An uneasy alliance between three men
6 July ~ Slaven Bilic officially stepped down as Croatia's head coach at the end of Euro 2012, and a familiar face will replace him. Bilic announced in May that he would be taking up a post at Lokomotiv Moscow. It didn't take long for the Croatian football federation (HNS) to reveal that Igor Stimac, one of Bilic's defensive colleagues from the national team that finished third at the World Cup in 1998, would take over. The two men were also team-mates at club level with Hajduk Split but neither confess to being friends.
"Igor and I are former team-mates," said Bilic recently. "I do not hide that we are not friends, in the sense that we go to dinner together and socialise. However, we respect each other; we drink coffee together if we meet."
Where Bilic is self-deprecating and affable – "I'd like to thank you all for putting up with me," he said in his final interview as national team coach – Stimac is forthright to the point of sanctimonious. He has been dubbed by some as a jack of all trades, having tried his hand as a sporting director, coach, football administrator and, somewhat disturbingly, a singer. Some blame Hajduk Split's current plight (the club have just been saved from bankruptcy by the city authorities) on his incompetence as sporting director, while as a coach he failed to save NK Zagreb from relegation in 2010.
At the start of 2011 he attempted a coup against Vlatko Markovic, the long-standing HNS president. Despite Markovic, who is 75, being widely despised for his alleged corruption and cliquey arrangements with the federation's regional administrators, Stimac's lunge for power failed. UEFA stepped in to protect the incumbent amid accusations of corruption on both sides.
Markovic announced in May that he was to step down voluntarily after Euro 2012. His successor is another of the 1998 golden boys, Davor Suker, whose appointment has raised eyebrows despite his popularity as a player. The perception is that the selection of the country's record goalscorer is motivated by "brand value" and that he lacks the charisma to be successful in a role of leadership.
As if to balance out Suker's more introverted nature, Zdravko Mamic, Dinamo Zagreb's ubiquitous executive vice-president, appears to be set for an even higher profile role within the new HNS regime. His perpetual buffoonery undermines both the federation and his club. Even supporters of Dinamo, who he has led to seven straight league titles, have repeatedly protested against his leadership. Accusations of match-fixing and conflicts of interest with his brother's role as an agent refuse to go away, but Mamic endures.
His resilience highlights the small number of hands able to influence Croatian football, described as "the Little Mafia" by Croatian president Ivo Josipovic. Mamic's elevation in HNS and Stimac's appointment as head coach has required some awkward politicking. Mamic was a fierce critic of Stimac's attempted HNS coup. Now, with an ally in Suker, he has performed a rapid turnaround, helping his old rival become head coach.
Mario Stanic, another of the World Cup 98 generation, articulated the situation: "I know all three men to some extent and I dare to predict their relationships. Three drivers want to drive one car. But six hands on the wheel of the same car will drive like a drunk." With such an awkwardly assembled line-up, Croatia's new era will be a delicate balancing act. Marcus Haydon