Tomislav Ivic – An Obituary

28 06 2011

by Adam Bate

In football there are two types of great coaches. There are those, such as Sir Alex Ferguson or Guy Roux, who construct a club in their image and remain there for a decade or four. Then there are those like Bela Guttmann who opt for the short sharp shock approach – instilling their beliefs, ensuring an upturn in fortunes and then moving on. The remarkable Tomislav Ivic, who died last week aged 77, was predominantly in the latter camp. He was also one of the most successful football managers in the history of the game.

Born in Split in 1933, Ivic – like so many of the best coaches – enjoyed a moderate playing career. His time at RNK Split did, however, result in him being handed a coaching role at the age of 34 and embark upon a career that would see him manage clubs in 14 different countries as well as four national teams. Along the way he enjoyed phenomenal success. In fact, he remains the only coach to win league titles in six different countries. It is a testament to his abilities as a strategist and is indicative of an enthusiasm for the game that transcended national boundaries.

The first of those many league trophies came with another of his former clubs, Hajduk Split, in 1974. His success there paved the way for that first big move beyond the confines of the former Yugoslavia. And what a move. Tasked with replacing the legendary Rinus Michels at Ajax, Ivic rose to the challenge. He was inheriting a side past its best, but was still able to guide Ajax to the Eredivisie title after finishing third in the previous campaign. Sadly, Ivic’s more pragmatic approach was not enough for the high-minded aficionados of Total Football and a return to Split followed.

Ivic’s time at Ajax was significant in many respects. Far from deterring him from coaching abroad, it instead heralded the beginning of one of football’s great globetrotting stories. It also marked the start of a happy knack that would follow Ivic through much of his career – he possessed an uncanny ability to win the league in his first season at a new club.

Whether this was down to the wily Croat’s shrewd choice of employer or his impressive motivational skills is a matter of opinion, but it seems likely that his intense training methods had a significant impact in the short-term. Joao Pinto, the gifted Portuguese forward, had the dubious pleasure of working under Ivic at Benfica. Pinto said: “He was the only coach who ordered me to train three times a day. Once before breakfast, another after and a third one on the afternoon. Despite that, I enjoyed working with him.”

His methods clearly worked. Ivic claimed the Yugoslav title immediately upon his return to Hajduk Split and then won the Belgian league with Anderlecht at the first time of asking in 1981. A spell at Galatasaray followed before the much-travelled Croat had a stint in the Italian top flight with lowly Avellino. While winning Serie A may have proven a bridge too far, Ivic still managed to added Greek and Portuguese titles to his collection – with Panathinaikos and Porto respectively – before the decade was out.

Ivic also won the European Super Cup and the Portuguese Cup in that 1987-88 season with Porto. He later enjoyed a second period in charge of the Dragoes but was replaced by Sir Bobby Robson and his assistant Jose Mourinho. The Real Madrid coach now seems keen to adhere to the Ivic approach with short stays at successful clubs and the old man was certainly impressed with his young Portuguese replacement. Speaking in 2010, Ivic said: “Mourinho is a genius. Neither Ferguson nor [Fabio] Capello can work with so much success in different countries.”

Ivic’s assessment of Mourinho perhaps reveals what he regarded as his own greatest achievement – that ability to go anywhere in the world and be successful. The 1990s brought a Copa del Ray with Atletico Madrid and a Ligue 1 title with Marseille. It also saw a series of forays into international management. A brief stint as co-manager of Croatia was followed by a time in charge of the United Arab Emirates. There was disappointment in charge of Iran, however, when Ivic was sacked on the eve of the 1998 World Cup.

It would have been a fitting swansong to a wonderful career. Instead, that career drew to a close with a consulting role at Standard Liege. But his legacy had been assured more than twenty years earlier. Tomislav Ivic blazed a trail for the coach without borders and he did it picking up 16 trophies along the way. It is perhaps appropriate that the final word goes to Slaven Bilic, the current Croatia coach, who summed up this legacy in glowing terms:

“Not only Croatia, but the world has lost one of the greatest ever football experts. Creator, coach, leader, and a football revolutionary. One of the few chosen, who will forever be written in record books among the true geniuses who have literally changed the concept of football games.”

Tomislav Ivic passed away in his hometown of Split on Friday 24 June aged 77 years old.

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