If you are a fan of football across the Causeway, then the name Bojan Hodak would not be all too unfamiliar.
Not so much because he spent a few good years as a defender in the S-League, first with Balestier Khalsa and then with Jurong, but more because how he is now deemed to be the man with the Midas Touch, at least within Southeast Asia.
He was also on the radar of the Lion City Sailors and was in line for the role as head coach for the 2023 season but the club chose Risto Vidakovic for the role instead, a job which has unfortunately been rather short-lived for the Serbian.
Going further back, he also made a play to become Singapore’s national coach back in 2016.
THE FACTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES
On 22 July, his current club Kuala Lumpur City FC (KLFC) will challenge in yet another Cup final against the mighty Johor Darul Ta’zim at the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium, just a short drive from the Tuas Checkpoint.
Just two years prior in 2021, Hodak’s KLFC faced off against JDT in the 100th edition of the Malaysia Cup, and his city slickers came out top with a 2-0 smash and grab.
It was KLFC’s first Malaysia Cup trophy since 1989, when the team was staffed by Singaporeans Fandi Ahmad, K Kannan and Malek Awab.
“It was an unbelievable moment not just for me, but for the fans, the players and the club,” he said.
As Malaysia Cup champions, Hodak’s side went on to participate in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup, and went all the way to the final, only to be stopped by eventual champion Al-Seeb from Oman.
“It was a huge achievement for us to have made it all the way to the final,” said Hodak, in a chat with TMSG in a restaurant in Mont Kiara in Kuala Lumpur, where he currently lives.
“Looking back, I guess it was a case where the players had character, despite having a very small squad.
“The Cup matches gives us a chance to focus and succeed,” said the 52-year-old.
His list of accolades also winning the treble with Kelantan (2012) in his debut year, and then winning the Malaysian Super League with JDT in 2014.
Before JDT, he won the Cambodian Super League with Phnom Penh Crown, and also qualified for teh AFC President’s Cup final round, a first in Cambodian football history.
He has also had a stint with the Football Association of Malaysia as the Malaysian U19 coach, and guided the youngsters to ASEAN Football Federation U19 Championships in 2018.
In addition, he had a stint with Shandong Taishan in the Chinese Super League in 2011 to 2012 as an assistant coach, a job he said was too big to refuse when he was approached to take up the offer.
HIS TIME AS A PLAYER IN SINGAPORE
The Croatian first landed in Singapore for trials with then-Balestier Central in 1997, courtesy of his ally Goran Paulic, who was a hotshot with the Tigers.
But the club only decided to take Hodak on after a friendly match against Japan at the National Stadium.
Despite losing 4-0, Hodak proved his worth.
Already 25 then, he said that he would have headed back to Croatia if he had not signed a contract after the match.
“I am not sure where I would have ended up if Balestier did not sign me but I would have gone back home,” he said.
Following a season with Balestier, Hodak then joined Jurong FC, playing alongside luminaries like V Sundram Moorthy, Velimir Crljen and Marko Kraljevic.
“It was a team with seasoned players, and till today, I am still very good friends with quite a few of them, including Sundram,” said Hodak, who had two stints in Jurong – in 1998 to 1999 and again from 2000 to 2001.
In between, he spent a year in Hong Kong with the Hong Rangers.
FOCUS ON THE PIPELINE, SIZE DOES NOT MATTER
Inevitably, the conversation shifted to the current state of the game in Singapore.
“It is not that Singapore does not have the numbers,” he shared.
“There are other countries in the world with smaller populations which have done well – Uruguay, Croatia, Bahrain are just a few examples.”
Uruguay has a population of 3.4 million, while Croatia is made up of about 3.89 million.
Both are regular World Cup participants, with Uruguay already having won the coveted trophy twice.
Bahrain has only about 1.46 million but is constantly at the Asian Cup, and also came close to qualifying for the World Cup in 2006 and 2010.
More recently, Uruguay were U20 World Cup champions.
“Singapore will need to have its own system, and will need to change the structures from the bottom,” he said.
“If the house is not built on a stable structure, the entire system will collapse.”
He felt that for Singapore football to succeed, there needs to be at least 10 to 20 more Lion City Sailors youth academy projects springing up to ensure that the talent pipeline is fed consistently, and with the proper training and guidance.
“Only then will you have a decent national team which can fight for some results.”
MAIN PHOTO: BERNAMA