Overlooked star leads Bosnia into Paris
Safet Sušic still has a Pied-à-terre in Fourqueux, a picturesque little village west of Paris that was once home to Victor Hugo and his family in the mid-1830s. When the Bosnia coach isn't in Sarajevo attending to official business, it's not out of the ordinary to see him sitting in one of the cafes that line its streets reading the day's papers.
Sušic doesn't go unnoticed. His windswept hair and weathered face are well known. He is a legend around here, after all. Last year, France Football elected Sušic the best player in the history of Paris Saint-Germain ahead of Carlos Bianchi, Luis Fernández, George Weah, Raí and Ronaldinho in acknowledgement of the extraordinary impact he had on the club in his 342 appearances between 1982 and 1991.
Tuesday's match between Bosnia and France is eagerly anticipated because it will decide who automatically qualifies for Euro 2012, but it also holds a special meaning for Sušic, even if he insisted in a tête-à-tête with L'Équipe on Monday that he returns to Paris "without any particular emotion."
There is a job to do and, for now, his focus lies there. "Bosnia have a 10 per cent chance," Sušic told Le Parisien. "France are on a run of 14 matches without a defeat and few teams have realized such a series of results."
Doubts surrounding the fitness of Zvjezdan Misimovic, Bosnia's most capped player of all-time and the scorer of a brace in Friday's 5-0 victory over Luxembourg, bring with them a possible need to change shape to a 4-2-3-1 with Edin Džeko on his own up front and Elvir Rahimic and Adnan Zahirovic holding in midfield.
Safet Susic, as Yugoslavia plays Colombia at the 1990 World Cup. (Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images)
It will surely be that and nothing else which occupies Sušic's mind in the hours building up to the game. He won't sentimentally dwell on past glories, not at such an important juncture in his country's football history. "PSG figure a lot in my career," he said, "but that was more than 20 years back."
Even so, Sušic's playing days are worth re-telling, for outside of France and Bosnia his talent still seems underappreciated. "With all modesty, I was a star," he declared.
Interviewed by So Foot in August 2006, the Balkan musician and composer Goran Bregovic recalled just how much the playmaker meant to his country back in the `70s and `80s.
"Sušic played for FK Sarajevo at the time, but his play was so magical that even the supporters of rival club Zeljeznicar knew that he was Bosnia’s best player.
"In Sarajevo, it was traditional for children of all religious backgrounds to attend the Christmas service at the cathedral in the town centre. Every year the priest reiterated his awareness that there were all sorts of different people in attendance but that we were brought together because there is only one God. And then the same guy always repeated: ‘Yes and its Pape!’ (Sušic’s nickname). Applause ensued, a rare event in a church. But the priest wasn’t offended, he too knew that Sušic was a genius."
After close to a decade at FK Sarajevo, Sušic sought a new challenge. He received contract offers from Inter and Torino, and thought nothing of signing both of them. The Italian Football Federation didn't look too kindly on that and Sušic unsurprisingly received a ban.
"My career in Italy ended before it even began," he lamented. "It was 1982. I played the World Cup in Spain and then subsequently reached an agreement with Paris." Except this time, it was the Yugoslav Football Federation that stood in his way.
"At the time, in order to leave Yugoslavia, you needed to be 28. I was on the verge of being so but they had promised me I could leave. The World Cup didn't go well [we went out in the group stages] so they did everything to delay my departure. Finally after a lot of persuasion, I arrived in December."
As Sušic arrived Ossie Ardiles left. PSG’s replacement proved worth the wait and wasted no time making his mark. Their new No. 10’s adaptation was lightening fast, and he scored the team's winner in his first ever start against Nancy. "I have never understood players needing time to integrate," he scoffed. "Either you know how to play football or you don't, right?"
Sušic inspired PSG to an extraordinary second half of the season. They won 11 of their remaining 18 games and lost on just four occasions. It was enough to finish third. That year, Georges Peyroche's side reached the final of the Coupe de France, and it was Sušic's magnificent bullet-like equalizer from outside of the box that set PSG on the way to a 3-2 victory over Ligue 1 champions Nantes.
It was the club's first major trophy in their 12-year existence and Sušic had helped validate the fledgling PSG. "They were a small team at that time," he admitted. "The city quickly seduced and impressed me. The club, on the contrary, impressed me a lot less. I had expected other things, notably in terms of infrastructure."
Before Sušic's arrival, PSG had tried to copy Saint-Étienne. They bought the players that had been synonymous with the dominance of les Verts in the `70s and hoped the success of the likes of Dominique Rocheteau, Jean-Michel Larqué and Dominique Bathenay would rub off on them. Now with Sušic and in particular Fernández, PSG had a team that genuinely felt like their own.
"Safet was an extraordinary player," Fernández recalled. "But careful, he was also the kind of player who would never give the ball to you or who would throw his arms up in the air if the pass you gave him wasn't to his feet.
"One day, we clashed. I said to him: 'When you throw your arms up like that, it's as if you're saying to the fans that I am rubbish when you're the one who's not moving...' But what a player he was..."
When PSG won Ligue 1 for the first time in their history under Gérard Houllier in 1986, it was still a shock, not least because they had finished 13th the previous season. Sušic again played the conductor, leaving his young coach and all the club’s fans forever grateful, because no one ever forgets their first time.
“He is the most exquisite man, the nicest to spend time with and easiest to train,” a 38-year-old Houllier recalled in the following year's Panini album. "Tactically his richness is unbelievable, he can play in a wide range of positions. He's a player of the highest level. He never missed a training session.
It was with great regret on Sušic’s part that he could never take the club further. PSG went out in the first round of the European Cup to Czech outfit Vitkovice in September 1986 and that, as they say, was that. “I would have liked to have been at the club when there were greater financial means,” he sighed. “If in my time, we’d had the money from Canal+, we would have won more titles.”
Canal+ bought PSG in May 1991, too late for Sušic. Then 37, he left the club that summer for a swansong in Ligue 2 with Red Star Saint-Ouen. It was a shame, even if he remains the benchmark by which all playmakers are judged at PSG, including Javier Pastore. “Physically we don’t resemble each other at all,” he told L'Équipe. “He is a lot taller than me.”
And yet, it’s Sušic who looms large over France right now. His Bosnia side might be away from home, but Paris is his city, his stage and it provides the setting for what promises to be the most compelling piece of theatre in this final round of Euro 2012 qualifiers.