Coach Raddy's farewell interview
After nine years, he is no longer Singapore's football coach. -ST
"Can I get you a coffee?" asks Raddy Avramovic.
Some things do not change. As always before interviews, he offers to pick up the tab, even when the media flows with criticism for him.
But things have changed.
After nine years, he is no longer Singapore's football coach. On Tuesday, he and wife will return to Serbia - his first vacation in two years.
His voice was even more hoarse than usual yesterday, as he spends his last week on this island saying farewell to friends and former colleagues.
At one dinner, he stares at a picture of himself in 1977, when he was playing in goal for then Yugoslavian club NK Rijeka, his face free of lines, his hair full and black.
"Look at what Singapore has done to me," the 63-year-old teases.
Known for his reticence, Avramovic presents another side this time.
He talks about his biggest heart- ache here, when Singapore missed out on qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup, the continent's biggest football tournament where the big boys such as Japan and South Korea play, by a single point - the 1-2 loss to Jordan the year before ending the dream.
"That failure was the biggest disappointment," he sighs. "While we have some success at the Asean level, the next step is the Asian Cup. That is where we can truly test ourselves, and we missed it by just one point."
He reveals when he decided that he will not renew his contract - after the Lions were thumped 7-1 by Iraq in the third round of the World Cup qualifiers in February last year and finished bottom of the group with six losses and no wins.
"But I didn't want to quit. I knew we had the foundations of a good team and I had the chance to bring in new players. In the end, it paid off. These boys have written football history for Singapore."
Maybe that is why Avramovic is so much more willing to open up.
He has proven himself again.
Last month, the Lions returned from Bangkok with a record fourth AFF Cup for the Republic, after beating Thailand over two legs in the final.
The first match at the Jalan Besar Stadium saw the coach banking on attack as the Lions' won 3-1. Then the second leg at the Supachalasai Stadium was a gruelling defensive test. The Thais won 1-0 but it was not enough for the home side, and Avramovic was widely hailed for getting his tactics spot-on.
It was the third Cup for the coach as well - another unprecedented feat.
"Winning three times is a good record in some ways, because we're competing against Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. They have, in some way, more resources," he says.
"This latest win was the result of a few years of hard work preparing this generation of players."
Each victory was marked by Avramovic's successful blooding of new players.
His first two AFF Cups were delivered by Shahril Ishak, who is now the Lions captain, Baihakki Khaizan and Khairul Amri - rookies who won their first caps under him.
Last December, another new batch delivered - Izwan Mahbud, Safuwan Baharudin and Shahdan Sulaiman.
But there were those who fell short.
While 2010 began with Asian Cup failure, it ended with ignominy for the Lions. They exited the AFF Cup tournament at the group stage.
In between, stories about lack of discipline, broken curfews and smoking in the Lions camp cast a further pall. The Football Association of Singapore acted by disbanding the team.
The coach insists it is not his style to name and shame, but he showed that he was not afraid to drop star names such as striker Noh Alam Shah and winger Ridhuan Muhammad, even if they did rise up under him.
"Those are the hardest decisions - dropping players," he says. "But my decision-making has always been clear. It is always about selecting the best team, not the best players."
Then there are those players who pick themselves.
He names Shahril, midfielders Hariss Harun and Fahrudin Mustafic, retired goalkeeper Lionel Lewis, and Singapore football's first naturalised foreign talents Egmar Goncalves and Mirko Grabovac as among the best players he coached here.
And there was special mention for 42-year-old striker Aleksandar Duric, who also called time on his Lions career alongside his coach last month.
"Duric is unique, he's probably the only one of his kind in the world right now. He is a really good example of a footballer who looks after himself."
In this game, timing is everything.
And Avramovic believes he has gotten it right in choosing to step down from Singapore's hottest sporting seat.
"I feel that now is the moment to stop with the national team. The team needs new blood... both the players and the coach.
"I've tried my best. I achieved some good results. Although I could have done a little bit more, nobody's perfect. At least I've tried.
"I have mixed feelings about leaving. We are top of Asean. It is time to achieve something more at the Asian level. But this will take time and the people at FAS are serious football people who know what they are doing."
There is also a message for fans.
"It was absolutely great to see the reaction of Singaporeans during and after the tournament (last month). I hope the support will continue to be like that. I hope the fans can be patient."
His mood is a conciliatory one, of a man who wants to leave on a happy note and with his friendships intact.
He is mum on his future, insisting that no decision has been made.
But he admits that discussions with the FAS over a possible technical director role to mentor young coaches are still ongoing. His close friends say his ticket to Serbia has a return stub.
And this may not be his last interview with The Sunday Times.
He gets up, his coffee finished, and wags a finger.
"Never say never."
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