Jozef Vukusic, famous for his trademark baseball cap and the enterprising football his teams play, has proven to be a force to be reckoned with in South Africa despite his short spells in the country.
The Slovakian coach spent most of his career playing as a midfielder for FC VSS Kosice. It is where he was given the chance to start his coaching career as a player-assistant coach in 1994.
More than two decades later, he arrived in South Africa for the first time to manage Polokwane City, taking them to their highest finish of fifth place last season. He left for a short spell before returning to the country to join AmaZulu in September.
“I really enjoy South African football. The league is very good and competitive,” he says. “I like the challenges that are presented by African football and the diversity of the coaches here, unlike home.
“At home the league is younger, you can’t compare it to the PSL [Premier Soccer League]. They are more about development, not competition. They develop players. If the player is very good, he will be taken by bigger leagues in Europe.”
Proving his worth
When he arrived at Polokwane last season, he did not escape being bundled into the spurious basket of European coaches who come to the continent and don’t offer much in terms of tactical acumen. He lost his first two games and the doubts intensified. But Vukusic wasn’t worried.
“I don’t need to prove myself, I’ve been coaching at the highest level for 20 years,” he says. “I’ve won leagues in Slovakia, played in Europa League with Kosice after winning the league in Slovakia, won with FK Spartaks in Latvia and took Al-Ahly Benghazi of Libya to the CAF Champions League. Besides winning trophies with different leagues, I’ve worked hard to acquire the knowledge I have in football.
“I’ve got all the credentials and I hold a German Uefa Pro Licence. I understand that I’m new in the coaching scene of this country and if people don’t know you, you need to prove and show the quality. But that was not a problem for me. I came, did the job and I’m hoping to continue doing that good job with AmaZulu.”
Vukusic’s stint with Polokwane made the team follow its nickname, rising and shining. He gained respect, which is why Usuthu were quick to bring him back as Cavin Johnson’s replacement.
“Towards the end of my playing career, I went to play in Germany for VfL Rheinbach and I also worked as a player-coach for the team. I used that opportunity to do Uefa A Licence, even though it was not easy. By then I had done the B Licence at home. Two years later, I did the Uefa Pro Licence. It was very nice experience because Germany is a top football country and the people there are very professional and the football is very professional. Getting the DFB [Deutscher Fussball-Bund] Uefa Pro Licence helped me a lot in my coaching career,” he says.
‘One game at a time’
The 55-year-old says he did not hesitate to join Usuthu because he feels that he now knows the league better than when he joined Rise and Shine.
“I joined AmaZulu knowing their situation and I’m going to take one game at the time,” he says. “It’s better now because I have the PSL experience. Last season, I learnt the kind of football that most clubs play. I know most of the players and that’s the kind of experience that I did not have when I joined Polokwane City.
“I actually like most things about South African football. The football mentality around the country is good and also the football fans. All I want is to do a good job at AmaZulu and I know it’s not going to be an easy task. It’s a big challenge for me but I’m not alone, I hope for the support. People and the club have showed me support from the first day and I know when we work well together, we can achieve good results. It is important to firstly build confidence among my players.
“After that we can look at what needs to be improved, but I’m positive that things will change sooner. I’m saying this because I have seen the players I’m working with and they are so eager to get out of the situation. By the end of the season, things will be much better than what they are right now.”
Polokwane peace pipe
Usuthu were languishing at the bottom of the Absa Premiership standings when they brought Vukusic in as coach. They have moved up one place to 15, a point ahead of Chippa United at the bottom of the log.
“I want to only focus on AmaZulu, not on the things that happened before them. AmaZulu gave me an offer that I could not resist. I am happy to be here and I’m delighted to work with them,” Vukusic says, making it clear he does not want to talk about what happened when he resigned unexpectedly from Polokwane City after a good season.
Although he does not want to talk about what led to his resignation, he says that he eventually smoked the peace pipe with Rise and Shine’s chairperson, Johnny Mogaladi. The two will cross swords in February.
“After doing so well with Polokwane, leaving the club was not an easy decision to take but I knew that it was not possible to continue. I came back, met with the chairman, shook hands and he wished me well.
“I’ve always wanted to work in South Africa. When I first came to South Africa in 2010 it was the perfect time for me because of the Fifa World Cup atmosphere. It was my first time coaching away from home, I wanted to try it. The opportunity of coming to South Africa came at the right time where I could see everything about football because of the World Cup.
“I was amazed by the structure they had and that made me want to stay longer. I really enjoyed my time coaching in SA. I wanted to work in South Africa even after I left FC Cape Town, but that opportunity did not present itself to me until I decided to leave. I knew that one day I would come back and work in SA again.
“When that opportunity came last season, I was happy to be back. Even though the opportunity came after a long time, I came back a better person with more experience and more knowledge of African football. I’m hoping to work here for longer.”