Meet new Ittihad boss Laszlo Boloni, who nurtured Cristiano

Tom Kundert 31/07/2015
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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.

SHORT BUT SWEET

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.

– Europa round-up: Ten-man West Ham pegged back
– #360podcast: It’s going, going Gyan in AGL
– INTERVIEW: McManaman discusses English players abroad
– From Benitez’s wife to Chelsea success: Jose’s Top 20 quotes

CHAMPIONSHIP GLEE

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.

COCA-COLA CHALLENGE

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.”

MORE SILVERWARE

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.

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Europa round-up: 10-man Hammers held

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Takayuki Seto celebrates scoring his side's second goal against the Hammers.

West Ham, who qualified for the Europa League due to their fair play record, had a player sent-off in a 2-2 draw with Astra Giurgiu on Thursday while crowd trouble shamed the tournament.

West Ham were 2-0 up on their Romanian visitors at Upton Park in the first leg of their third qualifying round tie thanks to goals from Enner Valencia and Mauro Zarate.

But James Collins then became the Hammers’ third player to be sent off in five games under new coach Slaven Bilic and the Romanians took full advantage with Fernando Boldrin and an own-goal from debutant Angelo Ogbonna levelling the tie.

“We definitely played well in the first hour, but the game lasts 90 minutes and we had to react better to going down to ten men,” said Bilic who was also sent to the stands by the referee.

Southampton brushed aside Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem 3-0 thanks to goals from Italian Graziano Pelle, Serbian Dusan Tadic, from the penalty spot, and a late third from Shane Long. 

The Saints’ manager Ronald Koeman is a former Vitesse coach while the win was the English side’s first in Europe in 34 years.

– #360podcast: It’s going, going Gyan in AGL
– INTERVIEW: McManaman discusses English players abroad
– From Benitez’s wife to Chelsea success: Jose’s Top 20 quotes

One of the big surprises of the evening took place in Italy where Sampdoria were taken apart 4-0 by Serbia’s Vojvodina which gives the Serie A side a mountain to climb in the return leg next week. 

Sampdoria were playing in Turin as their ground in Genoa undergoes renovation work and the change did them no good at all as Mirko Ivanic, Aleksandar Stanisavljevic and Ognjen Ozegovic (two) steered their side to a shock win.

The defeat was Sampdoria’s heaviest European loss since 1962.

Borussia Dortmund began life without departed coach Jurgen Klopp with a 1-0 win away to Austrian outsiders Wolfsburg to give new boss Thomas Tuchel a winning competitive start.

Jonas Hofmann scored the only goal in the 16th minute.

Crowd trouble in Albania forced the tie between Kukesi and Legia Warsaw of Poland to be abandoned early in the second half with the visitors leading 2-1. 

Legia’s Ondraj Duda appeared to be struck by a stone thrown from the crowd and was stretchered off with blood spattered on his shirt.

Aberdeen grabbed a crucial away goal at Kazakhstan’s Kairat Almaty despite a 2-1 defeat.

Aberdeen, who won the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup under Alex Ferguson, were 2-0 down after just 20 minutes but Kenny McClean’s goal 20 minutes from time gave the Scottish side hope. 

The journey for the Scottish side covered over 4,500 miles (7,240km) and crossed five time zones, and is believed to be the longest made by a team competing in any European competition.

The winners of the third qualifying round ties will move into the play-offs before the start of the group stages. 

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From Benitez's wife to success at Chelsea: Mourinho's Top 20 quotes

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A way with words: Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.

After Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho's latest rant about Rafa Benitez's waistline, Sport360 picks out his top twenty quotes over the years. 

“And for her also to think about me and to speak about me, I think she needs to occupy her time, and if she takes care of her husband’s diet she will have less time to speak about me” Jose on Rafa Benitez's wife.

"If I wanted to have an easy job, working with the big protection of what I have already done before, I would have stayed at Porto – beautiful blue chair, the UEFA Champions League trophy, God, and after God, me." On taking a new challenge at Chelsea.

"Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.” Announcing his arrival in typical Jose style at Chelsea. 

"I think he is one of these people who is a voyeur. He likes to watch other people. There are some guys who, when they are at home, have a big telescope to see what happens in other families. He speaks, speaks, speaks about Chelsea." On Wenger.

“We are on top at the moment but not because of the club’s financial power. We are in contention for a lot of trophies because of my hard work.” Jose dismisses claims that they win because of the bankroll at Chelsea.

“If Roman Abramovich helped me out in training we would be bottom of the league and if I had to work in his world of big business, we would be bankrupt!” Putting to bed any doubt that Roman Abramovich has a say in picking the team.

"It's not even a game between me and him. It's a game where a kid made some statements not showing maturity and respect. Maybe [it's his] education, difficult childhood, no education, maybe [it is] the consequence of that." Cristiano Ronaldo may now be his golden boy, but the two Portuguese didn’t always see eye to eye.

"Ronaldo is a good player but he is certainly not the best. He deserved the Golden Ball award because his team won the Champions League and the Premier League. But, for me, Ibrahimovic is the best." Tarring Ronnie with an mercurial-but-lazy-Swede-shaped brush.

"The style of how we play is very important. But it is omelettes and eggs. No eggs – no omelettes! It depends on the quality of the eggs. In the supermarket you have class one, two or class three eggs and some are more expensive than others and some give you better omelettes. So when the class one eggs are in Waitrose and you cannot go there, you have a problem." On the frustration of the tightening of the transfer market purse-strings in the final months of his Chelsea stint.

"You can't win the treble every season. But I've done it twice and I think twice is quite a lot." Modesty, Jose-style.

"It was no coincidence that he showed the red card to Sneijder. I have realised that they are not going to allow us to wrap this title up. But we were perfect. We would have won this game even with seven men. Maybe with six we would have struggled, but we would have won with seven." Mourinho after Wesley Sneijder had been sent off in the 2-0 derby win over AC Milan in January 2010.

“It is like having a blanket that is too small for the bed. You pull the blanket up to keep your chest warm and your feet stick out. I cannot buy a bigger blanket because the supermarket is closed. But I am content because the blanket is cashmere. It is no ordinary blanket.” During a post-transfer window Chelsea injury crisis.

“Young players are a little bit like melons. Only when you open and taste the melon are you 100 per cent sure that the melon is good. Sometimes you have beautiful melons but they don’t taste very good and some other melons are a bit ugly and when you open them, the taste is fantastic!” On, er, melons.

"Who were (Frank) Lampard, (John) Terry and (Didier) Drogba two years ago? They were certainly not world stars. And in this moment who are they?” On moulding superstars.

"Ricardo Carvalho seems to have problems understanding things, maybe he should have an IQ test, or go to a mental hospital or something” After Carvalho blasted Mourinho for not picking him to play.

“Why drive Aston Martin all the time, when i have Ferrari and Porsche as well? That would just be stupid” – When asked about rotating Joe Cole, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff.

“Barcelona have a great club. But in 200 years of history they have won the European Cup only once. I have been managing for a few years and I have already won the same amount.” – said during the 2005-2006 season. Barcelona went on to win the Champions League.

“Barcelona is a cultural city with many great theatres and this boy [Lionel Messi] has learned very well. He’s learned play-acting.” After Asier Del Horno was sent off in Chelsea's defeat against Barcelona in February 2006.

"He is a wonderful, great manager. I have a lot of respect for the big man. I call him ‘boss’ because he’s our [the other managers'] boss. He’s the top man, a really nice person and he deserves to be the boss. Maybe when I am 60 the kids will call me the same.” On Sir Alex Ferguson.

"I would rather play with 10 men than wait for a player who is late for the bus." Mourinho leaves his Real Madrid players in no doubt about who is boss.

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