In Focus: Ante Jazić
Posted on 17 April 2014 in Coaching
In Croatia they cheered Ante Jazić’s name, first with HK Hrvatski Dragovoljac and then with Hajduk Split as they captured the national title. The chorus kept building in Austria following four years with Rapid Vienna and remained strong throughout hard times at FC Kuban Krasnodar in Russia. Even after rediscovering his form in Major League Soccer, first with LA Galaxy and then Chivas USA, no stadium ever matched the pride that his fellow Nova Scotians take in his achievements.
And even though Jazić retired in 2013, with 35 National Team appearances, he remains an example, both on and off the field for Canadian kids to follow. But despite his success he’s quick to admit his good fortune and the efforts that others made to help him succeed.
And it’s this recognition that has brought Jazić back to Canada Soccer to work alongside Technical Director Tony Fonseca and former national teammate Paul Stalteri as Coach of Canada’s Men’s U-15 Team.
Canada Soccer spoke with Jazić while at a talent identification camp in Toronto, ON.
From his time with Halifax King of Donair, to the vacation that launched his 18-year professional career, to the glamour of LA and his ambition to coach in the MLS we cover it all, including his role in identifying the next generation of Canadian talent.
Canada Soccer: Can you tell us about the identification camps you’re running?
Ante Jazić: Yeah, right now, we’re looking at U-15 boys from across the country. Later in the year we’re going to have a national camp with all the players we’ve identified.
The goal is to find talented players and expose them, from an early age, to competitive environments. By doing so, we hope to better prepare them for a future time when they’ll face CONCACAF competition.
CS: Why is this process important?
AJ: It’s important because it’s the only way a player is going to grow. Once a player, especially at a youth age, becomes complacent - where they know they can dominate a game or a training session without getting pushed - that’s when they plateau. But, if they’re pushed everyday in a competitive environment, where they are forced to get better, then the sky is the limit.
CS: Your partner in this project is former teammate Paul Stalteri, how do you two divide the responsibilities?
AJ: I’m technically the head coach but Paul is a coach as well. We feed off each other. We have a great working relationship. I feel like we have a good gage of identifying talent. We know what we’re looking for and what kind of player Canada needs. And what kind of player will be able to contribute in a CONCACAF environment.
CS: Let’s put the project aside for a moment and focus on your own development. How did your career get started?
AJ́: Well I grew up in Bedford, a wonderful town in Nova Scotia. I lived there until I was 19. But in terms of my soccer development I owe a lot to Stephen Hart [Before becoming Men’s National Team Head Coach, Hart was Technical Director of Soccer Nova Scotia and Coach of Halifax King of Donair – a dominant amateur club, where Jazić played]. He basically modelled me as a player before I became a professional.
He [Hart] recognized my talent and went out of his way to give me individual training. I remember he used to drive from Halifax to Bedford – which is a 20-minute ride – pick me up from high school and take me back to Halifax to train before driving me back home—all out of the goodness of his heart.
I have great admiration for him, not only as a coach but also as a person. And I played for him for my entire youth career. As well, I played with Lewis Page [the current Head Coach of the University of Prince Edward Island’s Men’s Soccer Team] on Halifax King of Donair. So I was playing with all of these guys who had national team experience and went on to coach at a high level. I was fortunate that, at a young age, I was exposed to experienced players and good quality individuals.
CS: Okay, but how did you make the transition to Europe?
AJ: What happened was that I had completed my first year at Dalhousie University [taking Business and Administration]. I enjoyed my experience thoroughly, having had a successful season, winning nationals. And during the summer my mother asked if I was interested in going to Croatia for a month to visit relatives?
As luck would have it, my uncle [in Croatia] knowing that I was involved in soccer, mentioned this to a neighbour who happened to be the daughter of a professional soccer coach. And, somehow, it worked out that I was allowed to try out for this pro-team [NK Hrvatski Dragovoljac], but the tryout was scheduled for the day I was supposed to fly back to Halifax.
So I was at a crossroads. My dad was huge on me getting my degree, but I decided to try and live my dream of being a professional footballer. Initially I just thought I would give it a year and then come back and finish school, but things evolved and, somehow, that one-month vacation turned into an 18-year professional career.
CS: How did you make it when so many knock and so few get in?
AJ: One thing I’ll say: while it’s normal for kids to have this dream, making it a reality is difficult. So, yes, I was fortunate and lucky, but there were a lot of times when I wanted to quit and come home.
