Munib Koric knew almost immediately after arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu that Real Madrid are on another level.
“They are the most impressive club I have ever seen,” Koric said.
Koric, Calgary Villains F.C. Academy director and Golden Goal Soccer Academy owner, is the first Canadian citizen accepted into Real’s prestigious coaching apprenticeship program, which he began in February.
The achievement was the culmination of years of determination, hardship and sacrifice, a journey that saw Koric flee his home in Bosnia for Germany before the civil war, and eventually emigrate to Canada with his young family in 2000.
A visit to Real Madrid
Koric could be forgiven, then, for wanting to visit each section of the Bernabeu unfettered and free, to revel in the state-of-the-art facilities of one of the world’s great clubs.
Instead, he was fronted by a grocery list of prohibitions: he wasn’t permitted to carry a camera, let alone take pictures or shoot video footage; he wasn’t allowed to debrief the team doctor, an important element in gaining a comprehensive understanding of club ongoings.
You name it, he couldn’t do it.
Koric tried to convince Real Madrid staff and security to make a concession or two. His request fell on deaf ears. Before verbalizing his short wish list, which included permission to take photos, the staff interjected.
“Buddy, we are Madrid,” a staff member quipped.
Koric, though, had a trick up his sleeve: Davor Suker.
Koric and Suker — a club legend after winning La Liga and Champions League titles with Real across three seasons in the late ’90s — go back about 30 years, when they first met at a Yugoslavia U18 national tryout.
Unlimited Bernabeu access
Proceedings at Madrid played out very differently for Koric after his old friend picked up the phone and called his former club.
Koric, the day after Suker intervened, was permitted to take photos and shoot footage to his illimitable desire. Juni Calafat, Madrid’s chief scout, subsequently gave Koric the VIP tour, providing almost unlimited access to Real’s facilities and personnel.
“When I start to come around with him, different story, different story,” Koric said. “Players come to me and everything. Before the Valencia game we drink coffees, and text came from Zidane. He said to come down, take your camera, tape everything, no problem.”
Seeing how tightly the Bernabeu ship is run, along with being surrounded by unparalleled talent, put into context how lofty his accomplishment is.
Nothing exalting in life, though, comes completely devoid of sorrow and suffering, something Koric knows first hand, and to a staggering degree.
A life-changing tragedy
Koric was in Germany on a soccer tour in 2014 when he heard news from home that would forever change the course of his life.
His wife, Enisa, was on the phone, confessing that she had just been diagnosed with lung cancer.
There were no warning signs. Enisa never faced any bouts of ill-health. Asymptomatic, Enisa looked, and felt, completely fine when doctors diagnosed her with a rare form of lung cancer. Enisa, who never smoked a day in her life, was diagnosed with Stage IV adenocarcinoma.
Doctors gave her three months to live.
“She was working full-time — and when you find out you have three months to live that hits you in the head — you can never be comfortable again,” Koric said.
Enisa defied the odds, surviving for almost two years after the diagnosis. She was in her 40s when she passed away in May 2016.
“That broke me for sure, that changed everything,” Koric said.
Current Calgary Villains general manager, Calvin Campbell, said the Real Madrid apprenticeship program offered Koric a sliver of solace in an otherwise sorrowful year.
“Sitting down and talking to him about being accepted at Real Madrid, for his UEFA pro, it was the first time in a long time he was smiling with everything going on in his life,” said Campbell, who has known Koric since he arrived in Canada at the turn of the millennium.
Soccer, during the darkest days after his wife’s passing, was Koric’s only escape. Spare time became his arch adversary, offering nothing but solitude. And even worse, time to think about the ordeal that haunts him most.
Losing his soul mate, best friend and life partner, Koric couldn’t sit idly by, so he resorted to filling time with the one thing, other than his family, he loves most. He managed to make it to the training pitch in the aftermath of the tragedy until Campbell and the club intervened.
“It was the toughest of times for him. He never wanted to take time away from the pitch — we forced him to take three weeks away to be with his family,” Campbell said.
The wound is still fresh but Koric is coping with the loss the only way people can, by getting up each day, hoping that someday time will once again be on his side.
Coaching the Calgary Villains
Koric, 50, started coaching the Calgary Villains in 2000-01, when he took control of the club’s only two teams at the time, their Major and Premier League sides. The Alberta Major Soccer League (AMSL) is Canada’s highest level of semi-professional soccer, bettered only by MLSand the North American Soccer League (NASL), both of which are professional leagues.
