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

 

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The Independent Online

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.

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