Miroslav “Ciro” Blazevic was one of the pioneers of the 3-5-2 formation, took Croatia to third place at the 1998 World Cup and coached four other national teams. Turning 80 later this season, he recently took over at NK Zadar, the 28th job in a coaching career that spans the best part of half a century.
“My son, let me tell you the truth,” Blazevic told Jonathan Wilson for his seminal tactical tome Inverting the Pyramid. “3-5-2 was invented in 1982 by Ciro Blazevic.”
Perhaps he is right, perhaps not; as with many other things he says, you can never be quite sure. Carlos Bilardo with Argentina and Sepp Piontek with Denmark would be among those claiming some intellectual property over the system that sprung up in the 1980s—although Wilson’s book notes that the always strongly opinionated Blazevic would call Bilardo a “prick” for suggesting it was his idea.
But the point is, Blazevic’s tactical novelty—first introduced in Dinamo Zagreb, to whom he brought a league title in 1982 after a 24-year drought—was so influential in the Balkans that teams in the region continued to play with a back three until the mid-2000s, long after almost everyone else had abandoned it.
In Croatia, it took young and dynamic coach Slaven Bilic to break with the tradition when he took over from Zlatko Kranjcar in 2006—both of whom had previously played under Ciro. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ciro himself insisted on the outdated formation as late as 2009, laying the foundations for the team that Safet Susic eventually took to this year’s World Cup.
Meanwhile, football has come full circle and nowadays many teams are playing with some variant of a back three, the system featuring prominently at the World Cup in the summer.
NK Zadar, perhaps best known for being Luka Modric’s childhood team, are a very modest and poor club. They have never enjoyed much success and have no trophies to boast about. Their roster is arguably the weakest in Croatian top flight and features a dearth of any half-decent players by domestic standards.
For the last two years, however, they have been regularly playing 3-5-2 under talented coach Ferdo Milin, who was successful in staving off relegation.
Milin eventually got tired of constantly playing against the odds and resigned voluntarily just before the recent international break—a very rare occurrence in Croatian football, where chairmen are extremely trigger-happy when it comes to coaches. Bringing in Blazevic, a renowned expert on the system with a worldwide reputation, represented the perfect opportunity to build and improve upon previous work.
But the first thing Ciro did when he took over was dispense with the 3-5-2.
The team he was given had gathered five points in seven league matches, scoring seven goals and conceding 23. Zadar had just sold their best player, forward Josip Ivancic, to title hopefuls Rijeka.
Setting them up 4-2-3-1, Ciro first thrashed Slaven Belupo—Zadar’s main competitors in the relegation battle—4-0. On Friday, Zadar surprisingly defeated a much better team on paper, NK Lokomotiva of Zagreb, 1-0. It is, of course, too early to judge him after just two matches, but his impact on a team that appeared doomed has been instantaneous.
If there was an entry for “wily old manager” in the encyclopaedia of football jargon, it would definitely use Miroslav Blazevic as a prime example.
Born into a Catholic family in Travnik, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in February 1935, he had been a competent, but average player. His coaching career started in the 1960s, in the same place where his playing days ended—in Switzerland, with FC Vevey.
“I was only 28 and the club were in the fourth division,” he told Elvir Islamovic for a piece published on UEFA’s official website in 2012. “I was not only a coach, I was a player, too. In four years I took them to first division.”
Blazevic made his way to Sion and Lausanne before taking over the Switzerland national team. He would later coach Croatia (1994-2000), Iran (2001), Bosnia-Herzegovina (2008-2009) and China U23 (2010-2011). Along the way, he has won five trophies with Dinamo Zagreb and one each with FC Sion, Grasshopper and Hajduk Split.
His main achievement, though, remains the third-place finish with Croatia at the 1998 World Cup, in which he coached an extraordinary generation of players, including Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki.
Foul-mouthed and dismissive of others on some occasions, sweet-tongued and charming on others, he remains a master of mind games and a grand motivator, projecting a contagious air of confidence around him.
When he took over NK Zagreb two years ago, he publicly promised he’d jump from the top of the Cibona Tower (a high building next to the club’s ground) if he failed to save the club from relegation, as per Elvir Islamovic at UEFA.com. He did fail, proclaiming, as per Michael Yokhin of ESPN FC: “This is probably the end for me. A tragic end." Thankfully, this time, he didn't make good on his word.
Instead, he took a job at second-division Bosnian club Sloboda Tuzla, gaining them promotion to top flight. And now he’s with NK Zadar in Croatia—no outrageous promises this time, just a desire to prove he still has it.
Ciro will turn 80 in February, hopefully on NK Zadar’s bench. It’s difficult to establish a definite proof, but he might just be be the oldest working professional gaffer in the world.
No wonder they call him the “Coach of All Coaches” in Croatia.