He did it. Seventy-nine-year-old manager Miroslav Blažević restored glory to Sloboda Tuzla, a club that had once been a shining light in Bosnian football, taking them back to the premier league after a debilitating slump in the second division.
Thousands of people chanted his name from the stands when the promotion came through—in a country where the average attendance to top league football is still below 1,000—while he ran the lap of honor to celebrate what was, for the team, a historical moment. The story dominated Bosnian media for days.
“I’ve been everywhere,” says Blažević, who was born in the small picturesque town of Travnik in Bosnia and is better known as Ciro. “But this... this is the best audience in the world, the best supporters in the whole world”, he said of the Bosnian fans, adding a few expletives, as is his habit. Minutes later he told a group of local journalists, after praising them, how “unwanted he feels in Tuzla,” because the club president refuses to give him a better contract.
Blažević loves to exaggerate, whatever the situation. When he moved to Iran to take over the national team ahead of the 2002 World Cup qualifying games, he said that he would hang himself if the team failed to reach the World Cup. A couple of years later, when he was in charge of NK Zagreb, battling to keep it from relegation, he promised on national television that he’d jump from the top of the highest building in Croatia if the team moved down a division—which they eventually did.
Ciro can always come up with a reason for any failure. While in Iran, he claimed the older players boycotted him because he promoted young talent to the team. In Croatia, he found fault with referees or the Football Association. In Bosnia, where he successfully united the country around the national team, but lost to Portugal in the 2010 World Cup play-offs, the culprit was Zvjezdan Misimovic. Blažević accused the player of sabotaging the team because of his Serbian heritage.
“My heart is bleeding, but I’ll talk to you, my son”, he said when I asked him for an interview for IranWire, reminding me that he is still sore from his recent dispute with Sloboda Tuzla's most prominent officials. He refers to most people as his “son”, whether they’re players, fans or journalists. In the locker room he’ll take someone aside and say: “You are my son. I know that you are much better then the rest. I’ve been watching you for years, you are top class”. And it’s the same with journalists: Blažević wants people to feel special. And, when talking about Iran, he shows some of the same spirit and emotion.
“I love Iran, it’s a beautiful country. I spent some great time there and met some beautiful people”, Blažević says, and praises the team headed up by Carlos Quieroz.
“Only idiots would think that the team is not dangerous. They’ve improved a lot in the last 10 or 15 years, introducing a new, modern way of playing, and they can beat anyone in the world.”
When it comes to the team’s strength biggest strength, Blažević highlights one thing in particular:
“Their fighting spirit. Iran has nothing to lose in this World Cup and they will play every single match as if it’s their last. Iran is a proud nation, Iranians love their country, love their people and will do everything to bring them joy”.
“I don’t know individual [players] that well, but I know that they’ll go with their head where some others hesitate to go with their feet”.
Although Ciro has worked both in Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina, he says he can’t see any real difference in mentality between the two nations.
“What differences, my son? We are all the same people, we all have the same ancestors, we are all originally from there. I don’t see any differences in approach or mentality”.
Looking back over Blažević's career, one gets a sense of his vast knowledge and experience. In 1998, as manager for the Croatian national team, he helped usher in one of the biggest surprises in the history of modern football. The team, which had not yet had much exposure on the international stage, took the bronze medal at that year’s World Cup. Today, Bosnia is the new team, with everything to work for and a future to build.
“It is hard to compare these two teams,” says Blažević. “One thing that is common is the patriotic feeling. It will not be easy for anyone to play against the team that plays for its people back home. It is hard to expect Bosnia to achieve what Croatia did in 1998, but anything is possible. I believe in [manager Safet] Sušić and his team and I am convinced they will be one of the positive stories of this tournament”.
What does he think about the Argentina team, expected to top Group F, playing against Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria?
“It is not just the group, but the whole tournament," he says. "But, you know what? It will be more difficult for them than for Bosnia or Iran. They expect to have a walk in park in this group and that is impossible, I tell you that. Yes, they have a fantastic team with some brilliant individuals, but it will be much more difficult for them than they expect”.
In the end, though, Blažević believes that only his team can advance to the second round.
“I can’t lie, my Iranian friends. I believe Bosnia is a better team at the moment. Argentina will win the group, but I can’t see how Iran or Nigeria could hamper Bosnia to reach the knockout stages. We, and I always refer to Bosnia as my team, have great individuals in Edin Džeko, Miralem Pjanić and others, and I am convinced that we will advance to the final 16.”
But, when it’s Iran vs. Bosnia, who will he support?
“You’ve been playing with me, haven’t you?” shouts Ciro. “You know the answer, you little prick. I will support my team!”
A slew of curses followed. Then he left. It’s clear that good old Miroslav Blažević is on form. He’s a classic, and is always a mesmerizing manager to watch. His observations on the World Cup will also be fascinating to follow.
Also Read Jonathan Wilson on Ciro Blažević
Iran plays Bosnia-Herzogovina on June 25. Blazevic’s team faces Argentina on Sunday, June 15.
Follow Saša Ibrulj on Twitter: @sasaibrulj
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