Guest post by Aleksandar Babac
NOTE FROM ZAMAN: The author has written an enthralling piece on Super Slav! He is also the creator of the largest West Ham-based Croatian Facebook page.
There was definitely something in the air that hot September in 1968 when Slaven Bilic was born in Split on Wednesday the 11th. Seven days later, in the same hospital room, his childhood friend Toni Kukoc was born. They grew up together in the same building, and joined Hajduk’s youth football academy together. But the coaches there told them that they weren’t talented enough. Toni decided to play basketball professionally and later made sporting history, side by side with Michael Jordan, winning three consecutive NBA Championship titles with the Chicago Bulls.
Slaven was persistent with football, as with all things he does. He grew up in the city block of Spinut, near Hajduk’s training ground with his parents and his brother, Domagoj, who gave him the nickname Nane, as he couldn’t say Slaven. Allegedly, Slav used to eat a lot of bananas as a child, so Domagoj once mispronounced banana saying “Nane” and the nickname stuck. He still keeps it to this day in Croatia. Slav’s father was a university professor and dean at the Faculty of Law at Split University where Slav graduated in 1993 and became a lawyer. “You’re a lawyer. What are you doing playing football?” – was a common question asked by many of his teammates.
Slaven Bilic is anything but a typical footballer. He started his youth career in Hajduk Split at the age of 9 – the club became his greatest passion. In fact, there isn’t a single person born in Dalmatia who doesn’t love Hajduk, football and Split. It is a magical triangle right on the Dalmatian coast! In Hajduk Split, he finished his playing career 24 years later, and made his first steps in becoming a manager. Even in his younger days, Slaven showcased absolute loyalty to the team. There were two dressing rooms at the club – one classy (only for the chosen first team stars) and the second for the rest. When they called him in to use the first dressing room, he refused because he got used to the small one where all his friends were.
In 1991, the team won the final of the final Yugoslav Cup against Red Star in Belgrade. He was one of the most talented of Hajduk’s footballers in a generation alongside skipper and former Hammer Igor Stimac, as well as Alen Boksic, and Robert Jarni. Even now, Slaven says that winning that trophy was one of the most memorable things of his entire career. Soon after his graduation in 1993, he moved to the Bundesliga where he joined Karlsruher. Ten months later, he became team captain, the first-ever foreign skipper in the top German league. It was such a big honour and accomplishment for such a young player from the newborn Balkan country of Croatia.
We know that the Olympic Stadium was his destiny, but on July 5th 1992, he debuted for the Croatian national team versus Australia at Olympic Park Stadium in Melbourne. What a coincidence! Six years later, he was a member of the Golden Generation of the Vatren (‘the Blazers’), achieving the most glorifying moment in Croatian football history finishing in 3rd place at World Cup in France 1998.
“My son, do you have some cigarettes? I need them for the bench… and when you will take off that earring?” – a question asked by Miroslav Ciro. Blazevic, the selector for the Croatian national team, who was the manager on the bench from 1994 to 2000. Slav replied: “I won’t. The earring reminds me of my time at law school”. As a matter of fact, Slaven started smoking during his faculty years, whilst all other team mates were sleeping. Ciro was very strict, and influential, but also very generous and emotional – just like Slav.
Nane learnt a lot from Ciro. The coach always stated that Slaven was like a son to him. In fact, we could say that Ciro had an influence on Slaven to pursue his dream of becoming a manager. Harry Redknapp brought him in 1996 for a fee of £1.3M, setting the club’s record for the highest fee paid for an incoming player at the time. His dreams had finally come true, as Slaven finally lived in the country of rock music and where football was invented. In the same place, six months later, Slaven played his first and final European Championship. Croatia lost 2-1 at Wembley in the quarter-final against Germany after Igor Stimac was sent off. Slaven cried upon the confirmation of his team’s defeat when the whistle blew.
Who could’ve imagined that ten years later, Slaven would become the Croatian national manager, and Igor Stimac would succeed him 6 years after? Who could’ve imagined that Slav would go back to Wembley 11 years later to defeat England 3-2 in the final qualifying match of the EURO’s in 2008? Who could’ve predicted back then that England needed a draw in order to qualify, with it going down to the wire of the dozen matches? Slaven made a risky sub with former Hammer Mladen Petric scoring the winner for Croatia in the 77 minute.
