Branko Oblak, a former coach of the Slovenia national football team and a Bundesliga winner with Bayern Munich during his playing career, sat down with AS to discuss his role in the emergence of Atlético keeper Jan Oblak (the two are not related) while coaching Olimpija Ljubljana.
Why did you hand Oblak a debut at just 16 years of age?
Well, I have to say truthfully it was a coincidence. I wanted to punish my starting goalkeeper because he had a terrible game in the previous fixture and so I said to him: ‘It’s better than we stick a 16-year-old kid in.’ And that’s what we did. I wasn’t a visionary, I have to admit. I knew that the lad had talent, but I didn’t know Jan would be so good.
What was Oblak like then?
That is something I did notice. He was a very relaxed kid, very serious and mature. I’m not a madman, without those attributes I wouldn’t have given a 16-year-old his debut, not even by coincidence. And after his third game against Maribor I saw that he had been the best player on the pitch and I also noticed how cool he was between the sticks.
What stood out about him?
His seriousness. He worked like crazy and was completely focused on the idea of becoming a great keeper.
"Jan was very good, but I'm not an expert on keepers..."
He had to cycle a long way every day to Ljubljana to train. That must have been tough…
I think he enjoyed the bicycle. And at that moment I didn’t know that’s what he was doing. I’m sure there must have been other ways to get to Ljubljana, but it seemed to suit him. He was happy, settled, focused and he was always enthusiastic about training, playing and learning.
Did you believe then that he would become a world class keeper?
No, not even in my dreams. I have to be truthful. It would be easy now to say that I was a visionary but it wasn’t like that. Jan was very good, but I’m not an expert on keepers and I didn’t know he was going to be this good. After he’d played a few games I spoke to some people who are experts in that position and they told me he would go on to become a top keeper. Obviously, they were right.
After a year working with you Benfica came in for him. How was all of that sorted out?
I’ve never told this story before. Jorge Jesús, who was coaching Benfica at the time, called me just before the club decided to buy him. He asked me only one thing: They were convinced that Jan was incredibly talented but they weren’t sure if a 17-year-old was sufficiently mature to go to Portugal at that age. I told them I’d bet the farm on his maturity. I was sure he’d be fine and that’s how it worked out.
"Atlético was a good choice. He has found his place there"
When you watch him now, how has he improved?
I’m proud, firstly because he is Slovenian and because I gave him his debut, even if it was under those circumstances. Of course he left Olimpija shortly afterwards, I only had him for about five games. But I’m proud because he is one of the best in the world and he also shares my surname, although we’re not related in any way. We have a joke about that, he’s a more successful player than I ever was! He is the best Oblak and the best Slovenian player. Also because he made an incredible choice with Atlético Madrid. He has found his place there. He gets to every ball, but he also has a huge and quick jump and that might not have been as easy to perfect if he didn’t have one of the best defences in the world in front of him and without a top-class coach like Simeone.
What does Oblak mean for Slovenian football?
He is absolutely fundamental. If I was in charge, he would be my captain and I would make every decision together with him. He is that important. For Slovenian football he is the poster boy. I think that whenever anyone from abroad talks about Slovenian football the conversation starts and ends with just one name: Jan Oblak.