Avramovic’s charges have fallen from grace and the national coach is ready to wield the axe
By Wang Meng Meng
One month can be a very long time in football.
Just ask Raddy Avramovic.
Back in December, the national football team were on a high and gunning for an unprecedented hat-trick of consecutive regional triumphs. They had also gone 19 matches unbeaten in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup under the Serb, a run that stretched back to 2004.
But match No. 20 did them in.
On that fateful night of Dec 21, Vietnam stunned the Lions by scoring from their one and only shot of the game, and in the process sowed the seeds of doubt among fans, players and officials.
In Singapore’s next competitive game, a 2011 Asian Cup qualifier against Iran’s second stringers on Jan 14, Avramovic’s men were stuffed 0-6 – the second biggest defeat of his six-year reign as national coach after a 0-7 trouncing by Oman in a World Cup qualifier five years ago.
The Serb was still annoyed with the abysmal displays of his charges when he met The Sunday Times team last Friday at his Tanjong Rhu apartment, home to the Avramovics since he arrived in 2003.
His wife of 34 years, Bratislava, has kept the three-bedroom abode spick-and-span. Their unit is served by a private lift and overlooks a swimming pool.
The couple’s passion for Asian antiques and art is evident. He collects exquisite handcrafted chess sets, a game which he loves as ‘it can be applied to football, the concept of forcing your opponent into making mistakes’.
A Balinese painting hangs on the wall behind the settee, Chinese tea-pots sit on a bookcase and a golden Buddha is outside the study where Singapore’s reigning Coach of the Year stashes away volumes of football books and videos. Indiana Jones would have been proud.
But the quaint, serene setting is momentarily broken by the now infamous Avramovic scowl. ‘Some players have forgotten that it was hard work that brought them into the national team in the first place,’ he lamented as his mind wandered back to that 0-6 humbling.
‘They have become too big for their boots.’
Over coffee – black – the 59-year-old tactician spoke in his usual mumble, but his warning is loud and clear – the axe has been brandished and it is about to fall on the Lions.
‘These players think they are too good for the team, preferring to show off their individual skill rather than stick to team-work,’ he said between puffing on his cigarette.
‘But they don’t have the quality to beat their markers in one-versus-one situations.”
He declined to name names, insisting that it is not his style ‘to crucify players in public’.
Atonement could be on the horizon as the Lions host Jordan at the National Stadium on Wednesday to salvage the Asian Cup debacle.
Avramovic noted: ‘Qualification is still possible with this team. But we must beat Jordan. It will be impossible to qualify if we lose.
‘This is the last big competition for this generation of players. This is the time for them to stand up and be counted.’
But win, lose or draw against the Jordanians, the national coach felt it is time to reset, reboot and refresh the Lions’ line-up.
Up to six seniors could be told to empty their lockers and their shirts handed to a new cohort of cubs. ‘Five or six young players will be introduced to the squad,” he revealed.
‘Even if we beat Jordan, it is still the right time to bring in the young faces and give them a feel of international football… to let them learn from the experienced players and understand the pressure international football brings.’
Insiders have tipped that Young Lions left-footed centre-back Afiq Yunos, tricky wide midfielder Gabriel Quak, all-action forward Eugene Luo and his strike partner, Khairul Nizam, are among the names pencilled in the six-man shortlist.
Avramovic is a a firm believer in giving hungry players a chance, after being inspired by his former Notts County manager Jimmy Sirrel, who brought in a new generation of players in the late 1970s, including Avramovic himself, to get the club promoted to the old First Division in 1981.
Avramovic has already done some culling before. Six years ago, he phased out senior players such as Zulkarnaen Zainal, Rezal Hassan and Rafi Ali. At least 12 youngsters were handed debuts, including Baihakki Khaizan, Khairul Amri, Ridhuan Muhammad and Shahril Ishak, who remain regulars in his first XI to this day.
The bold move paid dividends as the Lions ruled Asean football, played in the third round of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time last year. The Under-23s also broke a 12-year medal hoodoo at the 2007 South-east Asia Games where they won a bronze.
Yet, while his management style has delivered results, it has led to disagreement with players, even senior ones. Former skipper Aide Iskandar and defensive midfielder Goh Tat Chuan are two who hung up their boots following differences in opinion with the coach.
The Football Association of Singapore has ambitions for Singapore to be a top 10 nation in Asian football. Singapore is currently ranked 18th on the continent and 135th in the world. Under Avramovic, the Lions have shown they can match Asia’s best.
It all clicked on a night at Kallang when the team beat Iraq 2-0 in a 2007 Asian Cup qualifier, a performance Avramovic cited as the most satisfying of his tenure. That unexpected result against an Iraqi team that eventually won the tournament, served notice of Singapore’s intent to be a top-10 team. But he has a different assessment.
‘Assuming everything is right, the team play to their full potential and the players are disciplined in their lifestyles, this squad cannot go higher than the top 15 in Asia. I wish the players could be more dedicated to the professional life they had chosen.”
He is aware that some players keep late nights and do not observe proper diets when they are back with their S-League clubs.
His ethos of hard work can be traced back to his days with Notts County. He joined them in 1979 for a then-club record of £200,000.
‘It was training, proper diet, early rest and nothing else,” said the native of Cacak, a town 140km outside Belgrade, who gave up his law studies two years into university to pursue a playing career with his hometown club FK Borac Cacak.
Then, he earned £400 a week, an amount which he said was ‘very, very good money’ in those days and made 149 league appearances for the team. Not bad for someone who started as a centre-back but moved between the sticks because he hated heading the ball.
His safe hands helped the team to promotion to the old First Division in 1981.
He still cited former Magpies manager Sirrel as a big influence on his coaching career. ‘He was a special character who had a big knowledge of the game and he was incredibly experienced,’ Avramovic said.
Before Sirrel died on Sept 25 last year, aged 86, he told The Guardian that his former goalkeeper is, without doubt, the best player he had managed at Meadow Lane.
Sirrel said: ‘In my opinion, the goalkeeper is the number one man in your team. You start with a point, and if he doesn’t lose a goal, you get that. So if you score one, you’ve won.’
Before Avramovic and this reporter knew it, it has been more than two hours of coffee, chocolate, walnuts and talking football while Bratislava was ever the kind host, keeping the cups and bowls filled.
In his own words, he has ‘no life’ in Singapore apart from football, football and more football.
The rest of his day was spent at the National Stadium where the Lions played the Young Lions in a sparring match.
He burned the midnight oil to dissect Jordan’s tactics, thanks to DVDs of the kingdom’s recent matches supplied by his contacts in the Middle East.
But this man with the craggy face is not as hard-hearted as his features suggest.
Hushing his voice, Avramovic, who has a 32-year-old son, Ivan, expressed his regret for not spending more quality time with his wife.
When the Lions returned from Jakarta after a successful group stage campaign in the Suzuki Cup in December, he shed a tear when he saw his then nine-month-old grandson, Dusan, at the airport.
Bratislava said: ‘When I watch Singapore play on television, the commentator will always say that Raddy is stern-faced, or frowning or something similar.”
Then she turned to her man, holding his hand and egging him on to smile for the camera.
With interview and photoshoot done, it is back to work for the Serbian football guru. Avramovic knows the team that he painstakingly built has reached a crossroads.
Some tough decisions will have to be made – and he is not about to shy away from them.
On his desk at his FAS office is a simple cardboard sign that reads: ‘The mind is like a parachute – it will only work when it is open.’