Soccer: Maccabi Tel Aviv appoints Mladen Krstajic as new head coach

Krstajic is the latest in a long line of bench bosses to be handed the keys to the yellow-and-blue over the past decade as well as the third Serbian to take up the coaching post during that time.

Serbia soccer coach Mladen Krstajic Belgrade, Serbia, June 10, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/NOVAK DJUROVIC)
Serbia soccer coach Mladen Krstajic Belgrade, Serbia, June 10, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/NOVAK DJUROVIC)

Maccabi Tel Aviv FC recently appointed Mladen Krstajic as its new head coach for the balance of the 2021/22 season to replace sports director Barak Itzhaki, who stepped into the role after Patrick van Leeuwen had been let go back in October.

Krstajic is the latest in a long line of bench bosses to be handed the keys to the yellow-and-blue over the past decade as well as the third Serbian to take up the coaching post during that time.

While the club won in his debut, a 4-0 Israel State Cup win over lower league side Hapoel Marmorek, it then drew 1-1 at home against Bnei Sakhnin in league play, and it looks like Krstajic has plenty of work ahead of him.

The 47-year-old had most recently been in charge of Serbian Super League outfit Backa Topola and prior to that led the Serbia National Team as its head coach between 2017-2019, managing the squad during the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Born in Zenica, which was part of Yugoslavia before the fall of communism, Krstajic developed into a hard-nosed central defender with Partizan Belgrade before heading to the German Bundesliga, where he featured for Werder Bremen and Schalke 04.

Serbian coach Mladen Krstajic was hired to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv for the rest of the season, with the yellow-and-blue seeking success locally and in Europe. (credit: MACCABI TEL AVIV/COURTESY)Serbian coach Mladen Krstajic was hired to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv for the rest of the season, with the yellow-and-blue seeking success locally and in Europe. (credit: MACCABI TEL AVIV/COURTESY)

In 425 club team appearances, Krstajic scored 30 goals and added another two with the Serbia National Team in 59 matches.

Maccabi’s owner, Canadian Mitch Goldhar, was very pleased with the hiring and said that Krstajic should be a perfect fit for the club.

“Mladen possesses the qualities we value at Maccabi – work ethic, professionalism and ambition to win. These character traits propelled Mladen to the highest level in Europe and will benefit the club in the pursuit of our goals. We all warmly welcome Mladen and his assistants with our unified support.”

Goldhar also spoke about the process that the team took in selecting its latest bench boss.

“Jack Angelides [the owner’s representative] and Barak Itzhaki [thr team’s sports director] looked at a long list of candidates and then I took part in some of the meetings. Candidates don’t materialize at once, but come to us over time. We felt that Mladen had the right attributes and would be a good fit. He had a great career and is a winner and we all wish him the best of luck.”

Krstajic gave his thoughts about joining Maccabi as he spoke in German while an interpreter translated his answers into English.

“I’m grateful to be here and to be able to meet so many people. I am very proud to be the new coach of Maccabi and I’m looking forward to my time at the club. I am humbled to join the most successful club in Israel, a club with a rich history and tradition. As I have tried to do throughout my life, I will work hard and diligently to help the club achieve success.”

Maccabi’s start to the domestic season has not been what the doctor had ordered and is the chief reason that van Leeuwen was replaced.

Although the club now sits in fourth place in the Premier League, it is still 10 points off the top of the table and leader Hapoel Beersheba. However, in the UEFA Conference League competition, Maccabi advanced out of the group stage and will face PSV Eindhoven in the knockout round playoff in February.

“I’m looking forward to working with the entire team and put Maccabi into a good spot in the league, Europe and cup competitions. I spoke with former coach Vladimir Ivic and he told me everything I needed to know about Tel Aviv and Israel and how his time with the club was an important step for him.”

Multiple reports indicated that Krstajic signed a contract until the end of the current season with an option for going forward.

“I signed my contract along with an option and I’m taking a risk as it’s a new challenge. I know there is a lot of work ahead and I have brought three staff members who will help me roll out my philosophies, which has to happen very quickly as the team is in the midst of three competitions.”

As for preparation, Krstajic made sure to get to know his squad via various means.

“I’ve watched every game and I see big potential in the squad with many good players on the team. The 3-0 league win over Hadera was good, but we have to work to be very concentrated and focused on the pitch. I want to get to know the team very quickly and give over my way and philosophy. We have no time to lose and there is a lot of work ahead. I know that Maccabi has the best fans in the country and I want to build a good bond with them so we can all work together.”

Interestingly enough when it comes to bonding, Krstajic will be speaking German or Serbian through a translator during his media appearances both pre and post games, but he does understand the English language. As for how that will impact his relationship with the players, he doesn’t view this to be any issue at all.

“I understand everything in English and I speak German and Serbian, but soccer is international and is in every language. When a player is smart, they will understand any language.”

Krstajic had been criticized by fans during his stint as the Serbian National Team coach due to various decisions he had made during the time he was in charge, but he doesn’t think that the issues that he dealt with in his homeland will crop up in Israel.

“I had a very successful time at the Serbian federation as the assistant coach for a year-and-a-half and a year-and-a-half as the head coach. There was a lot of discussion about what type of system to play and we had an issue by not having a left defensive back. All in all, I had some good times and left on only good terms.”

Most Maccabi coaches over the past decade don’t spend too many seasons with the club as they usually look at the opportunity as one to take a step towards their next job, but Krstajic’s immediate focus is centered on doing the best he can to potentially win the league title despite being 10 points behind.

“I want to be here and to be successful. That is where my focus is and not on where I may end up in my coaching career. The team has the potential to win the championship, and every single match counts. I will focus match by match; I don’t underestimate the challenge in front of me.”