He bossed Croatia’s back four 100 times in his career, today he is bossing over 150 people. Croatia Week sat down with former Croatia, Dinamo Zagreb, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Monaco defender turned businessmen Dario Simic, where over a glass of his firm’s new 100% natural apple juice we talked about his business, going into bat for his former colleagues, and his thoughts about Friday’s big match.
Dario, today your now a successful businessmen. How did it all start and what are you involved in these days?
In 1999 while I was still playing for Inter Milan I came up with the idea to start a business with water in Croatia, because as a sportsmen I knew the importance to health of water. Back then in 1999 everyone said I was crazy because everyone drinks from the tap, especially in Croatia. I also had the problem that I was still in Milan and not physically in Zagreb. My Mum helped a lot, and the business, which produced 19 litre water bottles and water coolers, started to develop. In 2008 my brother Josip (former Croatian international footballer) finished his career and came back to Croatia and started working in the business and we started to get more aggressive on the market.
From 15 workers in 2010 at Aquaviva we have expanded and now we have our own brand of espresso coffee – Vivas which we distribute, a chain of 15 Vivas bars in Croatia, including History caffe club in Zagreb, which with 900 square metres on 4 levels is one of the largest bars in Europe, and we have just started to produce a 100% natural apple juice called Apple in a bottle. We now employ a total of 150 people.
Any plans to expand the business abroad?
First we have to do a good job in our own backyard, go step by step. We are a young firm and we are not in any rush. I think all of our products we produce are on a world-class level. Maybe in the future, especially with our coffee brand, we will be able to enter international markets with no problem, especially in countries where there are Croatians living.
You recently returned from Ethiopia, the world’s seventh largest producer of coffee, how was that experience?
We wanted to see the coffee plantations in Ethiopia, where some of the world’s best coffee in the world comes from, and talk with the people there to help out with how we can make our coffee better. It was a phenomenal experience. In 7 days we drove 2,500km where we visited some amazing plantations and got to meet locals who are still living exactly how they were living 2,000 years ago. It was a great experience, we got to see how they live and experience their way of life. We filmed a report there for RTL television in Croatia to show how coffee, which is a fruit, becomes the final product in a cup and how hard it is to get to that stage.
Apart from running Aquaviva you recently formed and are the President of the Croatian Professional Footballer’s Association (HUNS). What was your motivation for starting that?
I felt the need in some way to help players who did not experience what I experienced in my career. Every one looks at football through the 10% of players who earn an abnormal amount of money, but especially in Croatia there are a lot of players who have a lot of problems. Up until 1 and a half years ago there was no association here in Croatia that protected players rights. We started this from nothing, thanks to the great work by the secretary Mario Juric, who has shouldered most of the responsibility. The perception when we started the association was why do footballers need a syndicate, they are wealthy footballers, which is definitely not the case. 90% of players have big problems.
What are the biggest problems facing the players in Croatia?
The biggest problem for players in Croatia is that they have status as ‘self-employed workers’ and not as employees of the club, therefore they must pay themselves all contributions (pension, health) like a company does, even if they don’t get paid. For example in the case when three clubs went bankrupt (Varteks, Sesvete, Karlovac) the players remained personally responsible for their debt to the state to the tune of around 20,000 euros. And the biggest problem is the Croatian Football Federation has tuned its back on the situation. It is an embarrassment for the Croatian Football Federation and for the Croatian state.
Another big problem is if a player say does not receive his salary for say 10 months, he can not just terminate his contract with the club, but he has to go through arbitration, which can last another 6-12 months. This has led to a lot of problems where the player will forgive the club the debt if they will release him to leave. Also another problem facing players is that clubs can fine a player for whatever they see fit and the player has nowhere to appeal.
How have the Croatian Football Federation been with helping with the problems?
I can not say that I am happy, Davor Suker (Croatian Football Federation President) was my colleague, but I can say till now he has not shown any interest in calling the players or calling us or trying to sort out the problems or help in any way. I hope that they will try to sort the problem. We want to be partners, we want to work for the better of Croatian football, it is in our interest that the clubs are doing well, that the federation is doing well, that the players become better.
Is change likely to happen?
We have become recently a full member of World Football Players’ Association, which is a huge success for us after just 18 months, and through that organisation we are talking to UEFA, and now UEFA are to impose “minimum requirements’ for federations and we hope that as part of that UEFA will recognise all players as employees and not as self-employed entities.
Your former team-mates such as Stimac, Bilic, Kovac, Tudor, Jurcic and Boksic have all moved into coaching roles after playing, Do you have any ambition to follow them?
I have finished my A-licence for coaching now I am completing my A-Pro licence. I am glad that I have stayed involved in football through my role as President of HUNS, which is more of a political function. I am still very young so what happens in the future we will see, but I am not sure. After one’s playing career they need time to learn all over again and I am enjoying my role now.
On Friday your record of being the most capped Croatian international (100 caps) will be broken. Any emotions in seeing the record go?
I am proud that I had the chance to play for such a big team which is Croatia, and play for them at the World Cup and European Championship, those are unforgettable moments which a player has to be proud of and privileged that they can represent their country in front of so many people in Croatia and in the world. Records are there to be broken and I am glad that it will be done by great sportsmen like Srna, Simunic and Pletikosa. I know those guys will be feeling proud and I am happy for them.
Does any particular match for Croatia stand out in those 100 games?
The play-off game against Ukraine when we qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France. The match was special because we qualified for the World Cup. Shevchenko was at the time one of the best player in the world and I was up against him, that was special. Also the quarter-final against Germany at the 1998 World Cup in France. I can’t describe the feeling how it was when we saw all the people in Croatia so happy, how much it meant to us as a young country, it was very special.
What were your memories from the match against Yugoslavia in 1999 in Belgrade?
Games against Yugoslavia, or Serbia are always special. You know what happened between the two countries and especially that game in 1999, as it was close to war and what happened between us, was tense and it was a special game. Now 13 years later the tension should have calmed down, that some things should be forgiven, forgotten and to head in new directions in a humane way and let the sport rivalry stay between the two countries.
Prediction for Friday’s match?
It is very hard to predict derbys, they are special matches where not always the best team wins. I think Croatia has more quality than Serbia, but with derbys it can go anyway in 90 minutes on the night. I expect to see a top-class match.