Meet new Ittihad boss Laszlo Boloni, who nurtured Cristiano

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  • Laszlo Boloni (l) played a big part in Cristiano Ronaldo's (r) career.

    Tom Kundert explores the rich and varied career of Laszlo Boloni, the new manager of Saudi Arabian club Al Ittihad, whose notable achievements include launching the career of Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

    That the name Laszlo Boloni is not instantly recognisable to many football fans around the world tells us more about the focus of the international football media than the multiple qualities of the 62-year-old Romanian.

    A supremely gifted footballer, Boloni’s hugely successful playing career included winning a European Cup – beating Barcelona no less with Steaua Bucharest in 1986 – and multiple domestic titles, as well as claiming over 100 caps for his country. He followed that up with impressive conquests as a coach at several clubs in a variety of countries around Europe and beyond. The fact his many significant achievements occurred outside the English, Spanish, Italian or German leagues means Boloni enjoys none of the fanfare and glorification that is part and parcel of the modern game.

    Perhaps the softly spoken and dignified Romanian is happy to keep it that way. Having grown up in Nicolae Ceausescu’s closed communist regime, he once commented that he had learned from an early age to say only what was necessary and no more.

    The revelation came in an interview in Portugal, a country where he enjoyed his most high-profile triumphs as a coach. Boloni was appointed manager of Lisbon giants Sporting Clube de Portugal having acquired a fine reputation in half a dozen years coaching at AS Nancy in France. Boloni not only led the French club to promotion, but he also gleaned much praise for his work at nurturing young players.


    The Romanian lasted less than two seasons in the Portuguese capital – enough to win a league and cup double – but again his overriding legacy would be the faith he showed in youth players and the ability to get the most out of them, with quite spectacular results.

    Sporting hired Boloni having invested heavily in their youth system. What would become the world-renowned Alcochete Academy was about to be inaugurated, and the shift back to the club’s traditional reliance on home-produced players was implemented after a series of expensive signings the previous season had failed to deliver.

    Boloni wasted no time making his mark, constructing a brilliant team driven by the formidable attacking partnership of Brazilian Mário Jardel and João Pinto, backed up by increasingly important contributions from a set of outstanding young talents who Boloni did not hesitate in throwing into the first team, most notably Ricardo Quaresma, Hugo Viana and Custódio.

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    The trophy-laden end of the season saw the normally unflappable Boloni as expansive as he ever got. “I feel so happy having brought joy to our supporters. For me the most important thing is seeing people happy, smiling broadly. Life only has meaning if we are able to give something to people, whether it’s a gift, a smile, some consideration, or a title, as in this case,” he said.

    Some in Portugal belittled Boloni’s role in a memorable season for the Lions, claiming that with the talent available it was difficult to fail. But one can make a good argument that the Romanian’s intelligence and tact was precisely what made him the perfect conductor of a finely tuned orchestra. It cannot be forgotten he built a wonderfully cohesive team from a squad packed with volatile and somewhat emotionally unstable personalities.

    Fluent in Romanian, Hungarian and French and able to express himself well in English, the bespectacled Boloni often cut a figure more akin to a university professor than a football manager, an image accentuated by his penchant for constantly taking notes in the dugout during games.


    He was not afraid to use creative and unusual motivational schemes, such as when selecting the 16-year-old Yannick Djalo for an end-of-season friendly in 2002 and making a bet that if he scored he would buy the youngster a crate of his favourite drink, Coca-Cola. Djalo duly obliged and Boloni happily made the trip to the local supermarket.

    Yannick Djalo in action.

    Unfortunately for Boloni and Sporting, the 2001-02 season would be a one-off. The following term started promisingly, with a thumping victory in the Super Cup, but an array of thorny issues saw the campaign quickly unravel. Striker Jardel had begun his unedifying fall from grace, João Pinto was suspended for six months after thumping a referee at the 2002 World Cup, Romanian striker Marius Niculae was unavailable with the first of many serious injuries that would ruin his career, and the accumulation of problems proved too much. A disappointing season would see the Boloni relieved of his duties.

    Nevertheless, he could hardly have left a more enduring parting gift to Sporting and it feels absolutely apt that Boloni was the man who launched the career of Cristiano Ronaldo. Boloni’s natural modesty has always seen him downplaying his role in Ronaldo and Quaresma’s careers but there is no question of his influence. “It was not I who gave them a special gift, but it was important for them to work hard under my guidance,” he says. “We lived many good times at Sporting.”


    The Romanian’s time in Portugal may have come to a premature end, but he has continued to enrich his CV with impressive results. Upon leaving Lisbon, Boloni headed back to France where he led Rennes to their best ever finish of 4th place in Ligue 1, he won another league title in Belgium at Standard Liege, and he lifted the Gulf Club Champions Cup for Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates.

    His latest move to Al Ittihad in Saudi Arabia is his fourth managerial post in the Middle East after spells at Al Wahda and three years at Al Khor in Qatar. He may not make global headlines but there is every chance he will do a brilliant job.