Few Australians know more about football in Uzbekistan than Mirko Jelicic.
Hailing from Western Australia, Jelicic has spent the best part of more than a decade in various football roles in the Central Asian country.
For the past four years Jelicic has managed Lokomotiv Tashkent, one of the elite clubs in the Uzbekistan Super League, the top division in the former Soviet Republic.
During that time he has had tremendous success by leading Lokomotiv to three league titles, including back-to-back championships in the past two seasons, as well as to two Uzbek Cups and into the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League in 2016.
Before that, Jellic coached Uzbekistan’s Under-23s and also served as an assistant to the national team for two years.
Currently in Dubai with his team on a pre-season camp preparing for the new domestic season, the 53-year-old opened up to The World Game before the Socceroos meet Uzbekistan in the round of 16 in the Asian Cup.
Jelicic, who was worked under the likes of Sven-Goran Eriksson, Valery Nepomnyashchy and Bora Milutinovich during his long career, explained how he first ended up in the faraway Asian nation in 2005.
“In the last 20 years my time in professional football has been out of the country,” he said.
“My initial stint was with Perth Glory in the days that Bernd Stange was coaching there in the NSL. From there I’ve expanded out to several countries in Asia, such as Malaysia, Singapore, China and Thailand.
“I initially came out to Uzbekistan in 2005 to help with the national team with their World Cup qualifying preparations. I just ended up staying. My wife is from there so I’ve been in and out of the country in various set-ups.
“In terms of football, Uzbekistan is an emerging country. They gained their independence in 1991 from the old USSR and they’ve been slowing going their own path in developing football.
“There’s a lot of positives about football there, but quite a lot of negatives still to be ironed out. They’re stuck in a lot of old mentalities – whether that changes quickly or not, it’s hard to say.
“But definitely a very competitive country, particularly on the Asian stage. And it’s been tough working there, it’s been enjoyable on many fronts but at the end of the day their attitudes about the game, their mentality is a lot different to ours.
“So there’s a lot of things you have to put up with, a lot of things you have to let go and understand you cant change.”
The Socceroos’ Asian Cup defence will go on the line when they meet the White Wolves in Al Ain. Jelicic has watched from close range the changes Uzbek coach Hector Cuper has tried to make since taking over late last year.
“I think Uzbekistan has a high respect for Australia and that may be based on what Australia has done in the past in terms of their World Cup record and obviously based on being champions of Asia at the moment,” he said.
“They’re definitely aware of a lot of the bigger profile names that play the game around the world. They’re in the same boat at the moment I think, they both had a change of coach in the last two or three months.
“From an Uzbekistan point of view, its taken them a while to I guess get a feel for what he’s [Cuper] trying to do. I wouldn’t say that was successful when he first came in.
“He did try to sort of guess retain their football a little bit, and try get more discipline in their game. That doesn’t always suit the Uzbeks, they’re a little more free with their football and pretty muck like to play an open, attacking game – that’s their natural attributes.
“But now they’ve sort of found each others voice a little and the last couple of games have reflected that. In terms of how they will go with Australia, I think it will be very competitive game.
“I would still favour Australia, just in terms of the pedigree of their players. It depends a lot on how each of the teams approach the game, whether they go all-out for a win or whether they’re prepared to sit and absorb the game, look at a counter-attack situation.
“I think the first half will be a little of a feeling each other out and then you’ll find the game open up a lot in the second half.”
Jelicic, who previously coached Cockburn City in the NPL Western Australia, and had stints with Perth Glory and the Auckland Kingz in the NSL, has been impressed with the revamped Socceroos at this Asian Cup under Graham Arnold.
“The Socceroos’ approach now is a bit different to when Ange was in charge,” he said.
“Not so much gung-ho as before. Whether that suits the Australians or not is difficult to say. But I think they’ve done very well, they look very organized, they’ve got threats across the park going forward and quite stable at the back.
“I think they’re jelling. I think each game they’ve picked up and they look a bit easier in what they’re trying to do. Personally I think that will continue and be hard to beat as they’ve got players all over the park who can hold their own.
“Uzbekistan are quite similar, there are players there that are playing overseas at a good level. It really comes down to how each teams approach the game.”
Jelicic knows the mentality of the White Wolves intimately and believes the Uzbeks would have preferred to have avoided playing Australia in the round of 16.
“I think Uzbekistan would have felt far more comfortable having a Middle Eastern opponent, or from a country from this side of the world,” he admitted.
“I think they’re a little bit fearful of Australia, mainly because of the physical nature that they can bring to the game. They would have preferred a Saudi Arabia or an Oman.
“They do like an open game where there’s a lot more space to be used. Teams that are more structured and defensively tight, I think they’ll have a problem breaking them down.”
The current Uzbekistan national team contains six players on the books at Jelicic’s club Lokomotiv Tashkent. Another two, midfielder Ikromjon Alibaev and forward Sardor Rashidov, were recently part of his squad before signing for foreign outfits.
“Pretty much the whole backline apart from the right back is from Lokomotiv,” Jelicic explained.
“In that sense there’s probably a fair bit of stability and they’re very comfortable with each other. Cuper’s probably don’t that on purpose as he hasn’t had a long time to work on things.
“Alibaev is midfielder, he’s been used as a winger. He’s just been sold to FC Seoul in Korea. He’s a good player, very aggressive, does a lot of work and has a lot of ability on the ball. He’s the sort of player who can turn games.
“Marat Bikmaev has some assets. He’s a deadly finisher, on set pieces or in open play. He’s always a threat.
“There’s also Rashidov who’s been recently sold to Nacional de Madeira in Portugal. He’s also a winger. He’s a sub-version of Cristiano Ronaldo. Very fast, believes in himself and usually used off the bench. He can produce the goods when required to.”
Little known in his homeland, Jelicic has carved out a very successful coaching career in Uzbekistan and blazed a trail for Australian coaches across Asia. The fact that he has managed to continue in employment and win trophies in the Uzbekistan Super League, where politics and unpredictable owners rule, is no mean feat.
“The league itself is like most leagues, dominated by three or four clubs,” he said.
“The clubs are generally run by businessmen who are not football people. They tend to like to get involved in decision-making, so you’re pretty much working on eggshells most of the time.
“It doesn’t take much time to turn the tide here whether you’re in favour or not. To stick around here for a long time is not the easiest of things. There’s not much room for complacency for failure.”