Having coached several clubs in IR Iran, China PR and Saudi Arabia, the Croatian Branko Ivankovic was already an established name in Asian football before taking the helm of the Omani national team at the beginning of this year.
Now he is hoping to draw on his extensive experience to lead Oman to a maiden appearance at the FIFA World Cup™.
Ivankovic has enjoyed considerable success over the years. As assistant to Miroslav Blazevic, he helped Croatia to third place at France 1998 then led IR Iran to Germany 2006. At club level, he has also picked up silverware in Croatia, China and Iran.
In conversation with FIFA.com, Ivankovic spoke about the difference between coaching clubs and national teams, his new challenge with Oman, his experience coaching IR Iran at Germany 2006, and the success enjoyed by Croatia at France 1998 and Russia 2018.
FIFA.com: After many years in club football, you returned to the international game with Oman at the start of this year. What prompted you to accept this job?
Branko Ivankovic: Honestly, after my work in Iran and Saudi Arabia, I wanted to take a break, but the Oman Football Association contacted me, inquired about the possibility of me taking over the national team and told me all about their programme. It’s a new challenge for me and my goal is to achieve things with the Sultanate and develop the game, which is lacking professionalism in the Middle East in general. Players need more experiences and need to work harder. It’s an enormous challenge for me.
Nine months after your appointment, you’re still waiting to take charge of your first game. Has that been difficult for you?
Unfortunately, football has been suspended all over the world for several months due to the coronavirus, and of course this applied to Oman too. The players haven’t had any games in the last five months or any [squad] training sessions, which is a problem for us. Personally, I’m not happy about the lack of competitions and friendly matches, but the good thing is that we’ll have an opportunity in October and November to get the players together and see how they perform after several months with no games. The next official match for Oman will be March 2021, but we must prepare well before then, and the players must compete in the local league in order to regain their form after that prolonged hiatus.
Oman is only the second national team you’ve coached. Does this mean you’re more comfortable working with clubs?
I’m lucky because when I started my career, I was coaching at a club but part of the technical staff of the Croatia national team at the same time. It was a great experience for me. Personally, I follow two distinct approaches depending on whether I’m working with a club or a national team. There’s a big difference between the two jobs. With a club, you get to work with players on a daily basis, but with national teams, you only see them in training camps. After I’d coached a number of clubs early on in my career, I had a great experience with the Croatian national team, which competed at the 1996 EURO and the 1998 World Cup. After that, I took over IR Iran, where I spent four years.
Based on your coaching experience, what’s the difference between coaching a club and a national team?
There’s a very big difference between the two. With clubs, you get enough time to select the players and work with them on a daily basis. You get to know a lot about the club, discover young players, and have the pressure of a game every three days or so. This is very good for me because I personally love to work every day. This continuity helps you achieve something with the club where you see the players once or twice a day, which in turn helps you learn a lot about them and how they develop.
On the other hand, you don’t get to spend enough time with a national team. You have to make quick decisions. Players sometimes arrive to the training camp a few days before official games. It gets very difficult when you play the qualifiers during international breaks. With major tournaments, you have more time but you have to select the best players and make quick decisions. Moreover, there are players who don’t get enough playing time with their clubs or are not performing well, which you have to bear in mind all the time. The most important thing for a coach, whether with a club or national team, is to provide a good atmosphere and create harmony between the players.
You helped IR Iran qualify for Germany 2006 and led them at the finals. What are your memories of that tournament?
When I coached Iran, we had a strong group of players who got us to Germany 2006, but we had a lot of problems before the start of the tournament when Ali Karimi, Mehdi Mahdavikia,Vahid Hashemian and Ferydoon Zandi got injured. They joined us a few days before the finals but they weren’t fully match fit. We played well against Mexico, Portugal and Angola, but that wasn’t sufficient to help us progress to the knockout stage, although it was a great experience.
My experience with Croatia at France 1998 helped me with Iran. At the 2004 Asian Cup in China, we put in a great performance and came third. We beat a Korea Republic team who came fourth at the 2002 World Cup. After that, the Iranian national team continued to make progress
Speaking of France 1998, you were Miroslav Blazevic’s assistant and helped Croatia to third place. How did you achieve such a great result?
At France 1998 we had a great experience. We had shown two years earlier at EURO 1996 that we had a strong team. We beat Turkey and Denmark and played very well against Germany despite losing 2-1. We left that tournament with great confidence. We then defeated Ukraine in the play-offs [for France] – in my opinion the best ever Ukraine side, which included the likes of Shevchenko and Rebrov. We were very confident about our chances at France 1998.
Moreover, Mr Blazevic and his coaching staff created a wonderful atmosphere for a great group of players that included Boban, Suker, Bilic, Prosinecki, Asanovic and Ladic. We built an excellent team and deserved our third place. When we returned to Croatia, there were more than a million people on the streets waiting for us. The great result we achieved in France not only surprised the Croatian people but also the rest of the world.
Did you believe you could achieve such a result before the start of the tournament?
Yes! It may be surprising, but during our entire preparations, Mr Blazevic and I believed in the team’s ability to succeed so we tried to convince the players and everyone around us that we should be very ambitious in France. We wanted to do something big. We had players with experience and titles at top clubs. Moreover, they had extensive international experience and the atmosphere was great. We were all united.
What you achieved at France 1998 was surpassed by the side that finished runners-up at Russia 2018. How do you rate what Croatia did two years ago when they came close to winning the world title?
After the wonderful Vatreni side of the 1990s, Croatia produced another fantastic generation that got amazing results at Russia 2018. We had players at Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, and others who play for the most successful clubs in the world. We knew that we only needed to create a good atmosphere to get good results. Being an excellent coach, Dalic managed to do just that. The group were convinced that they could achieve something outstanding in world football, and that’s what they did. Some people may not get it, but we believed in our ability to succeed because we knew we had fantastic players.
Do you think the current generation is the best in Croatia’s history?
It’s certainly difficult to compare the two generations. Each generation has its own characteristics, but in terms of results, we have to bear in mind that in 1994 and after the war, Croatia built a national team from scratch and at that time nobody knew about us or expected big things from us. It was difficult at the time to put ourselves on the world football map. However, people started to respect us as a team because we played at the EURO and World Cup after these challenging times. Twenty years later, Croatia came second at the World Cup, which definitely means there is something special about this current generation. Comparing the two of them is difficult, but we have to admit that both were excellent and we’re proud of each of them!