Osim recalls what might have been for a brilliant Yugoslavia in 1990

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Interviewing Ivica Osim is a poignant experience. The fire that led him to reduce a translator to tears for failing to reduce his players to tears when manager of Japan has faded, and weakened by the stroke that made him resign the Japan job in 2007, he seems, at 69, an old man. His speech is slow and considered, and he has evidently spent much of the time since his stroke evaluating his life, tallying up his successes and dissecting his regrets. "When I lie in bed not sleeping," he says, "I think of two things. I turned down Real Madrid twice, and that might have meant more people knew me, and I wonder about 1990."

In 1990, Osim was the coach of a brilliant Yugoslavia side that was eliminated in the World Cup quarterfinal; the federation would never compete at a major tournament again. Whether Yugoslavia could ever have overcome its psychological frailty to win a tournament is debatable, but with the likes of Dragan Stojkovic, Dejan Savicevic, Robert Prosinecki, Darko Pancev and Safet Susic, it had talent in abundance.

To speak of a soccer team's failure to be what it might have been as a tragedy, seems almost distasteful alongside the horrors than would engulf Yugoslavia in the years that followed Italia 90. Then again, there is something tragic in the destruction of any beautiful thing, particularly when it is symbolic of something greater. The Yugoslavia side that beat Spain 2-1 in an epic second-round game in Verona comprised five Bosnians, two Serbians, a Croatian, a Montenegrin, a Slovenian and a Macedonian; this was the embodiment of Tito's federal ideal.

Perhaps that is not a coincidence. Osim denies there was a "key" by which he had to pick representatives of each republic, but he acknowledges there were pressures. "You had to be careful about the name, about religion, about the club, about the region of the country a player's from," he said. "You had to calculate everything.

"Everything is politics. Every club was politics and especially the national team was politics. Let an Englishman try to pick the national team of Britain and Ireland .... So you choose two from Scotland, three from England but nobody from Ireland, it would be a riot..."

Nonetheless, he juggled the competing interests well and, despite an early 4-1 defeat against the eventual champions West Germany, took the side to a quarterfinal against Diego Maradona's Argentina. "The team was far, far better than the country," Osim said. "I'm not sure it's good to talk about it because football is football and life is life.

"Football is a pretty game, but it's not larger than life. It would be an illusion to make a lamentation about that generation of players, and not to talk about what happened afterwards. Lots of people have been killed. The country was destroyed. It's not fair for me to talk about the players and not to talk about what happened next. Sometimes there are things that are more important than football. One thing is sure: if the players were in charge instead of the politicians, nothing could ever be like this."

He ranks the game against Spain, in which Stojkovic scored twice and played well enough to earn a move to Marseille, as the best in his time as national manager. "You see the result and you see a positive result, so automatically you think it's the best game of the tournament," he said. "But also I think that game was special because Spain was always a football force. It was important in showing that we had the same number of good individuals as Spain. And it was the sort of game in which players could make sure they stood out from the crowd. Stojkovic did that, but even without that game he would have been a great player."

Yugoslavia went into the game with a genuine chance of becoming world champions, but it was then that the political situation began to intrude. "That should have been the biggest game, but it was played at the wrong time, because we had a lot of other problems and the team could not concentrate," Osim explained. "Srecko Katanec, who was a really, really important player for us, said 'Please, don't pick me' a few hours before the game because he had received a threat in his city. He was afraid to walk around in Ljubljana because of threats. I can understand that's not a nice position. How can he play? If he goes to play in Italy and his family stays in Ljubljana then they are under threat. I can't persuade anybody not to think about that."

Katanec, the midfield workhorse who allowed the technicians to play, was left out for Zoran Vulic, and Yugoslavia seemed inhibited even before Refik Sabanadzovic was sent off after half an hour. It held on for a 0-0 draw through extra-time, taking the game to penalties. When Stojkovic missed, the goalkeeper Tomislav Ivkovic vowed he would make up for it by saving from Maradona, which he did. Pedro Troglio then shot wide, giving Yugoslavia the advantage, but Sergio Goychoecea saved from Dragoljub Brnovic and Farud Hadzibegic, and Yugoslavia was out.

It qualified for the 1992 European Championship and would have gone to Sweden as one of the favourites, but with war raging it was expelled. Denmark, who replaced it, won the tournament, leaving a world of what-might-have-beens. "People often talk about the fact that Denmark came instead of us, so they wonder what would happen if we had stayed in the tournament, and they think that probably we would win the European championship," he said.

"I don't know about that, but I think about the World Cup in 1990, what might have happened if we'd got past Argentina. Maybe I am optimistic, but in my private illusion I wonder what would have happened if Yugoslavia had played in the semifinal or the final, what would happen to the country. Maybe there would have been no war if we'd won the World Cup. I don't think really things would have changed in that way, but sometimes you dream about what might have happened.

"When I lie and wait for sleep, I think things might have been better after the World Cup."