Zagreb (AFP) – Appointing a former TV and radio repairman as the national coach has done little to appease Croatia’s volatile fans, but the football federation insist Ante Cacic is the man for the job at Euro 2016.
“I am satisfied that Ante Cacic deserves to be our national team coach,” said Croatian football federation president, and former national hero, Davor Suker upon Cacic’s appointment last September.
“He has worked with eight or nine players in this team before, which was an important factor for us.”
Now shouldering the hopes of a nation divided along football lines between fierce rivals Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, Cacic will be appearing at his first major finals with his native country.
But the jury remains out on whether the 62-year-old can inspire Croatia’s talented stars to perform to their full potential.
On paper, Croatia — who face Turkey, the Czech Republic and defending champions Spain in Group D — can better their previous best results of reaching the quarter-finals in 1996 and 2008.
Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona, Real Madrid stars Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic of Juventus and Inter Milan midfielders Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic are just a few of the stars of a Croatia squad that is brimming with talent.
But, collectively, they have achieved little since an historic third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup, and Croatia’s qualifying campaign was marred by fan violence, controversy and the untimely sacking of Niko Kovac.
When asked if he would be able to repair a TV set now, Cacic — who owned a Zagreb repair shop from 1978 to 1991 — replied smiling: “No chance! I would not know how to open it. It’s a different world.”
But it is more his lack of credentials as a player and comparative lack of success as a coach that caused a backlash from fans when he was appointed last October.
Predecessors Kovac, Igor Stimac, Slaven Bilic, or charismatic Miroslav ‘Ciro’ Blazevic — with whom Croatia enjoyed their 1998 World Cup run — all enjoyed distinguished playing careers and success to some extent as coaches.
After his television and radio days, Cacic qualified as a football coach through the Faculty of Physical Education at the University of Zagreb.
After a brief spell in charge of Libya’s under-20 side in 2005-2006, he returned home to steer Dubrava then Inter Zapresic to Croatia’s top division. After that there was only scant success.
Despite taking over at top flight side Dinamo Zagreb in 2011, he was sacked less than a year later.
Cacic had subsequent spells at Slovenian champions Maribor (2013) and had only taken charge of Lokomotiva Zagreb months previously when he was put in charge of the national team.
Cacic was appointed following the sacking of former international midfielder Kovac after Croatia drew away to Azerbaijan and suffered an away defeat to Norway.
He took over for Croatia’s remaining two qualifiers, steering them to wins over Bulgaria (3-0) and Malta (1-0) to finish second behind Group H winners Italy.
In hindsight, Croatia are lucky to be at the finals.
They were docked a point by UEFA after Croatia’s fans painted a swastika on the pitch in Split ahead of their qualifier with Italy on June 12, 2015.
Yet controversy has never been far away from Croatia or the team’s fans.
Their fans’ behaviour has led to a series of FIFA and UEFA sanctions.
Cacic’s assistant, former Croatia and Hertha Berlin defender Josip Simunic, served a 10-match international ban for giving a fascist salute prior to his appointment by the Croatian football federation.
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