Miodrag Bozovic: Why Europe Should Be Out for the Count

As everybody knows, the most famous Count of them all had no reflection and could only be seen by others, never by himself. A curious inversion of this phenomenon appears to have recently afflicted FC Moscow coach Miodrag Bozovic. Long ago christened ‘the Count’ by an unknown Serbian newspaper – for reasons which will soon become apparent – the 41–year old Montenegrin, despite yet another remarkable season, seems to have been rendered invisible to the world.

That Bozovic should go unnoticed is little short of incomprehensible. For a start, you can see him a mile off. Few managers anywhere in the world can claim to be taller than every member of their squad, but at a mighty 1.96 metres Bozovic can do just that, putting even Moscow’s monstrous Czech striker Martin Jakubko in the shade. As if that was insufficient, he combines his height with a tangible air of urbanity, all long black overcoats, dark shoulder-length hair and measured, confident pronouncements. To relax after training, he puffs on fine cigars.

Once the Serbian media had hit upon the Count nickname he was never going to be known as anything else again, with newspapers often opening match reports along the lines of: ”Count Miodrag Bozovic said at the press conference that…”. Bozovic can sometimes appear almost comically misplaced in Eastern European football – one gets the sense that he would look more at home quizzically sniffing a glass of port under a vaulted ceiling than prowling the icy touchline of the permanently-deserted Eduard Streltsov Stadium.

Yet beneath this elegance beats a heart which is almost certainly shaped like a football. Already a coach for nine years, despite his relative youth, Bozovic lives for the game, breathes it and would probably donate a kidney to it if circumstances demanded. In particular, his passion for Red Star Belgrade deserves to be recognised as one of the great contemporary sporting loves, and in just about every interview Bozovic manages to turn the subject to his life-long dream of managing his boyhood club.

Yet Bozovic is much more than a delija in a sharp suit. He is something even rarer – an enigma of a coach who disdains excessive tactical complexities, refuses to play anything other than attractive football, enjoys remarkably close relationships with his players – and is apparently beset by one notable psychological frailty. All of which would be merely of momentary interest if not for one thing – he also gets phenomenal results.

Things started slowly enough. A Yugoslavian Cup win in 1993, one appearance for the country’s under-21 side and three operations on his meniscus seemed fairly scant return from a playing career which began with eight years at FK Budućnost and Red Star before taking in the myriad delights of the Indonesian, Cypriot, Dutch and Japanese leagues. But just as with certain individuals from Setúbal and Strasbourg before him, Bozovic soon found his true vocation beside the pitch, rather than on it.

Following his retirement in 2000 at the age of 31, he immediately plunged in at Serbian second division side FK Beograd, then left to become assistant coach at Consadole Sapporo in Japan. However, it was back in Serbia at Borac Čačak that Bozovic’s managerial talents first began to become apparent. Sandwiched between spells at Hajduk Beograd and AEP Paphos, he successfully fought off relegation in his first season in 2003 before taking the club to its then-best ever finish of seventh in 2006.

The summer of that year marked the birth of the enigma. Bozovic’s success with the minimal resources available at Borac led to an offer from FK Budućnost, the club at which he had began his playing career. Fittingly, in what was the first season of the newly-independent Montenegrin First League, the young coach set about making history. Playing a fast, direct attacking game coupled with a near-impenetrable defence, Budućnost went unbeaten in their first 17 league matches, winning 13 times and topping the table.

And then the Count called for his carriage. To the utter amazement of just about everybody, Bozovic not only left Budućnost without a word of warning, but immediately pitched up in the provincial obscurity of FK Grbalj, then a full 19 points behind his old team.

It took some time for the full story to come out. Bozovic had felt unsupported by the club’s management, whom he blamed for interfering with his work and deliberately refusing to give credit for his achievements. Invariably polite in his explanations, he had nevertheless been angered by criticism following what would be his sole defeat as Budućnost manager in the Montenegrin Cup quarter-finals – and claimed that winning the cup with Grbalj, who had made it to the semi-finals, would be more professionally satisfying than the league with Budućnost.

This episode is interesting as it marks the first appearance of two recurring themes which have since come to define Bozovic’s short career – a successful offensive style on the pitch and a seemingly self-destructive demand for recognition off it. But as things turned out, everybody ended up empty-handed anyway. Grbalj lost to the eventual cup winners FK Rudar Pljevlja in their semi-final, and without Bozovic, Budućnost’s undefeated streak ended against FK Mogren Budva in their very next game and they would eventually go on to lose the title to FK Zeta.

However, as the storm subsided, it became clear that Bozovic’s reputation had been made. After guiding Grbalj to third place in the league, he returned once again to Borac for the start of the 2007 season, where his commitment to the straightforward attacking style of football which had first begun to emerge in his earlier years in Čačak now appeared to be irreversible. Interestingly enough, this came at a time when he was in the process of completing his UEFA Pro Licence in Belgrade, where he studied in the same class as Siniša Mihajlović.

Bozovic himself would later recall how the course focused heavily on the work of Marcello Lippi, and this exposure to one of the masters of the more defensive Italian style seems to have the effect of confirming his earlier ideological convictions, rather than shaking them. And with Borac playing a sparkling game and on course to surpass their previous record league finish, an eventful 2007 proved to have one more surprise to spring on the Count.

Bozovic has subsequently admitted that he had never heard of Amkar Perm before the phone rang in late 2007. It is not too hard to understand why. Promoted to the Russian Premier League in 2004, Amkar had since failed to finish higher than eighth or score more than 30 goals in a season. As if to underline their obscurity, they were – and remain – the easternmost team in Europe, with Perm lying just 40 kilometres west of the Asian border.

