At eighty-one years of age, he acts like a youngster. He has seen the good and the bad. A poor little boy from Dolac on the river Lasva near Travnik grew up to become an idol, an icon. He remains one today. He is a wise, skilled, cunning, witty and charming gentleman. Humorous. He smokes, sometimes curses. He has no other flaws. He is honest when he wants to be. He doesn’t always want to be. He once ran for president, but Stjepan Mesic won. He declined the position of Sports Minister, which astounded Tudjman. He is cunning, his intuition uncanny. He believes in God, but has his doubts. He was once a village boy who survived the worst, only tobecome the world’s greatest coach – a title best owed upon him by his colleagues. Eighteen years ago he made the Croatia national team the third best in the world. Think he’s retired today? Football runs through his veins, he is brimming with knowledge and he lectures at Universities. He celebrated his 55th marriage anniversary with his Nena. They have three children and six grandchildren. The story you are about to read may seem fictional. But it is real.
– Cirica. That is what my friend Ismet Nalic from Travnik calls me, the only one my age who is still alive and lives there. Cirica. Pass me the matches, son… I need a smoke. Now ask away.
A month of Europe’s finest football is behind us.
– We needed this. We are all demoralized, we’ve been driven into hopelessness –then along came football. Football is what sets the nation’s mood. This little homeland of ours is not very well-known in the world. The French conducted a survey in 1998 which showed that only 4% of the world’s population knew about Croatia. After the World Cup, that number rose to 37%. Well, they knew more about Suker than about Croatia.
You have been associated with football for 66 years. Football is love, football is war, football is prestige, excitement and happiness…
– The suspense and uncertainty of this simple ball game consumes us. We are all after victory. We go crazy, we cry, we rejoice, we fight, even. You try scoring with your legs when you can’t even do it using your hands! But the best can. The biomechanics of it is becoming science. Scientists are studying football, doctors are advising, psychologists assessing…
It all started in Dolac on Lasva 80 years ago…
– That’s where I was born. The river Lasva was beautiful. I was by its very spring, Vlasic. The river was crystal clear, brimming with trout which I would go and catch. The industry destroyed that beautiful river. Today, Lasva is no more than a creek. A filthy one.
Your childhood was not particularly happy. You were six years old when the war started, the hunger, poverty, fear, death…
– I am the youngest child in my family. I had many siblings. My mother always fantasized that I would amount to something. My mother is my greatest role model. I ask her for advice still, even to this day. She died at the age of sixty. Thanks to the ethics she taught me I remained untainted and became an authority figure. You cannot lead a team if you can’t claim the moral high ground. My mother Kata was a God-fearing woman, this making her anti-communist. She pushed my 17-year-old brother Anto into Boban’s Black Legion. Anto would die six months later, in Kupres in 1943. My brother Josko was 15 at the time. He turned 17 in 1944, so mother got him into the Black Legion as well. He, too, would die there. Mother was grief-stricken, but she knew I would become ‘someone’. She, grandmother and I moved to Zagreb, we lived in a shed. The toilet was 30 meters away… It was winter and I would awake at dawn to shovel snow for mother to be able to get to the toilet. We were miserable. Freezing. I had one pair of underwear… A single pair, son.
What were school years like?
– They labeled my family clero fascist at school. They bullied us. When everyone would get a sandwich, I wouldn’t. They were aware of my mother’s beliefs… My father was a whole other story.
Where does football come in?
– I was quite bright, you know. I used to played football, for Bratstvo in Travnik. Soon enough I would choose football as a career and become a footballer. Dinamo heard of a certain young talented skier and Hoffman called me. They recruited me in 1954, the year when Dinamo were champions. I got to play with the 18 most talented footballers. I was the youngest.
How much did you weigh?
– Sixty kilos. But along came the army. Spent 18 months in Cacak. The Russians did something in Hungary and so I had to remain in the army for two years. I played football for the garrison. They expected me to transfer to Partizan. But that would break my mother’. So I didn’t. Mother liked Dinamo. She had hoped I would someday play for Dinamo. I didn’t make it. I would later go on to play for Lokomotiva, then Sarajevo. I got injured playing in Ljubljana. Tore the cruciate ligaments in my knee.
