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 apartment in Sarajevo the next day? But the next day he was hardly better. Go to the cafe in the square, Asima said, wait there and he would try to come down later. At that point, I honestly wasn’t expecting much. But after about an hour, he slowly shuffled over, sat down, and started talking. His voice was weak, his pale eyes were watering, 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 from the effects of the stroke that ended his career as Japan coach two years earlier. He had been watching an Arsenal game and when he woke up in hospital his first question was what the final score was like. In truth, he never really recovered and died on Sunday, five days before his 81st birthday. But he spoke with characteristic eloquence, thoughtfulness, and directness.

He spoke of playing for Yugoslavia when they beat England in the semi-finals of the 1968 European Championship – “they were great runners. They played Nobby Stiles, Alan Mullery, Bobby Charlton and felt they had to play their twins too because there seemed to be so many of them” – and about Mullery becoming the first England player sent off in that game : “It was a big surprise because the English were famous for fair play back then. In football, in games like this, you sometimes forget yourself. Today it has gone too far as a business for fair play to play a role. Fair play is also a business today.”

He spoke about the management of Japan: “They have covered everything with full attention and they know everything they need, but they just don’t have that. They have an inferiority complex and you can’t buy tradition either… there’s no risk, there’s 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 tough . But maybe that’s not so good because it kills a coach. Inevitably, you begin to lose ideas and authority. You don’t want to provoke crises, but you need problems to create solutions. The most important thing in Japan is to get them to think with their own head, not someone else’s.”

He spoke about commercialization: “We’re not thrilled with the way Edin Dzeko is playing; We’re waiting to see which club he’ll join next and what the price will be.” He spoke about turning down the job at Real Madrid twice and his glory years at Sturm Graz.

A picture of Ivica Osim on Sarajevo City Hall on the Sunday after his death.
A picture of Ivica Osim on Sarajevo City Hall on the Sunday after his death. Photo: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images

And he spoke about the war with infinite sadness. Osim coached Yugoslavia at the 1990 World Cup. “The team,” he said, “was much, much better than the country. It would be a fantasy to bemoan this generation of gamers and not talk about what happened after that. Many people were killed. The country has been destroyed. Sometimes there are things that are more important than football.”

They lost on penalties to Argentina in the quarter-finals, a game in which they had the better chances, despite being down to 10 men after half an hour. Osim had to sit out midfielder Srecko Katanec after his family received death threats before the game. “I can’t convince anyone not to think about it,” he said. “Instead of all the other things, you had to pay attention to the name, to the religion, to the club, to the region of the country a player comes from. Everything had to be calculated. Everything is politics. Every club was politics and especially the national team was politics.”

Ivica Osim's Yugoslavia blocked Diego Maradona during a 1990 World Cup Quarterfinals which Argentina won on penalties.
Ivica Osim’s Yugoslavia blocked Diego Maradona during a 1990 World Cup Quarterfinals which Argentina won on penalties. Photo: Eric Renard/Corbis/Getty Images

He was disillusioned but remained romantic. “I think about what would have happened if we had passed Argentina,” he said. “Maybe I’m optimistic, but in my private illusion I’m wondering what would have happened if Yugoslavia had played in the semi-finals or finals, what would have happened to the country. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a war if we had won the World Cup. I don’t think things would have changed that way, but sometimes you dream of what could have happened.”

He mostly talked about football. Osim was many things: a tall, elegant forward known for his dribbling skills, who was as popular in Sedan, Valenciennes and Strasbourg, where he ended his career, as he was with Zeljeznicar in his hometown of Sarajevo; he was a coach who could be incredibly tough with his players (and his translators, one of whom he brought to tears during the 2007 Asian Cup because he felt he was expressing his anger at his players with too little panache); Above all, he belonged to that great generation of Yugoslavs who have traveled the world to play and train, but above all want to sit with a coffee in a Balkan square, reminisce and argue about the game.

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He remained very 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, when illness was exhausting him, Osim kept football going, talked about it, or went to playgrounds to watch children play. It was his life. He hated much of what became of it, yet he loved it for the joy it offered and the relationships it could create between very different people. He was first and foremost a footballer.

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