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Srecko Katanec: A Big Deal in Slovenia

October 8th, 2017 · No Comments · Abu Dhabi, Football, soccer, Sports Journalism, The National, UAE, World Cup

As the ultimate international sport, one might expect soccer would offer all sorts of odd and interesting connections.

This guy played for that guy, and later became coach of this team that I covered …

It really is rather amazing, in a sort of “three degrees of separation” way. And I have noticed a few more of them today as more Russia 2018 World Cup berths are confirmed.

Including a guy who may be The First Man of Slovenian Soccer  …

And the man who coached Egypt to its first World Cup finals berth since 1990.

Let’s begin with the latter — Hector Cuper, an Argentine of English heritage, whose family decided to spell the name “Cooper” as Cuper — in a way Spanish speakers could more easily handle.

Cuper coached some of Europe’s bigger teams, around the turn of the century, including Inter Milan and Valencia, and then he spent most of the 21st century knocking around with lower-level sides, including the Georgia national team, Parma, Aris Thessaloniki, Orduspor of Turkey — and then Al Wasl of the UAE, in 2013-14, when I was sports editor in Abu Dhabi. He liked that club about as much as they liked him, and he was fired after winning four of 16 matches.

That left him out of work for a year, until he was hired to lead Egypt’s 2018 World Cup campaign, which, to the surprise and delight of nearly all Egyptians, he completed with a 2-1 victory over Congo.

(Though Cuper complained bitterly about how badly he has been treated, which led to him taking medication for high blood pressure.)

Cuper essentially followed Bob Bradley as Egypt coach, and Bradley led the U.S. to the 2010 World Cup and 2009 Confederations Cup final, and his son is the current U.S. captain, and Bradley pere is aiding current USMNT coach Bruce Arena, with whom I shared a lot of interview rooms for a decade or so.

Cuper was considered a weird hiring, in Egypt (which is paying him $50,000 a month), but then he got to the World Cup, and he’s popular as hell. And I knew him when he was at Wasl and had trouble beating the dregs of the UAE.

And the leading man of Slovenian football, Srecko Katanec.

Slovenia has been a country for less than 30 years, but he has been involved in many of their greatest moments. He was a regular in defense for the 1991 Sampdoria side that won Italy’s top flight; he played in the 1990 World Cup for Yugoslavia, becoming the third Slovenian to play in the sport’s biggest competition.

In 2000, having turned to coaching, he led Slovenia to its first Euro Cup competition, and he was regarded as something of a hero for leading his team to draws against Yugoslavia and Norway. He also got Slovenia into the 2002 World Cup, its first appearance there.

He coached at Olympiakos in Greece, and he was Macedon’s national coach for three years, and in June of 2009 he became the UAE’s national coach, where I then ran into him repeatedly, while covering the national team in World Cup qualifying.

He was deeply worried about how well his team would do because just as key qualifying matches began his team had pretty much slept through Ramadan, which was in August that year (2011), and his guys lost to Kuwait and then went to Beirut and lost 3-1 to traditionally hapless Lebanon and was fired that night, and I dashed around Beirut that night trying to track him down, and finally did so at the team hotel, where he accused me of “writing not nice things about me”, which was not accurate.

I thought of him as the UAE’s coach and did not really absorb that he was/is a very big deal back in Ljubljana (I bet Melania Trump knows his name), where he was rehired as national coach in 2012 and, over the past week, came within minutes of the Uefa playoffs for Russia 2018, losing to England 1-0 on on a Harry Kane goal in the 94th minute and drawing 2-2 with Scotland on an 88th-minute goal by the Scots. If Slovenia had taken four points in their final two Group F matches, as they came within seconds of doing, they would have finished second in the group and still be playing for Russia.

There are more of these, of course, including covering Josef Hickersberger in the UAE, when he and I had been in the same stadium 25 years before, for the 1990 World Cup, when he was coach of Austria and I was covering the U.S. for Gannett News Service … and being in the stadium the night that Diego Maradona‘s Wasl team ended with nine men on the pitch in a chaotic loss in the final of the second-tier GCC Club Championship, a result that got him fired.

People who have spent entire careers following the sport no doubt could write reams about all the prominent players and coaches with whom their working lives intersected.

When it comes to the globe’s favorite sport, it is a surprisingly small world, after all — as Egypt and Hector Cuper and Slovenia and Srecko Katanec remind us.



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