You once said that you’d been a mediocre footballer…
– Vlatko Markovic used to play for Iskra at the time, before transferring to Dinamo. Vlatko thinks I was a great footballer. I was a relentless center-forward. I could run a lot. I would run 6 kilometers per game in those times. I would later become a coach and learn a lot in Switzerland.
What is the distance run by a footballer per match today?
– It’s 12 kilometers. The pace is much faster nowadays. They measured the decision-making time in 1998 to have been 1,75 seconds. Nowadays a footballer has 0,7 seconds to decide on a move and act it out. Modric does it even faster. That requires passion. It requires exceptional anaerobic capacity. You breathe with no oxygen. You have to. Sprint forward, sprint back again… Keep the pace for 90 minutes. Footballers are exceptional athletes. The game is raw. Of five hundred young players who start their journey, only five will become top footballers. The deciding factor is talent. Notable examples are Modric, Rakitic, Suker, Boban.
Is there jealousy and envy?
– Immense. The football world is the most fucked up there is. “I am a better footballer than you,” they say. And don’t even get me started on the wives… They need their wives, they say. But I would always tell them to keep their wives out of it. No wives were allowed in business on my watch. A wife would always complain to her husband about another player being paid better. Instant chaos ensued.
You mentioned Boban. Are you especially fond of him?
– I am. Boban is a leader. A delicate one, a genius of sorts. I love him like a son. I love all of them. Suker hurt me the most, but I still love him. I know we couldn’t have won third place in the World Cup without him. That’s how it is. I love Soldo, I love Boksic… Him I love most. If he would have played in the European and World Championships, we would have won both. But he was injured on both occasions. I love Stimac. They are all knights, adamant fighters, inspired by their leader. In those obligatory meetings before a match I would stand before them silent and just look at them. They would look back at me. Suddenly I would say: for the Croatian flag! They would become as pale as I was,and they would be off…
Are you a psychologist?
– Son, I used to live for football. I’ve tried many things in life. Football is my life. I learned that knowledge is the only thing that gives you legitimate authority. I brought love into my team and annihilated any existing animosity. We can’t go into detail about that because it includes personal anecdotes from my players’ family lives. But we are a special kind of family, we footballers. Love matters.
The other love of your life is politics.
– Tudjman once told me “You have no clue about politics, don’t you ever talk politics with me again. To be honest, you’re not much of a football expert either.” That’s what he said to me, in front of other people. He was upset, of course.
But, the two of you were close…
– Very close. I remember him playing cards once, with me watching, as always. He threw a card and asked if I could reveal to the group my formation against Ukraine. Just to pull his leg I began with Mrmic… but I left out Ladic. Furious, Tudjman threw his hand on the table. That’s when I yelled “Ladic! Ladic!” and he calmed down. He liked Ladic a lot.
Were you not on a first name basis?
– We were friends since 1982. Around others we acted formal. When alone, we were on a first name basis. That was the rule. Me standing, at attention, him sitting down.
I don’t see you graying…
– I have some grey hairs here and there. It has begun…
What do you mean? You’re 81, that’s normal.
– I am in an excellent mood up until the moment I become conscious of my age. It saddens me. Life has gone by so fast. Not that I’m complaining – my life has been fruitful and successful, but… There were ugly times too.
Tell me about your years in emigration in Switzerland. You went several times and lived there for a while.
– Emigration is the toughest experience a person can go through.
But, that was where you became successful.
– And what about my early days, son? I started out as a sweeper… I used to drive a tow truck.
I understand you made clocks?
– In a clock factory. I would take a bunch of them home with me on my bicycle to put in the screw I was in charge of, so that the old lady in line behind me wouldn’t have to wait. That’s how things are done in Switzerland. Only once during my working hours would I get up and take a toilet break. If I got up twice, they would all look at me thinking I felt unwell. I owe them everything. Switzerland made me who I am.
Do you have Swiss citizenship?
– Of course I do. I am also Swiss. They call me ‘our coach’ there. They have a lot of respect for me.
Tudjman was kind to you; politics, not so much…
– I almost ended up in prison. At the Marjana tournament Jure Bilic told me, “Ciro, I cannot protect you anymore. Sajber is going to throw you behind bars, there’s no doubt about it. Flee.” So I fled back to Switzerland. That was an intense period in my life.
Have you ever done anything wrong?
– I have never done anything malicious, I swear. Never. Never have I even gossiped. My mother is looking down at me from above and I know she is happy with how she raised me.
