Bilic bows out with his head held high
Soccer:Slaven Bilic's six-year reign as Croatia coach ended in frustrating fashion when a 1-0 defeat by holders Spain knocked them out of Euro 2012 and left the charismatic coach wondering what might have been. But the 43-year old from Split, who is fluent in four languages, has a law degree and a rock band, will have few regrets knowing he brought the best out of his team, who often punched above their weight in major events.
The tournament in Poland and Ukraine was no exception as Croatia were in contention for a quarter-final berth until the last few minutes of their absorbing clash with the European Champions, when a Jesus Navas goal sent them packing.
Croatia's "fiery madness" - the team's official Euro 2008 anthem composed by Bilic's band which epitomised their passion on the pitch and at times the unruly behaviour of their fans in 2012 - will now make way for daily work in club football.
Bilic will take over Russian top flight side Lokomotiv Moscow at the start of next season and, although he must be looking forward to a fresh challenge, coaching his country remains the most emotional endeavour of his career."I didn't expect this to be my last game in charge because I thought we would get past the group stage with this phenomenal group who've shown great character and built a fantastic atmopshere," he said.
"I want to congratulate the players for six years of impeccable work and behaviour. I will leave nothing in the tank either professionally or emotionally whatever I do next but I will never be as proud as I was while coaching my country, which is a rare privilege and especially so for a young coach like myself," he said.
Croatia's first eleven time and again showed the ability to stand their ground against the toughest opponents but lack of depth in the squad eventually dashed their hopes of at least emulating their Euro 2008 achievement of making the last eight. Inspirational playmaker Luka Modric was subdued for much of the tournament and only showed occasional flashes of the brilliance he has shown for Tottenham which has made him one of the most sought-after players in world football.
One such move, an audacious cross with the outside of his foot, presented Ivan Rakitic with the best chance of the game against world champions Spain but the winger directed his close-range header straight at Iker Cassilas. The Croatians were swiftly punished at the other end with the clock ticking, and Italy's 2-0 win over Ireland meant the italians went through as runners-up with group winners Spain.
Bilic insisted he would have changed nothing in cagey first-half performances against Italy and Spain when Croatia needed to take more risks in order to grab those two games by the scruff of the neck."We had a plan, we stuck to it and our strategy to be aggressive worked except that we didn't take our chances against Spain when they came our way," he said.
"I can only congratulate Italy and the Spaniards for advancing from this tough group while we can go home with our heads high and our pride intact."