Zoran Matic, coach for the ages
By Roy Hay
Over the years Australian football has been graced by some first class players, coaches and teachers drawn from the countries that make up the former republic of Yugoslavia. One of the most influential of these has been Zoran Matic. Matic was born in 1944 and played football for his local club Crvenka, a town of about 14,000 people which regularly drew attendances larger than that thanks to the quality of their play. He then joined Sloboda Uzica along with Rade Antic who later coached Serbia against Australia in the World Cup in South Africa. He also played with Hajduk Kula. Matic and his cousin tried to get to Australia clandestinely when they were very young, but did not succeed. After military service and university he had a spell in Germany at Ludwigshafen and this time obtained a visa to come to this country, where his cousin and aunt and uncle were already established. He had noted the exploits of Australian athletes like Ron Clark and tennis players including Rod Laver and thought this must be a great country in which to live and play sport.
So in 1973 he arrived in Adelaide to join Beograd in April that year. He was upset by the way players talked back to the coach rather than following directions and must have made that clear to the club, because within a year he was appointed player-coach. In Denis Harlow’s History of Soccer in South Australia he says that Matic always appeared to have time on the ball, the sign of a great player. He represented South Australia 14 times between 1974 and 1977. His first cap came against Western Australia on 6 April 1974. He became captain and coach of the state team taking on visiting teams including Middlesbrough, Legia Warsaw, Chelsea, Glasgow Rangers and Benfica.
He transferred to Adelaide City Juventus in 1976 and played 38 games for the club in the first two season of the National Soccer League and scored one goal.
Matic returned to coach Beograd from 1981 till 1984 winning the treble in 1983— State League championship, Federation Cup and Charity Shield. Beograd won the league on goal difference from Croatia, then beat Salisbury one-nil in the Federation Cup final and 2-1 in the Charity Cup.
At the start of the following season, according to Peter Nikolich’s superb history of the club, the President Dane Arezina offered Matic a fee which the club could afford. Matic asked how much Arezina was being paid, and when told that he was not and that it cost him to be president, Matic said, ‘I will do my job for the same amount as you.’
In 1985 he was offered the position as coach of Adelaide City, but asked that it be kept confidential till he returned from a long-planned trip to his homeland. He took over the national league side in 1986 when it was in great financial difficulties, but put together a side which finished 3rd in the Southern Conference a point behind Juventus from Brunswick and Footscray JUST. City beat Just 3-2 away, then Juventus 2-0 followed by JUST again in the Southern Division final by 2-1 once more in Melbourne. In the national play-off, City lost at home 0-1 to Sydney Olympic but won the away leg by 3-1 to take the national title on aggregate. That team included the talents of Willie McNally, Paul Shillabeer, Bogdan Nyskohus, Alex Tobin, Neville Flounders, Adrian Santrac, Sergio Melta, Paul Wilde, Aurelio Vidmar, Steve Maxwell and Joe Mullen.
The 1991-92 season was another triumph for Matic’s team. In the league it came fourth, six points behind Melbourne Knights, but beat Wollongong, Olympic and South Melbourne to reach the grand final and overcame the Knights 4-2 on penalties after a scoreless draw.
In 1992–93 Adelaide City finished in third spot, all of 17 points adrift of South Melbourne. West Adelaide Sharks were accounted for on the away goals rule, then Wollongong was hammered four-nil at home. A three-one win over South Melbourne at Olympic Park took City to a grand final against Marconi in Sydney, but Andy Harper’s penalty kick in 53 minutes gave Marconi the title.
The following season City just scraped into the finals in 5th place, 12 points shy of the Knights. Once again Matic’s side proved adept in the finals as it beat Sydney United over two legs. It took a two-nil away win to reverse a one-nil deficit at home. Next City accounted for Marconi and South Melbourne, then Knights by a goal to nil thanks to Damian Mori in the final. There had been significant additions to the squad by then including Socceroo keeper Robert Zabica and Milan Ivanovic, but there was continuity too. Paul Shillabeer, Sergio Melta, Alex Tobin, Tony Vidmar, Carlo Talladira, Zoran Ilic, Steve Maxwell, Joe Mullen, Carl Veart, Goran Lozanovski and Ross Aloisi also played that year.
The stellar finals run came to an end in 1994-5 when Adelaide lost to the Knights at Hindmarsh by two-nil in the Grand Final. It is interesting to note that Adelaide City never topped the home and away ladder in all its seasons in the NSL, but was always a threat in finals and seemed to do better in away games than at home. The coach was able to work his magic with a core of players who showed the same commitment and integrity which was the touchstone of his own approach to life and his career. He left Hajduk on good terms, so when he later asked for a player to strengthen Adelaide City he was given Milan Ivanovic, one of the finest defensive players to appear in Australia and partner to one of the best home grown talents, Alex Tobin.
When asked if he had any regrets about never being given the chance to coach Australia, Zoran Matic replied that he was offered the job by David Hill, but George Negus had objected to his accent and the prospect was withdrawn. Whether the fact that Terry Venables, another man with an accent, suddenly became available, had something to do with the change is unclear. It proved to be Australia’s loss for it is inconceivable that Matic would not have had Milan Ivanovic in his team against Iran and would have closed out a game in which the Socceroos were leading two-nil.
Zoran Matic survived a horrific accident at work in 2006 and is still engaged in the building trade. He says, ‘My father is 89 and he still turns up, so why should I not continue.’ Today he is on the board of Adelaide City and retains his interest in the game that has been such a big part of his life, though content to keep his opinions to himself unless specifically asked to comment.
My thanks to Zoran Matic, Milan Ninovic and Craig MacKenzie for assistance with this column.
Captions for pictures
Zoran Matic (left) heads clear from Graham French at Middle Park on 22 May 1977, the first season of the National Soccer League. Photo: Les Shorrock, Deakin University Library.
Charlie Caruso, long time president of Adelaide City, and Zoran Matic with one of the Ampol Cups won by City. Photo: Les Shorrock collection, Deakin University Library.