The Villains had no youth program to speak of at the time, and relied on players filtering in from other clubs around the city once they were of age, between 15 and 18 years old.
“They were a good group of boys,” Koric said about the first senior teams he coached with the Villains, “but they weren’t set up for big success.”
Campbell played for one of those teams, and vividly remembers meeting the steely Bosnian.
“Everyone heard he was very demanding” said the 34-year-old, who is now playing in his last AMSL season with the Villains. “I would say he was quite intimidating to start, just because his expectation was through the roof which we didn’t have in Calgary before.”
Koric, by creating the Golden Goal Soccer Academy, has since transformed the Villains from a rudimentary organization to the city’s most desirable club. No longer closely involved managing the senior squads, Koric spends his days training about 150 kids, from ages seven to 18.
His notoriety across Canada, particularly in Calgary, has increased since honing his craft with Real Madrid, but it’s his innate knack for spotting and developing budding young talent that is most deserving of recognition.
“He know exactly how kids thinking, he know exactly the make of the younger age, the skills of the kids,” said Suker, the former Croatian international, whose 45 goals remain unmatched atop the nation’s all-time goalscoring chart. “He knows exactly what he needs to do and he has the plan.”
Like an artist painting a canvass
Koric develops young players with an artisanal quality, focusing first on technique, then sliding seamlessly into shaping their mind for the game. He’s like an artist painting a canvass, ensuring each player evolves progressively, with meticulous refinement.
“I first start with technique. I like people to learn how to play soccer first, in younger age, and later on we add what we need. Fitness is easiest but technique is the most important thing for me,” said Koric.
If you toss West Ham manager Slaven Bilic and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp into a blender, out would pour Koric’s personality and coaching style. He has something of both Klopp and Bilic’s luminous passion, while sometimes showing glimpses of Klopp’s charisma. Unlike the Liverpool manager, though, Koric is not unconditionally adored by those unknown to him.
Koric, admittedly, is an acquired taste.
Coaching Canada’s elite
Koric is responsible for developing and grooming former Canadian men’s U20 Player of the Year Ethan Gage — now playing professionally in Norway with Bærum Sportsklubb — and Chris Serban, of the Vancouver Whitecaps reserve team.
Former U17 Canada national team captain Marco Carducci is another of Koric’s devotees.
Awarded Canada’s U17 player of the year in 2012 and 2013, a rare achievement for goalkeepers, Carducci cultivated his talent during his impressionable years under Koric’s mentorship.
“I think the biggest thing was the professionalism and the mentality he brought, especially at a young age,” said Carducci, who was 10 when he first joined Koric’s academy. “He had a high standard and he pushed us in the right direction, he put a huge focus on technique, especially early in our development and I think that was a big game changer for a lot of the players.
“Everything he taught us was specific. He is very detail-oriented.”
Carducci left for pastures new when he was 15, venturing to Vancouver, where he signed for the Whitecaps residency, a full-time, fully funded player development program. The 20-year-old currently plays for Rio Grande Valley FC Torros, whose parent club is Houston Dynamo.
The highly touted goalkeeper has experienced every level of the youth national team setup, including captaining Canada at the 2013 U17 World Cup, the highlight of his fledgling career.
Stepping up to the big time is a daunting prospect for many amateur athletes, but Carducci said the transition, due to the professional way in which Koric’s sessions are conducted, was seamless.
“He primed me for stepping into the next level. The first step was joining the White Caps academy, and I was ready to jump into a professional environment because I had personally already experienced that with Munib,” Carducci said.
A man and manager misunderstood
Misconception followed Koric when he first arrived on Canadian soil. Campbell said that Koric was often misunderstood and unfairly judged. That is, unless you knew him personally and understood the nuances of his character.
Koric is notorious for his hard, no-nonsense outer shell. He is, at heart, a disciplinarian, a man known for his often blunt, matter-of-fact and salt-of-the-earth demeanor.
He is a man with a code, one that demands commitment, diligence and respect. Subtlety is not his strong suit. If you’ve done something wrong, or contrary to his teachings, you’ll soon know about it.
Campbell said Koric often yelled, relentlessly barking orders from the sideline.
He holds his players to account and nobody is immune from his formidable wrath.
“He does care about the players and he wants the best but he does expect the best and if you’re not willing to put that level in then he doesn’t want to spend the time with you,” Campbell said. “It kind of goes both ways.”
But it’s exactly that demanding, unforgiving nature that enables him to extract the best from his pupils. And behind the scenes, Campbell says, Koric is caring, light-hearted and funny, his only true concern the betterment and wellbeing of his players.