A year later, Slaven moved to Merseyside, joining Everton in the summer of 1997. Terms were agreed much earlier, but he stayed with us until the end of the season to help the team not get relegated. The same year, he was presented as Hammer of the Year runner-up to Julian Dicks. Bilic became one of the most influential Croats in England with some offering him a position in the Croatian embassy. He was very influential for many generations of young players, as well to the Toffee’s Wayne Rooney, who had his full size poster beside the bed. Although Slaven was one of the most valued defenders in the Premier League, many didn’t know that his playing career finished just a month before the World Cup in France 1998.
“’We need you, my son. Just for one match – just for the Argentina match” said Ciro, who begged Slaven to play. Slaven replied: “But boss, how I will play with a hip fracture? I can’t even walk, it hurts so much!” After giving it some thought, Slav said: “What the hell, it’s now or never.” He decided to go and to play at the World Cup, and was roommates with ex Real Madrid and Barcelona star, Robert Prosinecki, who later became Slaven’s assistant on the Croatian national bench. As players, two of them were smokers, so they shared a smoking room and Ciro tolerated it.
It wouldn’t have been the same without Slav. He was phenomenal and sophisticated, ‘a good spirit’ of the team and a good leader, sacrificing his health and playing with a fractured hip. Under the watchful eye of the medics, he received physio treatment every single day. He played seven full matches, elapsing 630 minutes during the 28-day tournament. Slaven and Igor Stimac got a chance for revenge for the EURO 96 defeat, which they took with a superb 3-0 win in Lyon against Germany in the World Cup quarter-final. It was a breathtaking moment for all of the football world to witness. Another former Hammer, Davor Suker, was the tournament star, scoring the most goals and winning the coveted Golden Boot award.
“I apologize for not wearing a tie” – were the first Slaven’s words when he was unanimously appointed the manager of Croatian national football team. He managed the Croatian team for 6 years – only Ciro lasted longer. He showed courage and determination in each match. After that terrific win against England in Wembley back in 2007, many of us Croats knew that we had a manager with whom we could achieve big things. Even then, celebrating this victory, he showed his compassion comforting young Rooney, having known him since he was a teenager playing for Everton. After two EURO tournaments in 2008 and 2012, Slaven resigned from the national team but developed and introduced many young players to the big stage at the national level. Under his command, he gave debuts to Lovren, Corluka, Perisic, Mandzukic, and Rakitic.
When Slaven was born in September 1968, the no.1 hit on the UK Charts list was The Beatles Hey Jude. Their LP was the first album that Slaven bought as a kid – this is where his love of music and the British way of living began. Music influenced his life, and attitude. When he speaks about music, it is as if he is another person.
A passionate lyricist and guitarist, he wrote and played the Supporters anthem Vatreno Ludilo performed by his hard-rock band, Rawbau, often using Dalmatian buzzwords like Ludilo, and Strava (meaning “madness” and “scare”) to describe his admiration for Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, The Rolling Stones, and Judas Priest to name a few. During his playing career at West Ham, the Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman said he couldn’t believe that Slav called him “a legend”. From those days in London, Slaven developed a nice friendship with Iron Maiden’s founder Steve Harris, who once asked him to join them on stage and play guitar at a Croatian concert.
“I was really living life to the full” – something Bilic would effectively say many times in interviews about his life in London.
“For me, London is the greatest city in the world. It represents everything for me: England, the British lifestyle, humour, music, football, Only Fools and Horses, Monty Python, The Rolling Stones – that’s England for me. In the streets of London you can see everything: pubs, buskers, aristocracy, subcultures… When you see this mix of nations, religions, and cultures, you become inspired.”
Slaven Bilic, a football manager, international player, guitarist, polyglot and a lawyer is definitely not the best and for sure not even the most talented Croatian footballer in history, but he has such a unique and strong personality which makes him a person to admire. Our rebel with a cause will always remain ‘a good boy’ of football. He is a respectable gentleman, Bilic – always was and will be the kid from the block.