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Soccer Goodbyes: ‘Till Next Time’

January 9th, 2019 · No Comments · Brazil 2014, Football, soccer

The championship tournament of Asian soccer is under way at the moment in the United Arab Emirates, and I sorta/kinda wish I were there.

Asian teams are becoming more interesting, and perhaps a bit more competitive, in recent years, and to have a look at the top 24 of them, all playing this month in one small country … well, that could be fun.

But the decision came down to a long stretch of time in Southern California versus most of a month in the UAE … and family and friends won out, easily.

One thing about soccer, is how players and coaches and clubs and national teams repeatedly cross paths.

The Asian Cup (as the continental tournament is known) is a perfect opportunity to consider, anew, the upheaval inherent in soccer, and particularly at the “manager” level.

It is the ultimate forum in sports where no one should ever say “goodbye” but, rather, “until we meet again.”

I thought about this when I saw that Iraq, one of the 24 teams in the Asian Cup, is coached by one Srecko Katanec, with whom I spent a few fraught days in Beirut in September of 2011.

Katanec was the UAE manager, back in 2011, charged with leading the national team to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The primary trouble then was that the UAE’s talent pool was very shallow. It demonstrated that by salvaging only a tie (versus North Korea) in pool play in the 2011 Asian Cup, and failed to score a goal.

Katanec survived only because the president of the UAE Football Association had a strong belief in him, a former Sampdoria fullback who had led his native Slovenia to the 2002 World Cup.

Katanec also was well-liked by journalists like me because he gave his mobile phone number to anyone who asked for it, and answered his calls. He was very accessible and honest to a fault — particularly when it came to conceding his Emirati team was not well-conditioned and did not seem interested in doing something about it.

The next round of qualifying for 2014 began, and the UAE began by losing 3-2 at home to Kuwait, a damaging defeat against a team considered to be on the same level as the UAE.

The next match was in Beirut, against Lebanon, which was ranked No. 160 in the world — or very close to the bottom of the global rankings. This was a must-win, and I wrote that once I got to my modest hotel in downtown Beirut, Lebanon’s capital.

There was zero soccer fever in Lebanon, which had been awful for a long time and was turning towards basketball as the national sport. Reports in Lebanese media ahead of the match were limited and negative.

Then Lebanon and its German coach, Theo Bucker, defeated Katanec and his Emiratis 3-1, essentially ending the UAE’s chance to qualify for the 2014 World Cup — nearly three years ahead of Brazil 2014.

Katanec was fired 90 minutes after the match. This was after his post-match press conference, and after everybody had left the national stadium, including me, filing a comment piece as well as a news story.

The office picked up rumors that Katanec had been fired, and I grabbed a cab and went off to the team hotel, the Safir Heliopolis Hotel, to confirm the gossip.

I found Katanec and three of his assistants almost immediately, watching another Asian qualifier in the hotel bar. Which made sense. He and his assistants had been fired. A perfect time to go to the bar and order up some beers and sit in stunned silence.

I was up against deadline by the time I found Katanec.

He said he appreciated getting the news first, from the FA president. “We talked about many things, and I was grateful for that,” Katanec said. “When I was sacked at (Greek club) Olimpiakos, nobody tells me nothing.”

He said he was “angry, not sad” at the turn of events because he felt more could have been accomplished, and he said he would still be employed had the UAE defeated Lebanon.

He said the next coach will need time. “I hope they are patient with him, and I hope some of the players will join a little higher level of football to get more experience. It will be necessary in the future if you want to win.”

He said the national team needs to examine their work ethic. “You can win and you can lose, but you must work,” he said. “I know this, if you are not working, you lose the game.”

Katanec had previously criticized the chaotic structure of the domestic league, the lack of Emirati strikers and the fitness of his players, but he was not offering any mitigating circumstances for the latest defeat.

“I thought I did my job, but we lost and it is my fault,” Katanec said. “I do not want to make excuses.”

He had a parting shot for me as I left. The day before I had written a column about the ups and (especially) the downs of his two years leading the UAE side, and suggested he would be fired if he didn’t defeat Lebanon, which did not even have a national league.

“You write some not-very-nice things about me,” he said. I smiled. Maybe shrugged. Then he said, “Do you play football?” I said, “I played American football.” And he nodded, like he had scored some significant point.

(Americans clearly can’t/don’t know anything about soccer, apparently. Even if they have covered four World Cup finals and about a hundred Landon Donovan games.)

(A side note: I rushed into the hotel’s business center after talking to the coach, and almost knocked myself out when I tried to enter the glass room headfirst — the glass was so clean I didn’t see it. No blood. So I was good to go.)

I banged out a couple of stories, about the game, and about the firing, and that was that. I escaped Beirut the next day.

I figured I would never see Katanec again, but this was before I came to realize how the soccer world tends to repeat itself.

He had another stint with the Slovenian national team from 2013 to 2017, and was ousted when the Slovenes failed, narrowly, to qualify for Russia 2018.

He was unemployed for most of 2018 before Iraq hired him in September to lead its side in the current Asian Cup.

If I were in the UAE now, I would have gone to see Iraq play Vietnam last night (and win 3-2) … and if the Iraqis have a chance to advance, I would have gone to see Katanec and his team in a Group D showdown with regional rival Iran, a week from now.

It would be just another instance of soccer people bumping into each other somewhere down the line.

See you next time, Srecko.





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