“He’s a very caring coach who finds a way to connect with the kids,” Campbell said. “He’s a second father figure for a lot of us. He was there when you’re growing up, and helps see you through tough times.”
Bosnia born and raised
Koric’s tough exterior is a result of his upbringing, which wasn’t dissimilar to how most kids were brought up in Eastern Europe during the 1970s.
Born in Bosnia, part of former Yugoslavia, Koric was raised by strong-willed, resilient parents. It wasn’t a society or generation permitting of weakness, nor did it allow for pampering or coddling.
Koric said you grew up fast in the former Yugloslavia, equipped at a young age with survival instincts infrequently seen in modern-day North America. He found out first-hand from a formative age the meaning of hard work. Nothing came easy, and he grew up knowing that only hard graft could potentially yield eventual prosperity.
Most adolescent boys in Eastern Europe play soccer. Koric was no different. He immersed himself in the global game when he was barely old enough to crawl.
Koric had faith in his ability and thought, with a dash of luck, that it could one day lead to a professional contract, and a better life for his family.
The Bosnian-Canadian came within a whisker of turning his dream into reality, but didn’t make the Yugoslavia U18 team, falling just shy of his boyhood goal.
Nothing could have prepared Koric and his family for what happened less than a decade later, when stirring political discord in the Balkans reached its boiling point.
In the aftermath of World War II, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia unified, becoming a part of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.
Nationalist sentiment, spearheaded by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, created an unreconcilable rift between Serbians in Bosnia and Croatia and their Croatian, Bosniak and Albanian neighbors.
“They (Bosnian Serb forces) started first with Slovenia,” Koric stated. “You could guess it was coming. We hoped it didn’t happen, but it happened.”
The Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, and the resulting civil war led to the worst genocide since World War II. About 100,000 people died during the three-year conflict, 80 percent of whom, like Koric and his family, were Bosnian muslims.
Koric was playing for Croatian club team MK Pula in 1990. He escaped to Germany just before civil war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. His mother, father and brother weren’t so lucky. At the heart of the strife, Bosnia was surrounded, and so too were Koric’s family.
“During war they send five, six, seven, 10 000 grenades per day on city, you cannot even walk. I mean you walk to store and bam,” said Koric, referring to the relentless bombings Sarajevo was subjected to.
Koric’s mother lost her life during the civil war, which ended in December 1995. Many of Koric’s friends and acquaintances also lost their lives to the senseless, discriminate violence.
Though the odds were stacked heavily against his brother and father, both managed to survive the atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb forces.
In 1996 Koric began his coaching career in Germany, managing semi-pro teams Croatia Munich and FC Lerhenau, among others.
Koric Calgary-bound in December 1999
After an almost 10-year stint in Germany, Koric, Enisa and their baby, Zerina, boarded a flight bound for Calgary in December 1999.
Koric couldn’t utter a word of English upon stepping foot in Canada. Enisa was a nurse in Europe, but her qualifications weren’t recognized in Canada.
Both jobless and devoid of any social network, the two were determined to make a real go of it in Canada.
Of all the challenges Koric faced, which included learning English, he picked the temperamental, often bitterly cold winters as the toughest change to adapt to.
“The beginning was tough,” he said. “The cold, long winters was the toughest. The long winters was the biggest surprise.”
Koric relocated to Canada just as soccer was starting to gain popularity. He had trouble communicating and assimilating from the onset, but worked unremittingly to learn the language and understand Canada’s culture and customs.
Almost 20 years after moving to Canada with a desire to improve youth soccer, Koric has a litany of things to be proud of. He has transformed kids in their nascency into professionals. In 2007, his U16 Villains team won the Canadian national championship, the first Alberta team to claim such an honor.
His continuous and significant contribution to youth soccer in Canada is just now being recognized on a larger scale.
Once he travels back to Madrid in September and completes the program, Koric will obtain the UEFA Pro license, the highest available coaching accreditation. It’s the license required to coach in the Champions League and Europa League.
Suker, currently the president of the Croatian Football Federation, believes wholeheartedly that Koric, if the opportunity presents itself, has the quality to coach an elite European team.
“Of course (he can coach a top team),” Suker said. “He is a top guy to make the right decisions and I’m sure he would be a success.”
And while a move to a professional club could be on the cards in the future, Koric remains steadfast, currently focussing on what matters most.
“I always enjoy the most when you see somebody improving,” he said. “When you see someone, doesn’t matter what level, when you see improvement, someone doing better, that’s what makes me happy.”
(The original piece was featured on Fansided & Sports Illustrated)