Cracking the Enigma: The Making of Josip Iličić

Josip Iličić stands atop a mountain, a player at the peak of his powers. The conjurer-in-chief for an Atalanta side that continue to astonish and amaze.

But make no mistake, ascending to these heights has been an undulating and uncertain journey for the Slovenian. Where Iličić finds himself today is the culmination of an incredible personal voyage comprising tragedy, disappointment and frustration before he was finally able to unlock the full magnitude of his talents.

Iličić is a man of many contradictions; Gazzetta dello Sport once described him as “a ballerina with a boxer’s frame”.  Standing at 6’3’’ he is a colossus, with broad shoulders and long, powerful limbs, yet he is blessed with incredible poise, quick feet and a mesmerising repertoire of flicks and tricks. His wonderous left foot can be either a sledgehammer or an artist’s paintbrush – depending on what mood he’s in. He is a man capable of effortless genius, but also of mindless petulance.

A succession of coaches recognised Iličić’s deep talent, but struggled to harness it. Iličić gave his supporters moments of jaw-dropping brilliance, but those moments were too often overshadowed by bouts of frustrating (and frustrated) anonymity. As Iličić approached the end of his third decade, it seemed that his story would one of unfulfilled promise. That was until he was taken under the wing of a coach who truly understood him.

Escape to the sanctuary of Slovenia

Iličić’s story began in 1988 in the town of Prijedor in the former Yugoslavia. It was a precarious time; cracks had begun appearing in the country’s political regime as far back as the death of Tito in 1980. Tensions between ethnic groups were escalating, fuelled by growing nationalist sentiments. Iličić’s Croat mother and Slovenian father inhabited the very fault lines of the collapsing state.

The tragic death of Iličić’s father shortly after his first birthday proved to be perhaps the most fundamentally defining moment in Josip’s life. Tensions in the region were at breaking point, and this painfully premature bereavement was the trigger for Josip’s mother Ana to move, with her two boys, to the relative safety of Kranj in Slovenia.

The touch paper for the Balkan conflict was finally lit in June 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia formally declared independence. Ethnically homogenous Slovenia was spared the worst, with the Yugoslav army withdrawing after just ten days. Meanwhile, Prijedor became one of the bloodiest scenes of ethnic cleansing during the conflict. Between 1992 and 1993, it is estimated that some 5,000 Bosniak and Croat civilians were killed there or simply went missing. The Croat heritage of the Iličić family would have placed them in grave danger had they not fled three years earlier.

Back in the sanctuary of Slovenia, a young Iličić learned to play football by kicking a ball against a wall in the basement of his home. He was a street player; self-taught, wily and tenacious. Iličić would watch highlights of Serie A on television. This was an era when Serie A boasted stars such as Shevchenko, Totti and Ibrahimovic, though tellingly Iličić’s idol was Reggina’s Shunsuke Nakamura – a whimsical talent with a magical left-foot.

At the tender age of 19, Iličić left home to join SC Bonifika, where he played a single season in the Slovenian second division, exhibiting a raw, unrefined talent that attracted the attention of first division Interblock Ljubljana. Even by domestic standards, Interblock was by no means the big time; Iličić would still be playing in front of just a few hundred supporters most weeks.

His new club lifted the Slovenian Cup in his first season, giving Iličić his first taste of European football at the beginning of the following year. However, Interblock’s situation quickly descending into a nightmare, culminating in the bitterness of relegation at the end of that season. For all of his undeniable talent, Iličić found himself back where he had started, with the added cruelty of losing the relegation play-off to his hometown club, Triglav Kranj.

A kindred spirit comes calling

At the age of 21, Iličić found himself at a career crossroads. He had always dreamt of being a footballer, but was now facing the prospect of making ends meet in the semi-professional second tier. After being unsuccessfully touted around Eastern Europe by his agent, Iličić breifly considered a switch to his first love, futsal, and even contemplated a life outside of football altogether. Then, out of the blue, he received a phone call from Zlatko Zahovič, the Director of Football at top flight Maribor and reformed wild-child of Slovenian football.

At his zenith, Zahovič had been a quicksilver attacking midfielder, dazzling across Greece, Spain and Portugal, where he achieved the rare feat of being idolised by both Porto and Benfica supporters. However, his unruly streak was never far from the surface. This resulted in numerous spats with club officials and coaches, which saw him exit several clubs under a cloud and sent home early from the 2002 World Cup. Just maybe, in making that call to Iličić, Zahovič saw a little of himself in the player?

Iličić accepted the move to Maribor and began the 2009/10 season in earnest, determined to make the most of this second chance. He surprised many by immediately breaking into the team for the club’s Europa League qualifying campaign. In the early qualifying rounds, Iličić announced his arrival with two characteristically explosive goals in the first leg against Hibernian, effectively putting the tie to bed after 90 minutes.

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A chance encounter

Maribor faced Palermo in the final Europa League final qualifying round. Illicic started the first leg in Sicily as the Slovenians slumped to a 3-0 defeat against a Javier Pastore-inspired Palermo.

They made a better fist of things on home soil. Iličić was pivotal, scoring early in the second half to give the hosts a two-goal advantage, reigniting a glimmer of hope in the tie. But it wasn’t to be; Palermo progressed despite slipping to an embarrassing 3-2 defeat on the night.

Iličić and team mate Armin Bačinovič had clearly made an impression on their opponents. The day after the second leg, Palermo announced the signing of the pair in a joint transfer worth €2.3 million (though Sporting Director Walter Sabatini has always maintained that Iličić was on Palermo’s radar before the tie).

