befits a man who likes to describe football and relationships in emotional terms. "It’s not about the size – West Ham is big club – there is something special about them," he stated. "It is a cult club, a great place to play and I felt like I was at home. It is a big privilege and a big responsibility to now be manager and I hope that I will prove it to the board, players and fans." In short Bilic is just very easy to like, notes Holiga. He is intelligent, erudite and says meaningful things in his public appearances.

In other words, chimes Pitt-Brooke, Bilic is different. He is a politician and a showman who did everything to win over the Besiktas support and succeeded. He spent time with the anarchist ultras – the carsi – and joined in their songs. He once spent two hours posing for selfies with fans in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. He is conscious of his image and the importance of symbols. He is already popular with the West Ham fans and will work hard to keep it that way. He is, in that sense, the anti-Allardyce. In stark contrast to his predecessor- the enduring image of whose four-year tenure was the manager cupping his ear in derision at West Ham fans who were booing a dreary 2-1 home win over Hull City in March 2014- some people will argue Bilic tries almost too hard to win the affection of fans and the media. Taking over at Lokomotiv Moscow in 2012, he spoke Russian – well, attempted to – on his unveiling; at Besiktas he wore an Ottoman-style beard and readily accepted being portrayed as a football manager version of a great conqueror, especially after beating Tottenham and Liverpool in the Europa League. In one of his first interviews in Turkey, Bilic promised the Besiktas fans their team would be "as energetic as Iron Maiden", recalls Ahmet Yavuz, of FourFourTwo Turkey. From his first day to his last in Turkey Bilic understood the rhetoric needed to carry the fans with him. In one famous press conference, following his team’s last-minute victory over Eskişehirspor, Bilic launched into a rant over a controversial penalty decision. "All I want is for my team to receive the same treatment [as rivals Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray] and we are not getting it," the Croatian coach yelled before storming out of the room. His final angry words... "Come on man, give me a break!" would appear on posters and t-shirts all across the black and white areas of Istanbul within hours. "I know I can't save the world on my own; but if there is a struggle against unjustness, I always prefer to be on the frontline," Bilic states when reflecting on the incident. "That has always been my attitude toward life." In a broader sense it is the reason he became a goodwill ambassador of the United Nations Children's Fund, Unicef having already acted as a children’s rights advocate for a number of years.

It is certainly true that the Croatian was always careful never to forget how the Kara Kartallar (Black Eagles) had revived his faltering managerial career. He had been dismissed in the summer of 2013 by Lokomotiv Moscow after one miserable season in which he had guided the club to its lowest league finish since 1991 and their worst position since the establishment of the Russian Championship. Fikret Orman, the president of Besiktas, was trying to rescue the club which was nearly bankrupt and banned from European competition for match-fixing. He wanted a new young coach to energise the team and considered Roberto Martinez. But, notes Pitt-Brooke, the 46-year-old Bilic was still popular in Turkey for what he had done with the Croatia national team and so Orman went to Split to recruit him. Bilic arrived at a Besiktas hoping to reimpose unity and discipline where there was none. Besiktas had previously over-extended on foreign stars including Guti, Simao and Ricardo Quaresma. So Bilic tried to rebuild a team around young, hungry players, either Turkish or of Turkish heritage: Gokhan Tore, Kerim Frei, Olcay Sahan and Tolgay Arslan. His model, like everyone else, was Manchester United. "I wouldn’t have wanted Besiktas to have 11 foreigners on the pitch," Bilic told English newspapers last year. "This is a Turkish club and has to have Turkish identity. Every team that was dominating had a core of home [grown] players. Like Man United, or Barcelona or Milan." Bilic’s Besiktas played brisk, inventive, attacking football, with far more energy than their higher-spending rivals Fenerbahce and Galatasaray. They nearly won the Super Lig title in 2013-14 but faded in the final games and finished third. Last season they started excellently and were still top with five games left. But they also played in the Europa League until the last-16 and it caught up with them. Again, Besiktas stumbled and again they finished third. Both seasons they ran out of steam, although the fact that they took only two points from eight derbies (against Galatasaray and Fenerbahce) might suggest a tactical deficiency against the best. Besiktas had the disadvantage, though, of not playing one single genuine home match for Bilic’s two seasons there. Their famous Inonu stadium in central Istanbul is being rebuilt and its reopening as the Vodafone Arena has been continuously delayed. So Besiktas have been playing all over Turkey. They played at the cavernous Olympic Stadium, more than one hour’s drive outside Istanbul, in Ankara and in Konya. Bilic insists it was like Spurs playing in Leeds. Although polls showed a majority of supporters wanted him to stay, the club ultimately decided against it. When he was leaving Istanbul last week, Bilic was carried on the shoulders of Besiktas fans into Sabiha Gokcen airport. He wore a Besiktas cap and scarf, and led the ultras in song one last time. They chanted his name and unveiled a banner, in English: "Your hopes are with us. Nobody can take this away from us. Comandante Bilic." If West Ham fans did the same thing for Sam Allardyce, ponders Pitt-Brooke, the footage has not yet emerged.

How Bilic’s West Ham will perform on the pitch – the season starts three weeks from Thursday – is less clear. It is certainly a risk. While it is undeniable that Bilic performed well at Besiktas, leaving the club in a far better position than the one he inherited, the evidence is simply not weighty enough to determine one way or the other if he is he good enough for the Premier League as a manager. That, points out Holiga, continues to be a matter of much debate in his homeland and elsewhere. There are those who think Bilic is an average coach who is very good at selling his image and that his teams are prone to crumbling when the going gets tough. He has overseen some brilliant wins in his career, including two against England with Croatia, but he also had some major failures – such as twice losing heavily to Fabio Capello’s England in the next qualifying campaign and not reaching the 2010 World Cup. His tenure in Moscow was also largely unsuccessful. After all, concludes Holiga, Besiktas fans do not have too much to show for his time there, except the really good impression he left. Yet, if nothing else, the fact that Bilic has joined West Ham is proof enough of what his time at Besiktas has done for his reputation. The football went well and, with a bit more luck, Besiktas might have been Turkish champions. Bilic also reminded the football world – especially in England – that, 17 years on from getting Laurent Blanc sent off at France ’98, he is a charismatic and passionate football man with a natural gift for winning people over. Indeed, the new West Ham manager will feel comfortable discussing everything from tabloid culture to tactical theory with the media, and the players will love him for his friendly mentality and support. But the jury is still out when it comes to Bilic’s true managerial quality. Upton Park will be the place where he seeks final confirmation that that he is more than a “rock star manager”. If he is still around when the Hammers move to the Olympic Stadium this time next year, concludes Holiga, you will know he has found it.

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