The Last Word: Magnificent Bilic shows it is still a macho man's game


It is all about the dude within.

There is nothing inherently ludicrous, after all, about standing under an umbrella when it is raining. Nor will anyone laugh at Pep Guardiola, when he uses a parasol as manager of Russia at Qatar 2022. In hindsight, however, it was cruel that Steve McClaren should have found himself, in his defining nadir, juxtaposed with a man like Slaven Bilic.

For it would not make the slightest difference if you trussed the Croatia coach in an FA blazer, and stuck a brolly in his hand. He would still be the alpha male, exuding glamour and menace. The seams of the blazer would strain with his virility, and the ferrule of his umbrella would somehow suggest the tip of a cutlass or glowing poker. And McClaren? Well, he could borrow one of Slaven's beanies and still prompt the world to ask how such a simpering, needy race could ever have built an empire.

Nowadays, above all on the football field, Englishmen tend to discover a perverse gratification in this post-imperial character – no longer magisterial, that is, but still plucky and fair. Nothing suits them better than glorious failure, especially one that obliges them to tolerate some injustice or misfortune. They almost make a virtue of their fallibility. Penalty shoot-outs are not a legitimate test of skill but a barbaric roulette, at once random and ritualised. They would sooner manifest their humanity, even through failure, than robotic indifference to pressure.

Well, they should not flatter themselves. Any neutral would salute Croatia's failure, in the present tournament, as infinitely more glorious than anything that has sustained England's perplexing survival. And we should all lament the disappearance of Bilic finally to draw a salary, from Lokomotiv Moscow, corresponding to his market value.

For while he may seem to trade primarily on charisma, the fact is that his final bequest to the international game was a tactical masterpiece. Bilic showed the world how to emasculate Spain. But his men were not detailed with the dreary business of stopping a football match, after the fashion of Chelsea in the last five hours of the campaign that ludicrously announced them champions of the European club season. Bilic's game plan was about ambition as well as energy, verve as well as courage.

Yes, his team were superbly organised; but they did not cling merely to the hope of breaking out every 15 minutes in search of a set piece. Forced into mistakes, Spain knew that Croatia had the skill to retain the ball – and do clever things with it. Had Croatia been awarded the penalty that was their due, Spain would never have found a way back into the game. As it was, Bilic was obliged to abandon the system that had worked so well and gamble everything on a late winner – which was duly scored by Spain instead.

He suffered these torments as vividly as ever. Afterwards, there was pride but no satisfaction. Few had taken him seriously when he talked of winning the tournament. But Bilic has shown that it is as glib to equate a demonstrative, emotional nature with lack of judgement, as to disparage his interest in psychology as a betrayal of national machismo. This was only his ninth defeat in 66 matches with Croatia, 42 of which he won. Judging from the way Luka Modric played this tournament, moreover, there must be plenty of Spurs fans wishing that the two could have continued working together.

As it is, still only 43, Bilic remains a maverick among the emerging generation of suave, technocrat coaches. He is as sophisticated as any of them, with his law degree, his four languages, his political and religious ardour. How he must unnerve them, then, with his ear-stud and rock band and chain-smoking and glowering sex appeal. For Bilic to compound all this with such technical flair makes him a dangerous paradox. Few other coaches would venture to say: "With the greatest respect to women, football is the most beautiful thing in the world."

Croatia, remember, has a population of barely four million. Its painful genesis is not lost on Bilic, whose father was a persecuted academic during the Tito era. A devout patriot, Bilic settled for a salary of £45,000 through much of his tenure as manager. But his father taught him that you can be for Croatia without necessarily being against anyone. And he furiously disowned the racist fans who threatened to stifle the good name amplified by his team at this tournament.

Bilic is no angel. Some will never pardon the theatrics that cost Laurent Blanc his place in the 1998 World Cup final. But if the France coach has been denied the chance of personal redress tonight, when he instead finds himself facing Spain, then at least he has been offered due expiation.

For Bilic has shown him just how to set up against the champions. And if Blanc cannot take the hint, he had better bring along his parapluie.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Arts and Entertainment
(L-R) Amanda Peet as Tina Morris, Melanie Lynskey as Michelle Pierson, Abby Ryder Fortson as Sophie Pierson, Mark Duplass as Brett Pierson and Steve Zissis as Alex Pappas in Togetherness
TV First US networks like HBO shook up drama - now it's comedy's turn
Pool with a view: the mMarina Bay Sands in Singapore
travel From Haiti and Alaska to Namibia and Iceland
The will of Helen Beatrix Heelis, better known as Beatrix Potter, was among those to be archived
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Nigel Farage: 'I don't know anybody in politics as poor as we are'
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect