Interviews

S.League Old Boys: Nenad Bacina, the Croat with a soft spot for Singapore

From winning titles with SAFFC to coaching various local clubs, Nenad Bacina’s name is synonymous with the S.League. FFT caught up with the 46-year-old, now assisting former foe Bojan Hodak with the Malaysia Under-19s…

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It is not uncommon to see foreign S.League players staying put to become coaches, and names like Marko Kraljevic, Darren Stewart and Jorg Steinebrunner come to mind.  

But there are not many who left the country and returned to secure a coaching gig. Bacina is one of these exceptions, even going on to coach three local clubs.

“Majority of those (foreigners) who left (Singapore) never came back, I’m one who did and I’m really appreciative to the opportunities given,” he told FourFourTwo. 

Nenad Bacina in the S.Leage

  • Playing Career: SAFFC (2000-2004) 
  • Coaching Career: Woodlands Wellington (2009), Hougang United (2012), Tampines Rovers (2013)
  • Playing Honours: S.League (2000, 2002)
  • Coaching Honours: Community Shield (2013) 

Living in the Lion City 

Bacina’s association with the S.League began with the turn of the millennium when he joined SAFFC (now Warriors FC) from Croatian second division club NK Belisce. 

Part of the influx of Croatian players at that point of time (there was as many as 10 Croatian players in the 2000 season, with SAFFC filling all four foreigner slots with Croatians), the 28-year-old made an impact alongside compatriot Veselko Paponja to form a solid defensive partnership. 

This stinginess at the back meant the team conceded just 15 goals in 22 matches to reclaim the S.League title which they won in 1997 and 1998. 

Bacina (right) with old teammate Grabovac

“During my playing time in Croatia, I met (Warriors teammates) Mirko (Grabovac) and Vinko Maraca – they recommended to coach Fandi and (then Warriors general manager) Colonel Kok (Wai Leong) and I managed to pass the trial,” said Bacina. 

“At the end of the 90s, we had war in Croatia and the economic situation was bad. Most of us were aiming to play in Europe but sometimes wishes don’t come through.

“This offer came and I never regretted. I count myself lucky to be able to play for the best club in Singapore and that was a great first season.” 

I count myself lucky to be able to play for the best club in Singapore and that was a great first season

Bacina soon become a fans’ favourite with his exemplary attitude on and off the pitch as he went on to succeed Nazri Nasir as Warriors captain in 2002. 

That season they won the title again, with the Croatian’s calm influence at the back ensuring they lost just one out of 33 matches and claimed the best defensive record.

He skippered the club till the end of the 2004 season before returning to native Spilt to wrap up his playing career. 

“It was five beautiful years with SAF and I had the opportunity to play with a lot of quality players,” reflected Bacina.

Bacina (extreme left with armband) was an exemplary figure for Warriiors

“But I was tired of playing by then. I played more than 15 years and I wanted to retire so I brought my wife and son back to Croatia.” 

Bacina then played half a season each with Croatian semi-professional outfits NK Poljicanin and NK Omladinac in 2005, before proceeding to secure his coaching badges.

Armed with an UEFA “A” coaching license, he got the opportunity to return to Southeast Asia in 2008 to act as advisor and technical consultant to Malaysia Super League (MSL) side PDRM FA for half a season. 

The Cops reached the Malaysia Cup quarter-finals before Singapore came calling again the following season. 

A return to Singapore

Former SAFFC teammate Jeykanth Jeyapal, who was Woodlands Wellington general manager at the time, invited Bacina to join the club as head coach.

I took up the challenge and we more-or-less maintained the same result as the previous year

“I came to Singapore to visit while I was staying in KL and managed to meet up with Jeykanth, who told me to come,” Bacina shared. “Basically, the club had little funds because (main sponsor) SembCorp pulled out so they wanted to build a new team with low budget.”

While the club having '60 percent less budget than the previous year’, the Croatian did a decent job in his first head coach stint as the Rams finished ninth with 31 points – just four less than 2008. 

“I took up the challenge and we more-or-less maintained the same result as the previous year, which wasn’t too bad,” added the Croat.  

Despite exceeding the pre-season objectives, Bacina lasted just a season as the club lacked the funds to retain his services.  

Hougang played good football under Bacina (first from left). Photo: S-League

Bacina returned home in 2010 and doubled up as assistant coach and head of academy at third division club NK Sloga for one and a half years, before another Singapore adventure beckoned in 2012. 

“I received an SMS from Hougang - I don’t know from who – saying that they’re offering me to come,” he recalled. “That was when (chairman) Mr Bill Ng just took over. He was new at that time but was very keen to ask, observe and give advice; I enjoyed talking to him.

“It was another tough year personally for me because I’m alone here without my family, my son is schooling in Croatia and my wife couldn’t get long leave from her job. 

“But results on the field was good and I enjoyed my time with the players.”

The Cheetahs punched above their weight under his tutelage and played some good football as they finished eighth out of 13 teams. 

[ Next: Time at Tampines]