In his heyday the player from Partizan and Red Star Belgrade fascinated the world with his performances at the World Cups in 1954 and 1958. As coach he led Hajduk Split, Bayern Munich and Hamburg to success.
In his youth days Branko Zebec played for a number of teams in his hometown: Građanski (Dinamo), Poštar, Lokomotiva, Milicioner and Metalac. By 1951 he had the call from Partizan, one of the capital city teams that were the dominating Yugoslav football. His quality and speed secured him soon a place on the left wing of the team, and almost as soon with the national team, in which he should feature 65 times, scoring 17 goals. In 1952 he achieved with the national cup his first title. In the same year the Summer Olympics in Helsinki provided a great international stage for him. Yugoslavia had to settle for the silver medal, because this tournament was also the birth place of Hungarian miracle team of the 1950s. With seven goals Zebec was to secure for himself the honour of top scorer of the event.
On the club level the successful caree of Zebec continued. In 1954 saw Partizan finishing second in the championship and again winning the cup. Zebec scored an invitation for the 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland. There Yugoslavia overcame the group stage with a win against France and a draw against Brazil thanks to a goal by Zebec. In the quarterfinals the eventual winners Germany put a stop to the campaign of the team from the Balkans.
In his club side Zebec evolved more and more to the leading player in midfield, a position he was most suitable for due to his intelligence. In 1955 he played in the Partizan debut in the European Cup of Champions (Partizan played then as a nominated team and not as a national champion - a historic peculiarity of the first edition of this tournament). In the first round Partizan overcame Sporting CP in two high scoring encounters with 5-2 and 8-5. In the second round, then the quarterfinals, the team of the era, Real Madrid, put an end to Yugoslavias first entry into this new competition as a home 3-0 win against the Iberian glamour side was insufficient to compensate for a 0-4 defeat at the hands of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Co. in the Spanish capital. On the national scene Partizan remained in the shadow of the big two of those days, Hajduk Split, and Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade). Thus, in 1956 Partizan again had to make do with being honourable runner up in the championship, as it was the case in 1958. In between Partizan could grab another Yugoslav cup trophy.
By the time the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden took place Branko Zebec had become the captain of the national side. In the group stages draws against Scotland and Paraguay and a win against the hosts Sweden, in the end third of the tournament, was enough to enter the quarterfinals, but, as four years before, Germany put an end to Yugoslavias ambitions.
In Yugoslavia he achieved another second place in the championship before making a controversial switch of allegiances to local rivals Red Star, where at the end of his career, in 1960, he finally got his hands on the championship trophy in 1960. This should remain his last honour as player.
The same year though provided him with another highlight yet, the first European Cup of Nations tournament, the original edition of what is today termed as Euro. After Yugoslavia had eliminated Bulgaria and Portugal, the hosts of the final round France were the opponent in the semi-final which took place in Paris. Just 15 minutes before the end France were ahead 4-2, but the team around Branko Zebec managed one of the great turnarounds in the history of the game and won 5-4. However, in the final the Yugoslavs, then without Zebec in the line-up hat to yield to the USSR and their famous goal-keeper Lev Yashin with 1-2 after extra time.
In 1963 he was old enough for a player to leave the country, in line with the plitical circumstances of those days. For Branko Zebec it was then to late for the big-time clubs, so the German second division side Alemannia Aachen may not have provided a great opportunity for renewed success on the pitch, but for Branko Zebec it was a valuable two years in which he could acquaint himself with the country in which he should celebrate his greatest successes as coach.
In the finals the club had to face Leeds United then with Peter Lorimer and Billy Bremner in their cast. The home leg could be won with 2-0, thus a nil all draw in England was sufficient. Zebec and his team won the first ever official international trophy for a team from the Central Eastern Europe.
For Zebec followed a stay of almost two years with VfB Stuttgart, then a team with asprirations to joining the top of the league. He led the unimpressive cast, which was in his second season reinforced with German international Horst Köppel and the Austrian midfielder Hans "Buffy" Ettmayer to positions 12 and 8, respectively. This was disappointing for both, club and coach, thus, also here the last couple of months of his contract were cut short.