Every player, I’m sure, struggles with this, but you have to take it in context. You’re 19, you’re with your family every day. In school you have your friends. You go to a new environment, you start from scratch, you have to learn a language, adapt to a new culture. You have to make new friends, new teammates. It’s a far more competitive environment—the relationship in a professional squad isn’t the same as it is with a college team.
Once you adapt and become accustomed to the nature of the game [in Europe], it becomes easier. But initially the first one or two years are critical for any player. But, gradually, the homesickness passed and I was able to overcome my deficiencies. You have to be mentally strong, to be able to withstand all of the initial issues.
CS: Where did your mental strength come form?
AJ: My parents. They’re Croatian immigrants. My dad left home, came to Canada with nothing in his pockets. Both he and my mom worked their socks-off to provide for us. When things got tough, I would remind myself that my parents also left their families and still managed to provide.
But, also, once I made the decision to quit school and pursue soccer, giving up wasn’t an option. It was a difficult decision, and obviously my dad was disappointed, but once he saw how committed I was and the strides I was making both my parents supported me, as they always have throughout my career. I’ve been blessed, I mean, to be able to come from Halifax, which isn’t a soccer hotbed per say, to having the career that I’ve had is pretty special.
CS: And what did you mean by deficiencies?
AJ: Compared to many Europeans I was deficient in a lot of things as a player. But I put in a lot of [training] hours and basically kept plugging away until I was able to break into the team. Keep in mind, that when I went over [in 1997] soccer was less developed in Canada and MLS had only just started.
One thing I must say: when I went to Europe I was always an attacking midfielder, but the coach turned me into a left back. Being left-footed, with decent pace and pretty good endurance, the tools for being a decent left back were there and, obviously, I polished them by training and doing the things that I needed to do. But, I would say that the main reason for my success was persistence.
CS: In a 2012 Canadian Press article you say, “I want to go to a place where I enjoy my football and money wasn’t [sic] the primary issue.” Can you explain what you meant?
AJ: Absolutely. After adapting to Croatia, and life in Austria, I thought I could play anywhere. But once I got to Russia I realized I made the wrong decision. I just wasn’t able to cope with the culture and the mentality.
It’s difficult when you wake up everyday and you don’t have that passion to train. For a footballer once that passion is gone your performances suffer. For me [after Russia] I made the decision that if I wanted to continue playing, I would have to go to a location where I’m going to enjoy my football, where I’m going to enjoy training and enjoy the daily grind. And not think about the money and that’s why I came to MLS.
CS: And this brought you to Beckham. What was this experience like?
AJ: It was a wonderful. Unfortunately the LA Galaxy, when David first arrived, was a team in transition. We weren’t in a good phase. David brought a lot of media attention to the sport. Had a tremendous impact on the game. As a teammate he was wonderful. I had a good relationship with David. He’s a quality individual and a quality player and he has done great things for the game in North America. But definitely, it was a great two years for me.
CS: Considering you were traded to Chivas USA was it better playing with Beckham or against him?
AJ: Actually, I would say the best part was the ability to watch him train. It’s impressive how dedicated he is to his craft. The way he conducts himself on the pitch during training and games. I was impressed how he wanted to get better each and everyday. For a guy who had already achieved many things, he could have probably packed it in and basically collect a pay check in MLS, but he didn’t and instead showed dedication and professionalism.
CS: So why did you decide to take up coaching?
AJ: This project we have with the U-15 boys is something that I’m passionate about. Myself and Paul Stalteri, we both love the game and feel this is a great way to give back.
I have complete faith in the direction that Tony Fonseca is taking with youth development. And I see myself contributing in a positive way. I’m not that kind of guy who can just walk away and not do anything and this is a great way for me to keep busy, while helping my country.
CS: So you’re now mentoring others as Stephen Hart did for you?
AJ: Stephen did great things for this country and went far and beyond what he had to do for me. So if I can help a child … a player get into a better environment I would absolutely do that. Paul and I, both, want to see this country move in the right direction. We have talent here. It’s about finding that talent and getting them into a better environment—a competitive environment and it has to start in this age group. And the fact that we can start this identification camp all across the country is a wonderful thing.
CS: What are your plans for the future?
AJ: Right now, I definitely want to pursue coaching. I think this [project] is a great start. As I said, I love working for Canada Soccer. And I love the project we have going. But, you know, I would like to move into the professional game, possibly MLS, but I’m definitely happy where I’m at right now.