Two weeks before the 1998 World Cup, Bilic fractured his hip. It was a huge blow for Croatia, as at the time the Everton player was one of the best centre-backs in the world. Against all medical advice, he travelled to France with the team, playing the whole tournament with pain relief and hardly training. Just four years after the newly-independent nation was allowed to enter official FIFA competitions, Croatia finished third in their first World Cup appearance.
In France, Bilic knowingly sacrificed his health and career for his country. At 30, he was practically done: he tried to continue, but only managed to play a few games before retiring in 2000.
“I never planned to become a manager,” Bilic said, remembering when he took over Hajduk Split in the 2001 without any coaching experience. “But when your club calls, you have to answer.”
He stayed until the end of the season, then took some time off to decide on his career path.
He did have choices: in addition to being a professional footballer, Bilic obtained a law degree early in his playing career.
He also had big plans for his alternative rock band — first named Newera, then Rawbau — where he played guitar.
But his coaching adventure at Hajduk had him hooked and he educated himself with trips to watch the training methods of Arsene Wenger and Marcello Lippi, soaking up their knowledge. He returned with a new-found confidence.
“I’m never afraid to discuss any aspect of football,” he said. “What I learned from Wenger and Lippi, but also from my playing days in England, is that you don’t have to be a tyrant to earn the respect of your players. The only authority you need is the authority of knowledge.”
When he took over the national team, promoted after two years in charge of the U21s, Bilic completely revolutionised the way Croatia played: the stodgy, predictable and decadent 3-4-1-2 system of his predecessor Zlatko Kranjcar was replaced by highly-dynamic football with a defensive four and one holding midfielder, with all the other players attack-minded, but with defensive responsibilities.
“The classical formations are dying out,” he explains. “It’s all about staying compact and having fluid lines.”
One of Bilic’s first acts as Croatia manager was to promote youngsters such as Luka Modric, Eduardo and Vedran Corluka, and make them the backbone of his team.
He took Croatia to within seconds of the Euro 2008 semi-finals four years ago in Austria — they conceded a goal in the last minute of extra-time against Turkey and lost on penalties. The team stumbled afterwards, failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and only reaching Euro 2012 after a string of below-par performances, though finishing on a high against Turkey in the play-offs.
During that time Bilic’s relations with the local media soured, as they picked through his private life and resented him for not taking sides in clan fights within the Croatian FA. So two weeks ago, Bilic announced his decision to leave after the tournament. He surprised everyone by signing with Lokomotiv Moscow.
“I’m not afraid of the challenge,” he said. “I admit to being an Anglophile, but I had my chances to go to England. I had offers from big clubs and chose to stay,” he said. “The greatest respect I have gained from this job is that I know now I can cope with the pressure of any job in the world. If I became the manager of Real Madrid, Manchester United or wherever, I know I will never be under more pressure than I was at Croatia.
“This is everything in my job, this is personal, it affects my mother, my children, because I’m managing my country. That is huge pressure but I can cope with it.”
And now, having neutralised speculation regarding his future, Bilic faces probably the biggest challenge of his managerial career. “I’d be very disappointed if we don’t qualify from our group,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re better than Spain, or even Italy — we’re not, and I’m also sure it’s going to be very hard for us against Ireland. But on a good day we can beat everyone.
“The first match is very important, we know that from past experience and we’re preparing in that manner. It’s essential that we match Ireland’s running, we need to get to the second ball first and be compact. If we do that, we have a realistic chance. I respect the Irish team and the legendary [Giovanni] Trapattoni immensely, but we showed in Dublin last year [in a 0-0 draw] that we are a better team.
“I have full confidence in my players, and they trust me — we’ve been exposed to media pressure which bordered on the irrational, but it has only brought us closer together than ever before.
“You can call me a madman, but I believe we can even go all the way at the Euros. It’s only six games!”
Bilic’s winning mentality seems to have infected the team. Key players like Modric and Darijo Srna have said they believe they can go at least one step further than last time — which would mean reaching the semis.
The atmosphere around them may be suffering amidst turmoil in the FA (whose president Vlatko Markovic will leave his post next month), but the team is compact and loyal to its cause. They showed character when criticism hit them the hardest, before the play-off win in Turkey: they won the first-leg in Istanbul 3-0 in arguably their best performance under Bilic. Maybe it helps that they know it’s their last shot at fame with a coach who they love and respect.
After all, if he could play his way into the World Cup semi-finals with a fractured hip, why should a little scepticism from the general public undermine them?