Zebec returned for a season to Yugoslavia, where this time he coached Hajduk Split in tandem with Tomislav Ivić, another very notable coach. The team impressed particularly in the Cup Winners' Cup where they made it all the way to the semifinals, ousting Norway's Fredrikstad F.K., Welsh side Wrexham A.F.C. and in the quarterfinals the Scottish Cup winners Hibernian F.C.. Hajduk lost in Scotland 2-4, but almost miracoulously recovered at home with a 3-0 triumph. However, in the semifinals a 0-1 defeat away to Leeds United proved lethal. The 0-0 draw at home meant the end of the road for the Croatians, but reaching this semifinal remains the greatest international success for them to date. Leeds ended up missing out on winning this tournament by the tightest of margins losing the final against AC Milan 0-1.
The team finished the national league a disappointing 9th, but the defence of the Yugoslav Cup through a victory against champions Red Star Belgrade assured a memorable season eventually. The 1970s were to be Hajduks golden decade after all, but without Branko Zebec, who returned to Germany.
Eintracht Braunschweig, in 1967 still champions of Germany, were relegated in 1973 - the year they pioneered advertising on jerseys - but returned to the Bundesliga inside a year. The club, which then had a liquour manufacturer on a spending spree as main sponsor, engaged Zebec in search for better times. Zebec hired two fellow Yugoslavs, the entertaining right winger Danilo Popivoda and midfielder Aleksandar Ristić. Coupled with national team goalkeeper Bernd Franke and other notable players this side offered refreshing quality football and often featured right on top of the table. Inside three years Eintracht worked itself up from place 9 to place 3, then just missing out on the championship by one point. In his fourth and last year with the club the 1974 FIFA World Cup winner Paul Breitner joined the team coming from Real Madrid. Even thus reinforced, the team could not maintain the trend and finished a disappointing 13th. By then Zebec's efforts had been successful enough to attract interest elsewhere.
The European Cup Winners' Cup winner from 1977 was ambitious and longed for its first championship since 1960 but ended up only 11th in the 76/77 season. Zebec was the right man for the job. In his first season he formed a competitive unit around wing back Manfred Kaltz, striker Horst Hrubesch. Most important was that he facilitated the integration of "Mighty Mouse" Kevin Keegan who failed to convince in his first season. By the end of Zebec's first year at the helm Hamburg were champions.
A year later the team even progressed all the way into the European Cup of Champions final to face Nottingham Forest. A lacklustre Hamburg lost 0-1. Zebec and his coaching methods were widely blamed. Zebec, besides being a strict disciplinarian, believed - with some logic - in the notion, that when a team plays successfully it can take more training. As it was, the players complained about the harsh training at that late stage of the season, and critics said that it was the reason why Hamburg inside four days of the final also lost a decisive match which consigned them to runner-ups in the league.
At the beginning of his third season with Hamburg another problem came to the fore. Branko Zebec had a serious drinking problem and was caught out even on the coaching bench. A funnier consequence was that when he came into the cabin and told his players "0-2, lost! Does not matter, we have to win the next match!" It was only halftime. By December the problem and its consequences which were now frequently recognizable, eg., when he was dozing on the bench, needed a resolution, and thus by December the contract was terminated. Aleksandar Ristić became his successor for half a year, before Ernst Happel took Hamburg to renewed glory.
By 1981/82 Zebec got himself a new appointment - then with Borussia Dortmund, incidentally here following in the footsteps of Udo Lattek. He led them to place 6, their best result in 12 years, leading them even into the UEFA Cup. But the personal issues of the coach were still increasing and stretched the abilities of the club to deal with it. By the end of the season also Borussia saw the need to let him go.
By the beginning of the 82/83 season Brank Zebec had no job. However, this made him available when Eintracht Frankfurt, the club in Germany with the highest attrition rate for coaches, was in need for a replacement of former Austrian national coach Helmut Senekowitsch. Zebec ended the season with Eintracht as 10th, but he himself fell victim to the traditional shortlivedness of coaching jobs by October 17 of the following season.
He had one more ephemeral engagement with his hometown club Dinamo Zagreb before his career ended.
In 1988 he died from alcohol related illness, aged only 59. He remains one of the most successful coaches in the history of the German Bundesliga.
|Career as Player|
|1951-1959||Partizan Belgrade||1952 - Yugoslav Cup|
1954 - Yugoslav Cup
1957 - Yugoslav Cup
|1959-1963||Red Star Belgrade||1960 - Yugoslav Championship|
|Career as Coach|
|1965-1967||NK Dinamo Zagreb||1967 - Inter-Cities Fairs Cup|
|1968-1970||FC Bayern Munich||1969 - German Cup|
1969 - German Championship
|1972-1973||Hajduk Split||1973 - Yugoslav Cup|
|1978-1980||Hamburger SV||1979 - German Championship|