Enter the Count. After immediately accepting the proposal to replace Lokomotiv Moscow-bound coach Rashid Rakhimov, Bozovic, along with long-time assistant and fellow Montenegrin Vojislav Calov, set about creating what probably represents the fullest realisation of his philosophy thus far.

Despite a limited command of Russian necessitating him to take his initial training sessions in English, Amkar’s game almost immediately began to resemble the high-possession offensive style of Borac and Budućnost – and with similarly dramatic results. The side won their 2008 season opener away to FC Khimki 3-0, went top of the table the following week after beating Spartak Nalchik, and took four points from games against Dynamo, Spartak and FC Moscow. The sixth round of matches was the first in which Amkar failed to score, and at the halfway point of the season the side sat in second place, just two points off Rubin Kazan in top spot.

If it had nevertheless taken until this point for Bozovic to fully win over the fans – many of whom had idolised Rakhimov and opposed the idea of Amkar appointing their first non-Russian coach – his squad was almost immediately convinced. The players spoke in glowing terms of his relaxed, almost anti-disciplinarian approach, with Bozovic himself explaining his belief both in mutual trust and players thinking for themselves. In what could be seen as a logical consequence of the style he began to develop at Budućnost, he even went so far as to categorise tactical innovation as being of secondary importance compared to dedication, character and hard work.

Upon taking the Amkar post, Bozovic had targeted a final league position higher than the eighth place of 2007, along with a respectable cup run. With their coach true to his convictions and rarely shifting from a basic attacking 4-4-2 formation, and packed houses at the Zvezda Stadium roaring them on, Amkar easily surpassed these goals, finishing in fourth spot and losing on penalties to CSKA Moscow in the Russian Cup final. For the first time in their history Amkar had qualified for Europe – and had finished above Zenit St. Petersburg, Spartak Moscow and Rakhimov’s Lokomotiv.

However, amid wild celebrations in Perm, a familiar pattern of events was beginning to play itself out. The smoke from Bozovic’s celebratory cigar had yet to dissipate before rumours of a rift with Amkar’s top brass started to circulate.

As in Budućnost eighteen months earlier, Bozovic – despite apparently excellent relationships with club management during the course of the season – was once again supposedly piqued at a perceived lack of recognition, along with the absence of budget guarantees for the following year.

In particular, he was reported to be throroughly irritated by suggestions that Amkar’s success was due more to foundations laid in place by Rakhimov than to his own input. That these rumblings were, in fact, pretty much on the money was confirmed by what happened next.

If a team manages three top six finishes in four years but nobody sees them do it, did it really happen? When Bozovic, after expressing his sadness at leaving the Amkar fans and players, stepped into the deserted parallel universe of FC Moscow just six days after the end of the 2008 season, he was undoubtedly taking a risk as much as a step up. In one year he had become the most successful manager in Amkar’s history – and was giving it up to start all over again at one of the most unloved of all the multiple progenies of the convoluted Torpedo Moscow family tree.

Formed in 2004 from FC Torpedo-Metallurg, themselves the successors to FC Torpedo-ZIL and ultimately the late-lamented Torpedo Moscow, FC Moscow may have about as many fans in the capital as Spartak have in Grozny, but they also have much higher demands than they do in Perm.

Previous coach Oleh Blokhin had been dismissed for having the temerity to finish in mid-table, and true to the way things work just about everywhere in Moscow, these expectations had not been in any way modified despite repeated budget cuts and the sale of no less than six members of the first-team squad during the close season.

It is probably unkind to suggest that one major attraction of the Moscow job for Bozovic was that, given this context, nobody else would be able to take credit for any eventual achievements. Whether true or not, his impact on his new side was as predictable as the manner of his departure from Amkar.

A loss on the first day of the 2009 season to Dinamo Moscow was soon shrugged off as FC Moscow went unbeaten in their next 11 games, dispatching CSKA and Spartak along the way and playing unsuprisingly attractive, uncomplicated football, even if a slightly more cautious 4-2-3-1 set-up began to usurp Bozovic’s previously-favoured 4-4-2.

From April to September the side was a permanent fixture in the top four before eventually finishing sixth in last month’s final league table, ensuring that Moscow continued their almost uniformly excellent run of recent years. Amkar, on the other hand, barely scraped clear of relegation.

Which brings us back to Bozovic’s apparent invisibility to the wider world. Consecutive top-six finishes with relatively unfancied teams in Eastern Europe’s strongest league – allied with his earlier achievements in Serbia and Montenegro – should surely have made the Count a marked man. Yet aside from some short-lived speculation linking him with the Zenit job in August following the departure of Dick Advocaat, so far nobody has really paid Bozovic much attention. Given the well-documented turmoil in the dugouts of both CSKA and Spartak this season, such an oversight appears not just surprising, but also potentially careless.

Bozovic, for his part, obviously feels appreciated enough at FC Moscow to have just signed a one-year contract extension to lead the club to the end of next season. Assuming he sees it through, the consequence is that for the first time in his career he will manage the same team for consecutive seasons.

In fact, this is the key to the biggest outstanding question mark against him – can results be sustained over time using the Bozovic approach? Perhaps his present obscurity is the best thing that could have happened, as a second season with Moscow will determine if he can really develop a side, or whether he is, after all, just an impact coach with a lucky streak as wide as the river which flows through his home town of Mojkovac.

Given his record, it would take a brave man to bet against Bozovic surpassing himself again. In any case, his achievements to date should already place him on any list of the next generation of young European managers. That he combines these with one of the more interesting – and often contradictory – personalities in the game today is even more reason to pay him close attention.

It is certainly curious that someone who often downplays the role of tactics should at the same time hold such firm beliefs about how the game should be played, and that someone so outwardly urbane and self-confident should seemingly require constant validation and approval from his employers. In the end, any Count worthy of the name probably needs a bit of mystery.

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