Celebrated Croatian coach Miroslav Blažević has always hidden his age. Indeed, it was a big secret until he recently revealed himself to be 77, not that he looks like slowing down any time soon.
"I have never been a better coach than I am now," said the NK Zagreb trainer, better known by his nickname Ćiro. "I'm only 77 and I'm happy." He may be reluctant to discuss birthdays, but there is one notable anniversary Blažević is looking forward to; next year he will celebrate 50 years since his first coaching job, with FC Vevey in Switzerland.
"I was only 28 and the club were in the fourth division, without spectators," he recalls. "I was not only a coach, I was a player too. In four years I took them to the first division." In the last half a century, Blažević has held the reins of 18 clubs from France to Iran and China, as well as five national teams. Perhaps his biggest achievement of all was the third-placed finish he achieved with Croatia at the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
He became a coaching icon thereafter, as much for his charisma as his results on the pitch. His stories are legend to this day. "When I took over FK Priština in 1986 and I was preparing the team for a match, they told me: 'Boss, they are breaking into the stadium, there are 35,000 people outside and they all want to come in to see you.' I went and waved at them, and they all behaved fine after that."
Of all his myriad jobs, Blažević found NK Osijek in Croatia the most challenging. "It was ten years ago, and I was most afraid then. The fear came just after I arrived at the club, as I had never faced a more difficult situation. However, I managed to be successful there and I saved the club. That was my biggest battle."
Blažević was also a star in China, where he coached Shanghai Shenua FC. Greeted by hordes of fans at the airport, he lived up to his billing. He also had a spell in charge of the Iranian national team and his most recent job before returning to Croatia was with Iranian club side Sanat Mes Kerman FC. "It was terrific, fantastic scenes," he said. "Thousands were in the stands and yelling 'Ćiro, Ćiro!'. I cry now when I think about those scenes."
His current post is arguably as daunting as any other, with Zagreb rooted to the foot of the Croatian League even after Sunday's 1-0 win against city rivals and league leaders GNK Dinamo Zagreb. "I said in 1996 when I took charge of HNK Rijeka that I would jump from the Kantrida rock [a cliff overlooking one side of the stadium] if I failed. Now I am ready to jump from the Cibona Tower in Zagreb if I fail to save NK Zagreb."
His charm and enthusiasm clearly undimmed despite his advancing years, Blažević is obviously young at heart. "I just don't want opposition fans to yell that I am an old man. I have never felt younger."
Blažević's fellow top-flight septuagenarians
József Garami, 73, MTK Budapest
Craig Brown, 72, Aberdeen FC
Sir Alex Ferguson, 70, Manchester United FC
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