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Dinamo Plus

Big interview with the president of GNK Dinamo, Velimir Zajec

Photo by: Marko Lukunić/PIXSELL

On his football journey, he traversed the complete pyramid of the Zagreb club, starting from the base through all its sides, and just like that, almost geometrically precise, rounded off an opus that began in his playing days in youth categories and culminated with his inauguration as the club president. This curiosity perhaps best illustrates the entire background of Dinamo's new leader: Velimir Zajec is practically the only one in history who has "unified" all functions within the club. He was a gifted junior, a first-team player, captain of a celebrated generation, later a technical and sports director, CEO, in a way even the head of the academy formally under his purview, head coach, and now president. Moreover, this Wednesday, April 10, marked exactly one month since he assumed the presidency. Which of all these demanding and responsible roles was the most pleasant, and which the most delicate?

- Yes, I've gone through all those phases, and the most comfortable and best for me was the player role. That's where I felt at home because I had great teammates, even back when players like Josip Lalić and Fikret Mujkić were on the team. From the older guard, there were Filip Blašković, Ivica Miljković, and later, our generation with Marko Mlinarić, Zlatko Kranjčar, Stjepan Deverić, and other great players from that 1982 team. I've truly experienced it all, but the most beautiful days were the ones on the field. And I think this current role is probably the most challenging because I came in at a difficult time, but I hope everything will turn out well. We have a good team, we're fighting on two fronts, for the championship and the Cup, we're doing well, but we know that every match in football is a new challenge, and you have to constantly be prepared for everything. If we manage to achieve our goals this season, I will surely be the happiest man in the world, emphasized President Zajec.

The conversation with President Zajec is available in the basic package of the Dinamo Plus platform, and you can watch it on this LINK. 

How much does your journey, where you've experienced all instances, including being in the mine, help in the current situation when you have to oversee the whole system?

- For me, it's relatively easy because I know the subject matter, I know how things work in the first team, in the youth teams, in the academy... For example, I was the academy director at Panathinaikos where, among others, I promoted Giorgos Karagounis, Angelos Basinas who carried the Greek national team to victory at the European Championship in 2004. I think I handle all these tasks well. I'm in touch with the players a lot, we talk a lot, not just about football but in general, which is very important for the atmosphere within the team, which is very good. We have a well-coordinated team at the club, and young, skilled people have entered the Executive Committee who also have experience. I think with a combination of the old guard and us newcomers, we'll make a good club.

When you mentioned Panathinaikos, there's an analogy with Dinamo. You held most of those positions in the Greek club as well. What's the fundamental difference in working in those two environments?

- I was also very familiar with Panathinaikos because I was a player there first, of course, and that was in my mature years. Perhaps I even delivered my best performances at Panathinaikos. I was with Dinamo until I was 28, and I also played very well there, as well as in the national team, but in Greece, I was completely mature, I was free from financial problems. We were champions twice, and I was twice named the best player in the Greek league, so it was easier for me there in that regard. That's the biggest difference.

How much did the severe injury in Greece affect the end of your career? The player from Iraklis, Papadopoulos, was punished with a 17-game suspension due to a rough tackle.

- That certainly ruined my career, even though Dinamo and coach Miroslav Blažević tried to bring me back, they wanted me to continue playing. But I wasn't ready to play anymore. That accident forced me to end my playing career at the age of 32.

What's your initial assessment of the team itself, what's the potential?

- We have great players, like Bruno Petković, Martin Baturina, Stefan Ristovski, goalkeeper Ivan Nevistić, there are many good players, but I won't go into individual analysis now. However, I think we have too many players under contract at the club, and we'll find a way together to balance all of that.

You announced the arrival with fresh ideas, raising the club to a higher level, what were the first moves?

- First, we appointed a sports director, which is very important. That's Marko Marić, also the son of our former goalkeeper Zvonko Marić. He's extremely active, speaks several foreign languages, has numerous contacts, and he's the sports director we could only wish for, he's a bullseye. Among others, there's also Mr. Dragutin Kamenski, an outstanding businessman, who can have a significant influence on the stadium construction topic. I attended a meeting of Dinamo's Stadium Building Committee, heard a lot of interesting things, I see that the City wants to help... On behalf of our fan base, we're asking for help from both the City and the Government to finally start solving this problem because the stadium is a disgrace to Zagreb and Croatia.

Could you describe in more detail the structure in which committees were formed for specific areas of activity, there's also the President's office...?

- In the President's office, there's Sanjin Španović, I met him through the book he wrote about me, he's an intelligent guy, knowledgeable and tireless in his work, I brought him into Dinamo. He made the first contact between the fans and me, that's how it all started. I'm very satisfied with that cooperation.

Sports results are high on the list of priorities, but how do you balance promoting young players while also achieving notable results on the European stage because both of these aspects are crucial for the club's existence? To paraphrase an old slogan, you're not expecting everything to be easy, are you?

