Unchain the colours before my eyes,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.
Yesterday's sorrows, tomorrow's white lies.
Scan the horizon, the clouds take me higher,
I shall return from out of fire.
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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