This turnaround in Iličić’s fortunes was nothing short of a fairytale. Back in May he had suffered the ignominy of relegation in Slovenia, leaving him to ponder life outside of professional football. Yet, just three months and eleven games later he had made his international debut for Slovenia and signed for an ambitious club in one of Europe’s elite leagues.

The whirlwind continued when Iličić touched down in Italy. A fortnight after signing he made his debut as a late substitute at Brescia, deployed as a second trequartista alongside Pastore. A week later he opened the scoring for the rosanero against Inter. And four days after that he struck again as Palermo dispatched Juventus on their own patch. Iličić was revelling in his role and by the season’s end he had amassed 8 goals – amongst them some spectacular long-range rockets – and had been the architect of a further 8 goals for team-mates.

The following season, Pastore was sold to PSG, giving Iličić the chance to step out of his shadow and into his #27 shirt. However, Iličić struggled without his foil during a difficult second season. President Maurizio Zamperini characteristically worked his way through a succession of coaches, which saw Iličić utilised variously as a second striker, attacking midfielder and right winger. Iličić’s sporadic bouts of genius gave Palermo supporters something to swoon over even when results weren’t going their way, but it wasn’t enough to change Palermo’s fortunes in a miserable campaign.

Things went from bad to worse for Palermo the season after; a poor start saw Guiseppe Sannino replaced by Gian Piero Gasperini after just three games. Gasperini’s preferred deployment of Iličić on the right-hand side of a front three, enabled him to cut inside onto his favoured left foot to devastating effect. However, the team’s results were inconsistent and by February Gasperini was gone, making way for Alberto Malesani. Gasperini returned in March (for two games), before Sannino resided over the final throes of relegation.

On a personal note, Iličić had his most productive season yet, endearing himself to the tifosi with a two-goal salvo in the Sicilian derby in November. Meanwhile, his solo goal away at Sampdoria in April served as a reminder of what he was capable of on his day. However, Iličić’s rough edges were still in evidence; he was prone to losing possession cheaply in midfield, wasteful shooting and an indolence that undermined his considerable capabilities.

The artist’s ”dream” move to Florence

In light of Palermo’s relegation, there was no shortage of suitors from across Europe, all keen to tame Iličić’s abundant talents. Fiorentina took the plunge in summer 2013, hoping he would thrive in a more stable environment. However, his dream move was hampered by an ankle injury in the autumn. His subsequent loss of form was compounded by intense competition for places from Juan Cuadrado, Joaquin and Guiseppe Rossi, restricting him to just 13 starts.

This pattern continued into the following season where a series of insipid performances saw Iličić fall out of favour with coach Vincenzo Montella, making it off the bench only once between November and February. He experienced a mini-renaissance following the arrival of Mo Salah in Florence; their symbiosis underpinning a streak of 7 goals for Iličić in his final 6 matches of the campaign. And he carried that form into the 2015/16 season, where he was influencing games as a trequartista following the arrival of Paulo Sousa as coach. However, his record of 13 goals and 5 assists only tells part of the story.

The real story of his Fiorentina career is told by a more remarkable statistic; across four years and 106 Serie A appearances for the club he completed 90 minutes just 23 times. For all of his world class technique, he was a player that drifted in and out of games. In one breathe would leave La Viola enchanted by a sublime moment of brilliance, and in the next he would appear languid and disinterested. He put his coach and supporters through this cycle – drawing them in, only to disappoint and frustrate – again and again.

Upon his departure from Florence, La Nazione remarked “He will go away in silence, without being able to leave his mark. The designer backpack full of regrets“, snidely inferring the player’s attitude was the cause. Others laid the blame for Iličić’s inconsistency at the door of his unconventional schooling in Slovenia; a street player who struggled to execute the nuances of his coach’s tactical plan.

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The nurturing embrace of Mister Gasperini 

It was to the surprise of many that high-flying Atalanta took a chance on Iličić in summer 2017. In earning their 4th place finish and Europa League qualification, Atalanta’s strength had been in unity; their whole being greater than the sum of the parts. The signing of a maverick player with a track record for inconsistency seemed at odds with the team’s ethos. Even the upbeat aura round the club, personified by the swaying hips of captain Papu Gomez, seemed to contradict the signing of a player who would become known in the dressing room as “Nonna”, owing to his glum disposition.

The key, of course, was Gasperini, a coach who felt he could crack Iličić’s enigma for the benefit of La Dea. And so he did. Gasperini’s emotionally intelligent management and understanding of how Iličić’s frustrated genius could be harnessed within a tactical system has yielded extraordinary results. The bouts of apathy have become a distant memory, whilst a newfound consistency has enabled him to scale remarkable new heights as a driving force in Atalanta’s Champions League odyssey. Iličić is converging on an average of a goal every other game for the Bergamaschi.

Across the richest spells of Iličić’s career, a common factor has been his partnership with dynamic players who, through clever movement, can create the space for Iličić to express himself. In that first season in Palermo, he had Pastore by his side. During his short-lived resurgence in Florence, he was paired with Mo Salah. And his impact for Atalanta has come as part of a formidable axis with Papu Gomez.

Naturally, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Iličić in Bergamo. It seems that he is a player who will always be destined to suffer for his art. In 2018 he was struck down with a mysterious bacterial infection which left him sidelined for several months and in a dark frame of mind. Following his recovery he confessed “I was afraid of not being able to walk anymore, I thought I could no longer play football, I was afraid for my life.

But for now, Iličić is in a good place. Both he, and the watching world, are eager to see what further peaks can be conquered.

Thanks for reading! If this has inspired you to take a trip to Bergamo, take a look at my Atalanta travel guide.