- Surely, I'm not expecting everything to be easy... Initially, we had a problem with pressure on the team because some outsiders might have expected me to come and replace the coach. But that's not my way of functioning. I've always helped coaches, it was the same at Panathinaikos and at Dinamo. Coaches need to be given opportunities and trust.

You once said that Miroslav "Ćiro" Blažević was a master at bringing people together, creating unity. Your initial messages upon arrival were exactly in that direction, that you go with open hearts to all Dinamo supporters, all together, without division.

- Ćiro is an example of how things are done in football, not just in the sports aspect where he was a master in preparation, a master of technique, tactics, and especially motivation. He even motivated the fans in our western stands, let alone the northern ones. We learned a lot from him. I've had many coaches in my career, but Blažević is definitely the best. We owe him a lot as athletes.

The year 1982 is an unavoidable topic; in the whole story, we can read that the atmosphere created by Mr. Blažević, but also in earlier years, by President Vid Ročić, was crucial for that success.

- Ročić did as much as he could; the president didn't have such a big role back then, but he tried to ensure peace and better conditions for us players. He was quite influential in the City, so he enabled players to use apartments which they could later buy. He did this alongside the head of accounting, Zdenka Vašarević. Personally, I didn't manage to be among those who got an apartment. Of course, not everyone could get one, and I helped a bit with the selection. Anyway, Ročić brought peace, and that's my approach too, that's the kind of person I am, I want to reconcile people. Blažević was like that too, and we became a squad that wasn't easy to beat.

Your celebrated generation had its introduction winning the (unrecognized) championship title in 1979 and the Cup in 1980. At what point did you fully start believing that you could go all the way?

- We won the championship title in 1979, and it's a pity that Dinamo didn't do anything to have it formally recognized. As for the 1982 title, I felt during that famous tour in Australia that it could be the generation that would go all the way. We bonded as a team there, and we confirmed it with those victories against Red Star and Hajduk. Those were the most important matches in that championship; we proved our strength in them.

Let's evoke the creation of that team during the famous tour in Australia where coach Blažević included new full-backs Bračun and Cvetković in the starting lineup while giving Mlinarić the number 10 jersey... You were Blažević's extended arm.

- I was the team leader, captain, the player who communicated with Ćiro. We talked about everything, he listened to me about everything, but those weren't long conversations. We didn't need to talk much because we understood each other in seconds. We had an exceptionally high-quality type of collaboration. I was the leader of the players; the guys listened to me; we were friends. We used to hang out in Karaka at our Pavo Kremenić's place after matches, maybe have a whiskey-coke, but only that one day a week because after that, it's time for match preparation.

Many people are still interested in what the actual playing system was like; sometimes, even the actors themselves clash in memories. Was it a three-at-the-back system, how would you describe your role as a background player, yet a box-to-box player, sometimes playing as a four, later as a five...

- Basically, at the back, it was Dragan Bošnjak, Ismet Hadžić, and myself as the three center-backs. Whenever I went out with the ball, Bošnjak stayed back. He and Hadžić were crafty. We didn't have three classical tall defenders at 190 cm; we were short, but we didn't concede goals from set-pieces. The game started right from the back; that's where the football magic began. We were all at the back who knew how to play, and Hadžić had a nice technique, and Bošnjak and Milivoj Bračun on the right side, a fighter, and Zvjezdan Cvetković who knew how to get into the box on set-pieces, he was a good lefty... In that generation, in those years, we had a great midfield; in the team, there were Pero Bručić, Džemo Mustedanagić, Cico, Mlinka, Štef, Boro Cvetković, Bogdan... That was our strength, it didn't change much because there wasn't much opportunity. We also had a solid bench; our team was well-balanced. And that's the most important thing in football, good balance, a sense of play. Maybe we were the first ones to start with three center-backs, that 3-5-2 system which later transformed into a 3-4-3.

You scored one of Dinamo's most important goals, the one for the lead at Poljud, but it's impressive that in that season, both in the league and the cup, as a background player, you had seven assists along with winning a penalty.

- I had that freedom in playing, in creation, in set-pieces, so I reached those numbers. For example, at Panathinaikos, I played as a pure central midfielder, and that was my best position. I played that role in the national team as well. I was a number eight, not a number ten; I went up and down, had a large range of movement. I scored many more goals at Panathinaikos because I had more opportunities considering my position in the game. And that's my true position. That's where I reached my peak; I played twice for the European team and that was exactly in midfield. In one of those matches, I was even named the best player, immortalized in that photo where Johan Cruyff hands me the award.

At that time, Blažević's assistant was Rudi Belin; they were like yin and yang. Did you fall in love with football because of Belin in your childhood days?

