Bosnia coach Milosevic on Euro 2024 hopes, Ukraine and more

Savo Milosevic has enjoyed a life well-travelled and it’s helped shape the Bosnia and Herzegovina coach’s outlook on the profession that has given him a living for the past 30 years.

Milosevic, an ethnic Serb with Bosnian citizenship, played in Serbia, England, Spain, Italy and Russia during a career in which he scored 226 goals in 588 club appearances from 1992 to 2008, while his 14-year stint as an international resulted in 37 goals in 102 games for Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro and, finally, Serbia.

When he was appointed as Bosnia and Herzegovina coach in September, it marked the 50-year-old’s fourth managerial role after spells in Montenegro (2011-12, as an assistant), Serbia (2019-20, with Partizan Belgrade) and Slovenia (2021, with Olimpija Ljubljana). Borders, nationality or religion never really mattered to Milosevic during his peripatetic career, which is why he was willing to take on this job despite the troubled history of the Balkans and his past as a player with Serbia. Only the football counts.

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“It is not an issue to me,” Milosevic told ESPN. “Maybe there are some small groups of people on all parts that are still living in the past, but no. It’s not an issue and has never been. For me, there are two kinds of people in the world; good ones and bad ones. I don’t recognize different nations or different religions. We’re all the same.”

Milosevic’s team, up against Ukraine on Thursday in a Euro 2024 playoff semifinal at home in Zenica, represents the melting pot of ethnicity and religion in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The country declared its independence in 1992 at the outset of a three-year conflict that left 100,000 dead and over two million displaced as refugees. Almost 30 years after the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a multi-ethnic society, with 50.1% of the country declaring itself to be Bosniak, 30.8% Serb and 15.4% Croat, according to the CIA World Factbook. Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are the three official languages of the country.

When arranging time to speak with Milosevic through the Bosnia and Herzegovina association, his outlook becomes clear when his media officer is asked whether the coach required a translator to help with the telephone interview. “His English is perfect,” said Dinko Ceko, Bosnia’s media officer. “Besides Serbian, he speaks English, Spanish and Italian, so pick whatever is most suitable for you!”

“We are a hybrid,” Milosevic said. “We are mixed. In this area we have one big mix of everything. And when you mix two or three products and you make the best one, maybe that’s also important.

“From my perspective, what I’ve been doing in the past 30, 35 years, I’ve learned a lot from different cultures, different histories, different religion. I have players from all around the world and I’m blessed because I’ve been in position to learn a lot, not just about football, about everything.”

“God forbid, if we were all the same, how would we be in a position to learn something? Our differences should be something we learn from each other and become a richer and smarter and wiser.”

Milosevic was one of the first non-British players to play in the Premier League, signing for Aston Villa in a then-club record £3.5 million move from Partizan Belgrade in 1995. After some early struggles at Villa Park, failing to score the goals that would justify his transfer fee, he became a cult figure due to his work-rate and determination to succeed.

“I had the privilege in my life to be able to play in probably the three strongest leagues in the world, the English, Italian, Spanish,” Milosevic said. “Because of that I have been able to learn a completely different mentality. I’ve learned that talent is not enough, that there are also some other things on the pitch and outside of the pitch.

“English people have a completely different mentality, completely different in many ways. I’ve been able to learn a lot of things and because the league was very strong back then, physically stronger than other leagues, when I got to Spain [with Real Zaragoza in 1998], it was for me easy to play in Spain and everywhere else because I was well prepared in England.”

Milosevic’s perspective is perhaps important as Bosnia and Herzegovina prepare for their encounter with Ukraine, a country still torn apart by war in the wake of Russia’s invasion in February 2022. If Bosnia win on Thursday, they could face Israel for a place at Euro 2024 in the event of the Israelis defeating Iceland in their Path B playoff in Budapest.

Having endured its own conflict in the 1990s, when the Balkan War saw the former Yugoslavia splinter into seven independent nations — Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo — Bosnia and Herzegovina has suffered its own tragedies and atrocities, but Milosevic says he will not allow himself or his players to be distracted by the challenges faced by their opponents this week.

“I’m not following it, I don’t follow anything, and my focus will be on the football, on my team and that’s my preoccupation and that’s it,” Milosevic said. “I understand the situation, with Ukraine, of course, but we can only do what we can do.

“I have to prepare it the best I can. The things that are not dependent on me, I’m not going to focus on. I’m not going to lose my energy [on the situation in Ukraine] because we need all the energy for ourselves, me as a coach, my team, and also the players.

“We need all our focus for the game. The rest of it? It’s not up to us. Ukraine are, for me, definitely one of the top 10 or 12 teams in Europe, so it is going to be very difficult for us. We are an old team, maybe too old, but we have our hopes because it’s one game and we are playing at home.”

Despite acknowledging the veteran age of his squad, Milosevic believes it may ultimately be an advantage for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s short-term objective of successfully negotiating the playoffs. Edin Dzeko (37) and Miralem Pjanic (33) are still key players having each won more than 100 caps for their country. Former Arsenal midfielder Sead Kolasinac (30) is another fixture in the team.

But having lost three of his four games in charge, including a 4-1 defeat against Luxembourg in November, Milosevic accepts that he needs to lean into his squad’s experience if the team are to reach Euro 2024.

“We are a little bit of an old team,” he said. “On one hand that’s not good, but on the other side we have experience. Of course they’re not physically like they were 5-10 years ago, but in one game, they can make that extra effort. They have played many games like this in their lives, which could be also very helpful in this kind of game with a lot of enormous pressure actually.”

Bosnia’s form going into the playoffs is dismal, however. They lost 5-0 to Portugal and 2-1 to Slovenia — both at home — either side of the Luxembourg defeat and finished fifth in qualification Group J. Their place in the playoffs is a result of their successful campaign in the last UEFA Nations League.

Serhiy Rebrov’s Ukraine are 24th in the FIFA Men’s Ranking, 47 places ahead of Milosevic’s team in 71st position, so winning on Thursday, and then beating either Israel or Iceland, will be an immense challenge for a side that has won just twice in their last nine games — both wins coming against perennial minnows Liechtenstein.

But Milosevic says that the losing run is irrelevant due to his decision to use those games to experiment with his new squad.

“Yes, the defeats we have suffered are always pain, but we already lost all the chance to get through the qualification,” he said. “So I used the games to see what we can do and what we cannot do, which is also in important.

“And when you lose, sometimes it’s better because players also realize things and they listen when you talk. When they win, they won’t listen like you want them to listen. That’s why I’m a little bit glad because of the results.

“So when now I’m talking about what we need to do, they listen.”