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Remembering Milovan Ciric: One of Indian football team's best-ever foreign coaches

Published at :May 27, 2024 at 9:31 PM
Modified at :May 27, 2024 at 9:31 PM
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(Courtesy : Indian Football Blog)

Uttiyo Sarkar

Most former Indian football team stalwarts believe Milovan Ciric to be a revolutionary figure in the country’s sport.

The modern era of Indian football sees nearly every professional team employ a foreign head coach to oversee their players. This stretches from the Indian Super League (ISL) to the I-League. The general perception is that foreign coaches boast higher tactical intellect than Indian coaches and can make the teams play in the way the European or South American clubs do.

However, much before the Indian clubs started roping in foreign coaches, it was the Indian national team that created the trend of non-local coaches. The first international coach who opted to work as the Indian Football Team’s gaffer for more than one year was the Serbian Milovan Ciric.

He was appointed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 1983 and succeeded the Irishman Joe Kinnear. He would spend two years at the helm of the national team and teach the players under him several tricks that Milovan had accumulated in his varied career.

Pre-India head coach role career

Ciric was a robust midfielder in his playing career, the entirety of which he spent playing in Serbia (then a part of Yugoslavia). He played for both Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade in the post-World War II period before retiring from football at the age of 30. He had also made three appearances for the Serbia national team.

But only three years after his retirement, Milovan stepped into the job of a football manager. He would spend the next three decades of his life working in a variety of different jobs in an attempt to guide his teams to success. He started his coaching career at Serbian side OEK Beograd before managing Partizan and Red Star Belgrade.

Ciric’s first major achievement came when he guided the Yugoslavian Football Team to win the silver medal in the 1956 Olympics. Incidentally, the Yugoslavian side had defeated Syed Abdul Rahim’s India side in the semi-final as well. Thanks to his impressive work, Ciric was appointed as Lazio’s head coach for the 1957/58 season. That didn’t go well, as Lazio lingered in the bottom half of the Serie A title and  Milovan was sacked before they won the Coppa Italia title.

However, Ciric would continue his work in Europe – managing Beograd and even the Croatian side Hajduk Split. He guided Israel to a third-place finish in the 1968 AFC Asian Cup too. In the decade after that, Milovan coached the likes of Besiktas, Valencia, and Red Star Belgrade.

Milovan’s inspired impact on India team

In 1983, the AIFF was able to reach an agreement for Milovan to take over the role of their national team coach. Ciric ended a five-year absence from football to take up the job after having had an interaction with the Indian team in the 1956 Olympics.

Milovan brought a lot of charisma and leadership skills with him, interacting with the players more like their colleagues than a gaffer. He was known to be extremely easygoing and for his ability to fire up the team spirit within the squad. More importantly, the Serbian coach treated every player equally – irrespective of their status or importance to the team.

This includes his treatment of the India captain under him, Sudip Chatterjee. During one training session under Milovan in the chilly winter season, Chatterjee had worn a jacket in the running drills. Ciric was quick to notice them and barked to him ‘Hey captain, everybody same, you different’, which prompted Sudip to quickly take off his jacket and train in a t-shirt and shorts like everyone else.

Ciric brought in some tactical nuances that were completely new to the Indian players, but he implemented them with his impressive man-management ability. He never criticized players publicly and made them realize their errors in the early-morning jogging sessions after games.

Former India goalkeeper Atanu Bhattacharya, who impressed under Milovan, expressed how the players felt to play under him and explained: “As a coach, Milovan Sir was exceptional. He knew the Indian players came from different states, cultures, and food habits. Yet he managed to jell us up as a team. He was aware of the capabilities of each player and used them accordingly. He taught us that football is a team game, victories or defeats are part of our collective responsibilities.”

How did India perform under Milovan?

Milovan came at a period when the Indian Football team was struggling to excel in major football tournaments. The Indian side lost in the quarter-finals of the 1982 Asian Games and hadn’t qualified for the AFC Asian Cup since 1964. But he inspired an impressive change in their fortunes after taking.

The Serbian coach didn’t have the easiest starts either. One of his first assignments was the 1984 Nehru Cup. This contained teams like Poland, China, and the bulk of an Argentina squad that would go on to win the 1986 FIFA World Cup. Despite that, Milovan managed to shape up his side to ensure they wouldn’t get embarrassed by the foreign opposition.

India put up an admirable fight in their opening game against a strong Poland side. Striker Biswajit Bhattacharya scored as the Blue Tigers went down to a fighting 2-1 loss, making the European side work hard for the three points. The Blue Tigers would face India after that in a rather memorable clash at the Eden Gardens.

India produced a brilliant defensive showing thanks to the smart tactics employed by Milovan. Ultimately, Boca Juniors forward Ricardo Gareca scored a 79th-minute winner to help his side to a win. A loss to China in their final Nehru Cup group stage game meant that India didn’t have any point to show despite performing well in the majority of the games.

With that being said, Milovan worked hard in helping drill a lot of spirit and hard-working nature to his players. He ensured that his squad was in the best possible shape, both mentally and physically before the 1984 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers – which were held in Kolkata. India faced North Yemen, Malaysia, and Pakistan in their first three games.

They comprehensively defeated all three of them, with Shabbir Ali particularly excelling with three goals in the matches. Even though India suffered a narrow 1-0 loss to South Korea, they secured qualification into the 1984 AFC Asian Cup – breaking a two-decade-long duck.

The Blue Tigers had to play in the AFC Asian Cup only a few months after qualifying for it and were placed in a tough group. Their group contained heavyweights China, Iran, and UAE along with hosts Singapore. Unfortunately, the Blue Tigers just lacked the attacking teeth to trouble the opposition backline.

Despite brave defensive showings against Singapore and UAE, they suffered 2-0 losses. Despite the setback, Milovan urged his players to prove their quality against a heavyweight like Iran. What transpired on 7 December 1984  was one of India’s best-ever defensive performances in a major tournament.

Thanks to the shot-stopping heroics of Atanu Bhattacharya and some incredible defending, India held Iran to a goalless draw to salvage a memorable point.  Unfortunately, India were eliminated from the AFC Asian Cup group stages after losing four of the five games.

After that, Milovan’s health conditions started deteriorating badly and he just couldn’t find enough strength to endure the pressure of the India job. He left the role in 1985 and would pass away at the age of 68 in 1986.

Even though Ciric only had a 23% win rate as India’s national team coach, the reason why he’s held in such high regard is how fearlessly the Blue Tigers performed against the significantly higher-quality teams under him. His ability to motivate his team to operate as one sturdy unit resulted in some memorable results.

He didn’t get that much time to stamp his philosophy into the Indian team. But Milovan’s man-management ability and coaching style inspired many of the players who played under him and allowed them to further excel in their playing and later in their coaching careers.

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