You’re getting teary eyed.
– Oh… I’m not. By the way, I realized something important. Everyone keeps talking about health. Ciro Blazevic agrees that health is the most important thing. But even the healthiest of men are toast if they have no money. Sickness… I have always put money above all else. So my God gave me prostate cancer. Had I not had money, I couldn’t have gone to Innsbruck to the best surgeon in the world. After that, God gave me melanoma. I beat thatsucker too. Ah, but that’s not all! Next he gave me back issues. I couldn’t walk. They operated and damaged a nerve in my leg. I thought it was over, I was thinking about killing myself. So I’m lying there in hospital in Dubrava…
Did you really think that?
– I swear on my mother Kata. In the mirror I saw myself, pale as a ghost. But in that instant I realized I possessed the best medicine of all: money. My having money saved my life. Say what you will, but that’s the truth.
Football is… Love for your homeland?
– Absolutely. Football can lift a nation up, in a much greater extent than incompetent politicians can bring it down. Football is magnetic. My dream is for our national team to accomplish something greater than they did with me. We were highly motivated back then. In 1998, the whole country stood by our side. The ambience was perfect.
You parted ways with Mamic in 2003. Was that forever?
– Just today we attended a funeral together and exchanged pleasantries. I wish him no harm. He takes care of footballers in need all the time. He has a good heart. He will manage the first part in court. But I don’t know what the second part entails.
You never wear a tie?
– I do, when the occasion demands it. Ties are dying out. One of our famous politicians was wearing a tie once and I took it off him. He couldn’t tie it right if his life depended on it. But I’ve never managed to teach Bandic how to tie a tie. Look at Obama, I tell him. But to no avail. So I gave him ten ready to wear ties.
Have you ever sported a moustache?
– Never. My father used to have one, Hitler-style. (laughter)
Is your mother the most important person in your life?
– She is. She taught me the only lie God forgives: when Suljo says that Ibro is a dumbass, you go tell Ibrothat Suljo has only nice things to say about him. I retold that episode in Slovenia once; suddenly, someone from the audience exclaimed “Mamic has only nice things to say about you.” (laughter)
What are you like as a husband?
– Gentle and attentive. Have been for 55 years. Ask Nena, she will confirm it.
Have you ever cried?
– Unfortunately, I have. The older I get, the easier I tear up. When I talk about my mother…
You ran for president once…
– I did, someone talked me into it. Hloverka conducted a survey which showed that I would beat Mesic. So I announced my candidacy in hopes of screwing Mesic over. How naïve of me.
You collect paintings and watches?
– I have some interesting paintings. And some of the best watches in the world. That’s what happens when you’re a former poor kid… Someone once made up a gossip about me owning Tito’s watch. But that’s not Tito’s Schaffhausen… Popovic told me in Montenegro, “Ciro, don’t play dumb with me. I liberated Travnik and entered the town first, on a horse.” I replied that, in my house, the news was that Travnik fell, not that it was liberated. I still have witnesses to that conversation.
Is football a business?
– The most delicate of businesses. A game of football is a fight. A noble man’s fight, but a fight nonetheless. After our triumph over Germany, Asanovic came to me, “Come on, coach, give us a smile… it’s what we’ve all been waiting for.” But I couldn’t smile for the life of me – France was next. I was worried. Football requires constant reaffirmation. How could they have expected me to smile?
What is a footballer’s biggest motivation? Money?
– Screw money. You are motivated by pride. Victory. Patriotism. Not money. Footballers are millionaires anyway. I remember playing against Serbia in Beograd, after the latest war. The match was taking place at night and suddenly the lights went out. Everyone thought it was sabotage. Perhaps it was… The situation was unpleasant. Enveloping darkness. Suddenly, each of the Serbian players hugged one of mine to keep them safe. That has stuck with me. And I was kept safe by Serbian police. The Serbian team hugged my team! That’s friendship. Athletes build bridges, while the primitive masses tear them down and call for war. I fear nothing; I have seen and survived many things. But that gesture amazed me. That is what sport is about. That is friendship. That is football.
You have a lecture coming up tomorrow at a certain faculty. Will you be talking about football?
– Not really. I’ll be talking about my life.
The life of Ciro…
– The life of Ciro. Exactly.
Are you alright?
– Yes, I have unyielding strength.