A large media contingent was waiting at the Adler ground in Sochi for the Croatian team’s training session ahead of their quarterfinal match against Russia. The team bus arrived and the all the players and the supporting staff got down. Before entering the pitch, they were seen cracking jokes and hugging a lady who accompanied them. Defender Dejan Lovren tiptoed and made a loud noise standing right behind her. That got a laugh out of the woman and she playfully shooed him away.
The lady in question is Iva Olivari, the manager of the Croatian national team. It’s her official designation, but all the team members refer to her as ‘Aunt Iva’.
A favourite among team members, she started working for the Croatian Football Federation in 1992 and became the senior team manager in 2002. Olivari is responsible for a wide variety of tasks from organising the team’s trips to solving all kinds of personal problems of the players.
Though she has been with the national team since 2002, the 2016 UEFA European Championship is her most memorable tournament as the manager, Olivari says.
“I sat in the dugout for the first time when Croatia took on Turkey in our opening Euro 2016 fixture in Paris. I was so happy when we won through a stunning goal from Luka Modric,” she recalls and adds that she was so nervous during the penalty shootout against Denmark in the pre-quarters last week.
Tennis was Olivari’s first love. She was the national champion in the U-14 category in the erstwhile Yugoslavia. During that period, she beat a girl her age who went on to become one of the greatest women's tennis players to have ever played the game. It was none other than Steffi Graf, the German ace with 22 Grand Slam titles in her kitty.
Unfortunately, her promising tennis career was curtailed by an injury, forcing her to switch to football management. Davor Suker, the legendary Croatian striker who is also the country’s all-time leading goal scorer, was the president of the Croatian Football Federation when Olivari was promoted to the role of manager in 2002.
When asked to compare the Croatian team which finished third in the 1998 World Cup in France with the current squad, she said: “We played our first World Cup seven years after the formation of the country. Though that team lacked in experience, they were driven by an unyielding spirit to do their country proud on the world stage. Unlike them, this squad has many players with experience in major football leagues which is a huge advantage.”
“Suker and (Zvonimir) Boban are the same age as I’m, but those in the present team are all very young. I have known Luka (Modric) since he was fifteen when he was part of Dinamo Zagreb Club. I advise all the new players to be like him,” Olivari said, revealing her love and respect for the 32-year-old Real Madrid midfielder.
When I told her I love both Modric or Ivan Rakitic, she shook her head and quipped. “No way. You are either a Real Madrid fan or Barcelona fan. Tell me the truth!”