Croatia coach Slaven Bilic wasn't a typical soccer player and he isn't a typical coach. Parallel to his career, which began with Hajduk Split in then Yugoslavia and continued with Karlsruher in Germany and West Ham in England, Bilic completed a law degree and played guitar with a rock band.
But the lawyer/rock musician, who was part of the Croatia team that took third place at the 1998 World Cup, is first and foremost a successful coach. After Croatia's failure at the last World Cup, he was appointed, at the age of only 38, to coach the national team.
In an interview with Haaretz Bilic revealed his esteem for Israeli soccer and expressed his concerns about the Euro 2008 clash with Israel in Ramat Gan in less than two weeks' time. A few days ago, after naming his squad for the match, Bilic said that the game in Ramat Gan would be tougher than Croatia's previous Group E matches against England (2-0) and Russia (0-0).
Do you really believe that Israel is a tougher opponent than England or Russia?
"I don't think that Israel is a better team than England - there are few teams in the world that are better than England. But Israel will come into the game full of confidence and it is returning to play at home, where it hasn't lost in seven years, so I believe we can expect a very tough match. Israel is an excellent team - the fact is that France, Switzerland and Ireland didn't manage to beat it during its previous [World Cup] qualifying campaign. An away game in Israel is a tough prospect."
Will you be happy with a draw?
"Of course, I will be coming with the aim of winning, but no team comes to Israel as favorite, and a draw is certainly a good result for Croatia."
Bilic is familiar with the Israeli players and not surprisingly singles out Yossi Bena youn. "Yossi Benayoun is Israel's key player. He is very dangerous and can sting you at any given moment. He is the kind of player who can change the course of a match in one move. Apart from Benayoun, Israel has a very good front line with Roberto Colautti and Yaniv Katan, and it has Idan Tal in midfield. Israel also has a solid defense and an excellent goalkeeper in Dudu Awat. Put them all together and you have a very good team."
Rumor has it that Giovanni Rosso is helping you prepare for the match
"I haven't spoken to Giovanni [who plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv] and whoever published that report has wrong information."
As a young coach, is it more difficult to coach a national side?
"On the contrary, I believe it is an advantage. I played with some of the players and I coached others at Hajduk Split and with the under-21s and some of them are my friends. So it is definitely an advantage to be a young coach because I can understand the players better. I understand their mentality and their problems. We think the same way, but that doesn't mean that I don't know how to exercise my authority."
Bilic proved his last point, when he threw three key players out of his squad on the eve of his team's opening match against Russia after they were spotted at a Zagreb night club. The three were returned to the squad for the match against England.
As for Israeli soccer, Bilic believes the game here has taken great steps forward. "I know that Israel came very close to qualification in its previous campaigns. You also have two teams playing in the UEFA Cup group stage and several players appearing for teams in Europe, so without a doubt you are making progress."
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