- As a child, I imitated Rudi Belin; he later became my coach. He had excellent technique, was a brilliant free-kick taker, it was unbelievable, he took them as if they were penalties. He had ideas in football. He was a gentleman who knew how to deliver a long pass; he knew everything about football, maybe he lacked dribbling skills, but that wasn't crucial in his game. He's one of the greatest Dinamo players of all time. We often visit him, we're friends, we talk a bit about the old times. He was my coach in a few matches, he brought calmness. Ćiro, for example, was full of energy, jokes, and wit, and Rudi as his assistant was a bit calming. They were an excellent duo.

What were your beginnings like? You started at Kraljevec; you went for a trial, but your friends from the neighborhood didn't make it?

- We had a gang up in Kraljevec, at Zelengaj, in the woods behind the settlement, I remember we dug, mowed, planted grass to prepare the field... We were good, Pero, Zdravac, Krešo, the guys I played with and went to the Dinamo trial with. I got accepted, but they didn't make it. So, somehow, I didn't feel like going anymore, and it also seemed like a long way to go from Kraljevec to take the tram, and all that without the gang. It didn't feel right to me, so I stopped. One day, Professor Dujmović, who was then at Dinamo, saw me. He saw me at Mali plac and asked me why I wasn't going to training anymore. I said - what am I supposed to do at 15, 16 years old... He was friends with my school teacher in Tuškanac, convinced me to come back, but relatively late, practically at 17. And I joined that generation with Kranjčar, Mlinarić's older brother, Pšaker, Šutevski, the Majors brothers... It was a great generation; we were Yugoslav junior champions three times. After that, I joined the first team, our first match was in Lika, I managed to score the first goal, and that's where my career started. I'm extremely grateful for my success to coach Mirko Bazić, who knew how to push me and other young players at the right time, he knew how to approach us professionally and correctly.

In Panathinaikos, you played as a number eight, did you have a similar position in those early days at Dinamo?

- It was a combination. For example, one of the coaches who was exceptionally good at working with younger players, Ivan Đalma Marković, taught us a lot. For instance, he constantly talked about football triangles, showed us on the field, taught us how to tie and clean our cleats, work on some parts that you don't even know exist. He taught us the basics of the game, football intelligence, how to play simple, from the first, second touch, how to engage in duels... I have a complete book of his notes at home that he used in his football philosophy.

You've worked with different profiles of coaches, different approaches, strategies, mentalities... How much did that help you in your later endeavors?

- I've been through many coaches in my football life, there were Tomislav Ivić, Ivica Osim, who were great coaches, there was Miljan Miljanić, a good man and coach, of course, Ćiro and Vlatko Marković. For example, Marković was completely different from Blažević, he emphasized strength, a lot of running... When I remember Dubrovnik and Kupari, how much we ran, it was unbelievable. But all of that helped us, everyone had a part in our careers, everyone had their own way of working in terms of tactics and coaching, all of those were different views on football. Ćiro gave me the most, but you take something from everyone and make your own mosaic, and that helps you in your career.

You could have implemented that mosaic for the first time at the age of just 33 when you took over as technical director in April 1987, first as acting, and two months later in full profile. At that time, President Marijan Cuculić was on his way out, Zdenko Mahmet was on his way in, how do you remember those days?

- It was a difficult time. Mahmet came in a tough situation, there was no money... We bought Davor Šuker then, I loaned my 500,000 German marks, the club didn't pay it back, and Mahmet managed to finalize the deal with Osijek. Alen Bokšić was supposed to come in that package too. However, I made a mistake then because I made a difference among the players. One player got money, and some others didn't because there weren't enough funds. That caused a little divergence among the players. I never made such a mistake again.

In those two seasons, Dinamo had good results, twice runners-up... What was missing for the final step?

- We lacked a little help from the state, the city... We were on our own. What we managed to do, we did it ourselves. Nobody helped us. Red Star, for example, had maximum support, we didn't, and that was the main difference.

From your Dinamo career so far, which moments are the dearest to you, maybe second place in the Champions League group stage in 1998, the double crown with Zlatko Kranjčar in 1996, the whole story about bringing back the Dinamo name on Valentine's Day 2000?

- What you mentioned, that's it. Winning the double crown was huge, and I managed the same in Greece, both as a player and as a sports director. It's hard to pick those moments. With Panathinaikos, for example, we reached the top four in the Champions League. Unfortunately, during my playing days with Dinamo, we didn't go far in Europe. We weren't focused on Europe because we concentrated on the domestic league.

Two interesting notes to end, you're the second president in history who played official matches for our club in his earlier playing career, the first was Franjo Staroveški who played back in the days of Gradjanski, and it's suggestive that the first training session in the club's history was held at the Tuškanac playground, in Jabukovac.

- I didn't know the first detail, and I recently found out about the second one. That's my school in Tuškanac, in Jabukovac, and that piece of information about the first training session in history is unbelievable, I appreciate that school even more now. It's quite suggestive; now there's a monument there, and I'm glad it's right there. At that time, of course, I didn't know that – President Zajec concluded.