When Slaven Bilic was the Croatia under-21 manager he took his players on a sightseeing trip around London when they came to England for a game. Nothing unusual about that apart from the fact that Bilic paid for it himself. But then he is a rich international football manager isn't he? Actually, the annual salary of the man who eliminated England from Euro 2008 is around £50,000 a year.
Or, over 130 times less than the £6.5m Fabio Capello will average over his contract. Not that it seems to bother Bilic who is a man apart in modern European football: a lawyer, heavy-metal music fan, chain smoker and the manager who wore a woolly hat on the touchline at Wembley while Steve McClaren sought the protection of his umbrella. It may well be Bilic whom Capello faces in his second World Cup qualifier on 10 September, but it is more likely that this singular talent will be recruited by a Premier League club after Euro 2008.
If anyone deserves the perks of Premier League wages it is the man who beat England twice in Euro 2008 qualifying. Bilic, 39, was in Zagreb on Monday to agree the World Cup qualifying fixtures with Capello and the Football Association. Afterwards he talked about a remarkable 18 months, how he beat England and why there will always be more pressure on a Croatian managing Croatia than an Italian managing England. If he returns to manage in the country he once played in, West Ham are among the favourites.
So was the man who inflicted on England their greatest qualification disaster in 13 years really earning so little by modern football standards? "I am on less than €75,000 [£57,000] but nobody forced me to sign the contract," Bilic says. "I didn't get enough money and I'm the first to say it's a disgrace for Croatia. Not for Slaven Bilic, but the Croatian football manager should be paid more.
"But our ex-manager got that sort of money as well. I'm not gaining that [money] but I'm getting some other things I would never get if I was the manager of a club here in Croatia. It's great. Money was never my big motivation. Money is important but if I leave, it will not be for money. It will be a career move. I could've left by now if I just wanted money. I want to enjoy this and I am enjoying it big-time."
"I'm so proud [to manage Croatia]. The greatest aspect I have gained from this job is that I know now I can cope with the pressure of any job in the world," he said. "I'm under more pressure than Capello, definitely. You can say that no other job has more pressure than managing England. But he has a contract, he doesn't know English people. His family is not in England. So whether he gets slaughtered on the front pages or the back pages doesn't matter.
"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, right now."
Capello will see at first hand what makes Bilic such a good manager this summer in Austria. Bilic has great respect for Capello and says that McClaren was "unlucky" with injuries. Yet he thought England's game in Austria five days before the crucial Croatia game on 21 November was "disrespectful" to Croatia. But he says there is one reason Croatia are at Euro 2008 and England are not. "We beat you because we are better," Bilic says.
Painful though it is to hear it recounted, Bilic's plan to stop England that night was very simple. "I wanted to stop the ball getting to [Gareth] Barry so I told my strikers that one of them had to mark him," he says. "I said 'Let [Joleon] Lescott and [Sol] Campbell have the ball as much as they want because they are defenders but not great passers. If Rio [Ferdinand] and [John] Terry were playing I wouldn't have been able to do that. So I have big sympathy for McClaren."
There is also a hilarious take on the unfortunate diplomatic incident that took place when the Croatian team arrived at Gatwick airport only to see the secretary general of their football federation, Zorislav Srebric, being apprehended by police. He was mistakenly accused of shoplifting and was released without charge. The misunderstanding originated with what Bilic says was the less than hospitable treatment of his team.
"When you [England team] came to Zagreb you went straight onto the coach from the plane, no passport control, nothing," Bilic says. "When we landed at Gatwick, the immigration queue was a long snake, 50 metres – and then they arrested our vice-president! Fucking hell! Why?"
Poor Srebric had been buying newspapers when he saw some Croatian players wandering around the airport – the queue at immigration meant that the group had been broken up. Srebric had rushed outside the shop with the newspapers to tell them where to go and found himself stopped by the law. "He's 60!" Bilic protests.
Bilic has that rare foreigners' insight into English football that makes you want to ask him about our game. David Beckham? "You have to admit you all praised McClaren when he dropped Beckham. Then it became 'He's a great player, where's Beckham?'" Fair enough. The WAGs? "You created that media aura. You give Alex Curran [Steven Gerrard's wife] a newspaper column, you made them stars!"
Something tells you that we will be seeing a lot more of Bilic in the future – he is a Balkan Jose Mourinho with the one-liners to match. What about this one? "There's no bigger job than being manager of England. If you are a priest, it's like becoming the Pope." Nothing would faze him in England, apart from, perhaps, the new laws on smoking in public buildings.Reuse content