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European stardom becomes Asian ambition for Uzbekistan’s Drulovic

Songkhla: A habitual trophy-winner at world famous clubs as a player, and a European champion as a head coach, Ljubinko Drulovic is hoping his wide catalogue of footballing experiences can propel Uzbekistan to a first-ever Olympic Games appearance at the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020.

Before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo rewired football’s statistical parameters in the 2010s, a player scoring 50 goals in a single season was usually confined to comic books and computer games, except in the case of Mario Jardel.

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For seven years from 1996 to 2003, the Brazilian centre-forward was an unstoppable goal-scoring machine, racking up 235 goals in 232 matches in two spells in the Portuguese top-flight, scoring a half-century on two separate seasons, twice winning the European Golden Shoe and topping the UEFA Champions League scorers list in 1999-2000.

But while Jardel’s exploits earned him a fearsome reputation the world over, what most of the record books miss is the contribution of a chief architect of one of European football’s hottest streaks; regular Jardel provider and current Uzbekistan U23 national team head coach Ljubinko Drulovic.

“Mario was one of the best strikers in the world at that time,” Drulovic told in Songkhla, Thailand, where the Serbian is leading the defending champions at the AFC U23 Championship.

“He scored so many goals. I don’t know how many, but it was a lot of goals. Every season he would score 35 or 40 goals, and we had a very good partnership.

“I have the record for most assists in a season in Portuguese football. I had 23 assists in a season. We were very good in tandem."

“He was fantastic in the box. I’ve never seen a player like that, because he was very, very strong indeed. He scored goals with his left foot, right foot, head, it didn’t matter.

“After he played at FC Porto he went to Galatasaray, then he came back to play for Sporting (Lisbon) and he scored 42 (league) goals for the season and made them champions.”

Drulovic’s partnership with Jardel came during his own decade-long spell in Portugal, where he amassed trophy after trophy in a seven-year stint with FC Porto, before switching to Lisbon giants Benfica in 2001.

A skilful winger with an eye for goal, Drulovic won five consecutive titles at Porto, working under the likes of former England and Barcelona head coach the late Bobby Robson (pictured below) as well as future European Championship winner Fernando Santos, in a period he calls the best of his career.

“During that time, I won 14 trophies, I played with and against big players, we played in the (UEFA) Champions League and UEFA Cup. I had 50 games in the Champions League, and after that I had two years at Benfica; another big, big club in Portugal. It was a fantastic time for me.

“Bobby Robson was a fantastic coach; a fantastic man and he is a legend of English football. Having him as my coach and working with him was a big pleasure for me. We won lots of games and lots of trophies with him and it was an incredible experience.

“Fernando Santos is still my good friend and also a fantastic coach. When I was a player, we had a very good professional relationship, and I was able to learn a lot of things from both Fernando and Bobby Robson.”

In fact, Drulovic’s time on the Iberian Peninsula was so successful that he also managed to become only the sixth foreign player in history to play for both Porto and Benfica – two fierce competitive rivals who between them have claimed 65 of the 85 league titles won in the country – and did so without incurring the wrath of either club’s fans.

“It’s not normal for a player in Portugal to move to the other big club, but it sometimes happens. My contact expired in 2001 and I signed with Benfica,” said Drulovic, who earned 38 international caps.

“There is a big rivalry there and the fans don’t like the other club, which is normal, but I didn’t have any problems. I still have good relations with all of the fans, Porto fans and Benfica fans.”

Drulovic retired in 2005 and a coaching career soon followed, working with clubs in a range of countries including Portugal and his homeland before landing the Serbia U-19 national team job in 2012.

It was in that role he made history by leading a team featuring Aleksandar Mitrovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, among others, to the 2013 UEFA European U-19 Championship title.

“When I was head coach of the Under-19s in Serbia we were European champions, which was one of the best results in Serbian football history,” declared Drulovic

“It was the first time in our history we won the gold medal and that is very important to me and the players. I’m very proud because now we have seven players from that team in the senior national team in Serbia.

“After that I was the head coach of the national first team, but it was just for four games.”

Drulovic’s 2014 stint as a national caretaker boss was followed by short-lived spells with the Macedonia national team and Partizan Belgrade, where he also played, before he ventured into Asian football for the first time in his career by leading the United Arab Emirates U-19 side for seven months starting in 2017.

Three years later, Drulovic remains in the Asian game, with the man who appeared in a FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship as a player now tasked with leading Uzbekistan’s footballers to their first ever Olympic Games.

2018 Final: Vietnam 1-2 Uzbekistan

While a handful of Drulovic’s players won the AFC U23 Championship under Ravshan Khaydarov in 2018, it’s a largely new group aiming to be one of the three teams at the 2020 edition who will join Olympic hosts Japan in the men’s football tournament.

Competition for places in Tokyo is fierce, but the 51-year-old believes his side are capable of achieving their goal.

“I signed the contract with Uzbekistan one year ago and we started to work,” said Drulovic.

“We had qualification in March last year and won the group to qualify for this tournament. I think Uzbekistan has very good players and very good talents for modern football. This is a good team, in my opinion.

“We have players here who were champions two years ago, and that’s very important for the team, in terms of seeing and knowing what we need to do to repeat that success.

“It’s a very, very competitive competition and it’s not easy, but we are trying to play good football and get good results.”

Drulovic has seen countless players in his long career, many of them at the very top of the footballing world, and a year in Central Asia has left him convinced Uzbekistan has players who can compete with the best.

“They have the quality,” he declared. “They are young guys and they are good professionals. I’m very satisfied with the way they work, and I’m sure they have a good future.

“They have the opportunity in this (AFC U23 Championship) to show their quality and maybe that will give them the chance to sign with a big club in Asia. They have the quality to do that."

#AFCU23 - MD1 Group C: Uzbekistan 1-1 IR Iran

Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Islamic Republic of Iran gave an indication of how competitive the Thailand 2020 title race will be over the coming days.

While expectations around his side are high, Drulovic was pleased to have avoided defeat in his side’s opening match and believes his charges will only improve when they face China PR on Sunday, with a meeting against continental heavyweights Korea Republic to round out their group stage campaign on Wednesday.

Strong performances in those matches will take Uzbekistan to the knockout stage, where Drulovic hopes a story that began with one of European football’s hottest streaks will end with one Uzbekistan’s greatest achievements.

“That is our big dream,” said Drulovic. “We know it’s not easy, and every team here has their chance and wants to play in the Olympic Games also, but I believe in this team and our players.

“We need to win these games and put this team in Uzbekistan football history. We believe we can do that.”

Photos: AFP, AFC

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