Ivica Osim: a Yugoslavian football giant who twice rejected Real Madrid | Soccer

Ivica Osim was ill, his wife Asima said. Would I mind coming to his Sarajevo flat from him the following day? But the following day he was little better. Go to the cafe in the square, Asima said, wait there and he would try to come down later. By that point, in all honesty, I wasn’t expecting much. But after an hour or so he shuffled slowly over, sat down and began to talk. His voice was weak, his pale eyes watery, but when we said goodbye three hours later, it was because I had to go to the airport.

That was in 2009 and Osim was still suffering the effects of the stroke two years earlier that ended his career as Japan manager. He had been watching an Arsenal game and when he came round in hospital, his first question about him was what the final score had been. In truth, he never really recovered and died on Sunday, five days short of his 81st birthday. But he talked, with characteristic eloquence, thoughtfulness and directness.

He talked about playing for Yugoslavia when they beat England in the semi-final of the 1968 European Championship – “they were great runners. You played against Nobby Stiles, Alan Mullery, Bobby Charlton, and you thought they must be playing their twins as well, because it seemed there were such a lot of them” – and about Mullery becoming in that game the first England player sent off: “It was a big surprise, because Englishmen were famous for fair play at that time. In football, in games like that you sometimes forget yourself. Today it has gone too far as a business for fair play to matter. Even fair play is a business today.”

He talked about managing Japan: “They have covered everything with full attention, and they know everything they need, but they simply do not have that. They have an inferiority complex, and also you can’t buy tradition … there is no risk, there is no improvisation in Japan, and football can’t exist without that … On the other hand, it’s very easy to work in Japan because the discipline is very hard. But maybe that isn’t so good because it kills a coach. Inevitably you start to lose ideas and authority. You don’t want to provoke crises, but you need problems so you can create solutions. The most important thing in Japan is to make them think with their own heads, not with somebody else’s.”

He talked about commercialisation: “We are not excited by how Edin Dzeko is playing; we are waiting to see which club he will join next and what price he will be.” He talked about twice turning down the Real Madrid job and about his glory years at Sturm Graz.

An image of Ivica Osim on Sarajevo city hall on Sunday after his death. Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images

And he talked, with infinite sadness, about the war. Osim was coach of Yugoslavia at the 1990 World Cup. “The team,” he said, “was far, far better than the country. It would be a fantasy to regret that generation of players, and not to talk about what happened afterwards. Lots of people were killed. The country was destroyed. Sometimes there are things that are more important than football.”

They lost on penalties to Argentina in the quarter-final, a game in which they had the better chances despite going down to 10 men after half an hour. Osim had to leave out the midfielder Srecko Katanec because his family had received death threats before the game. “I can’t persuade anybody not to think about that,” he said. “Instead of all the other things, you had to be careful about the name, about religion, about the club, about the region of the country a player’s from. You had to calculate everything. Everything is politics. Every club was politics and especially the national team was politics.”

Ivica Osim's Yugoslavia blocked the way for Diego Maradona during a 1990 World Cup quarter-final that Argentina won on penalties.
Ivica Osim’s Yugoslavia blocked the way for Diego Maradona during a 1990 World Cup quarter-final that Argentina won on penalties. Photograph: Eric Renard/Corbis/Getty Images

He was disillusioned, but remained romantic. “I think about what might have happened if we’d got past Argentina,” he said. “Maybe I am optimistic, but in my private illusion I wonder what might have happened if Yugoslavia had played in the semi-final or the final, what would have happened to the country. Maybe there would have been no war if we’d won the World Cup. I don’t think things would have changed in that way, but sometimes you dream about what might have happened.”

Most of all he talked about football. Osim was many things: a tall, elegant forward noted for his dribbling ability, who was loved as much in Sedan, Valenciennes and Strasbourg, where he finished his career, as he had been at Zeljeznicar in his native Sarajevo; he was a coach who could be ferociously tough with his players (and his translators of him, one of whom he reduced to tears during the Asian Cup in 2007 because he felt he was conveying his anger towards his players with insufficient vigour); but most of all he was part of that great generation of Yugoslavs who traveled the globe playing and coaching but want most of all to be sitting in some Balkan square over a coffee, reminiscing and arguing about the game.

He remained hugely popular in Japan, where a book of his sayings sold more than 400,000 copies and was still regularly visited by Japanese journalists. In his final years, as illness exhausted him, football was what kept Osim going, talking about it, or going to playgrounds to watch children play. It was his life from him. He hated much of what it had become, and yet he loved it still, for the joy it offered, and the relationships it could build between very different people. He was, first and foremost, a football man.

Leave a Comment