Croatia might be a rather young football nation in regards to other European countries, but they have always developed extremely talented footballers. From Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker and the brilliant Zvonimir Boban to Niko Kovac and Darijo Srna through to today with the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and one of the best midfielders in the world, Luka Modric, Croatia has always produced excellent players that has impressed and entertained football fans all over the world. The most successful Croatian national team was of course the one who won bronze in the 1998 World Cup in France. At this moment in time, there is an increasing number of young Croatians coming through across Europe. When these players are established on the international stage, perhaps we will see a new successful national team at the 2018 World Cup, or even in the 2016 European Championships?
The current best Croatian, Luka Modric, was instrumental in helping Real Madrid win the Champions League last year and enjoyed a terrific season to truly establish himself as one of the best midfielders in the world, and, this summer, he was joined at the top of Spanish football by Ivan Rakitic, as the midfielder left Sevilla for Real Madrid’s major rival Barcelona after a stunning campaign in Andalusia. That meant the Clasico´s of 2014/15 will include two Croatian superstars. The third Spanish giant, reigning La Liga champions Atlético Madrid, purchased a Croatian superstar of their own. Striker Mario Mandzukic joined the Rojiblancos from Bayern München and now the top three clubs in Spain had a Croatian in their starting eleven, making sure the rise of Croatian football was evident. In England, Liverpool signed centre-back Dejan Lovren from Southampton for big money, further underlining the quality of Croatian players at the minute.
However, in football these cycles change. In five or ten years these players will be retired or on the wane and others will have to take over the national team. Right now, it looks like that future is secure for a long time to come.
In Italy, centre-midfielder Mateo Kovacic is impressing for Inter every week with his performances. He played at the World Cup in Brazil next to Modric and Rakitic in midfield and is certain to be a mainstay for at least the next decade. Kovacic is a special talent, capable of everything. He passes the ball very well, has got a terrific shooting ability, is tactically excellent and possess the ability to beat players by dribbling and running with the ball. To be able to do that in central midfield positions is very rare and something that can open up a tight and stale game between to good sides. In the recent game at Juventus the youngster impressed throughout, but also highlighted the fact that there is still work to be done regarding his maturity as he was shown a straight-red for an idiotic challenge. However, the future is extremely bright for the 20-year-old.
Other players catching the eye is the likes of Tin Jedvaj from AS Roma, currently on loan at Bayer Leverkusen, a right-back/centre-half who has consistently impressed in the Bundesliga and also in the Champions League. Alen Halilovic is a much talked-about attacking midfielder from Dinamo Zagreb who is currently starring for Barcelona’s B team. He is training with the first-team consistently and is sure to make a name for himself there in the not too distant future.
Most football fans know about these three, and rightly so, as they are three incredible prospects who are sure to lead the national team in the future.
To help me get to the bottom of the making of these Croatian talents, I asked prominent Croatian football writer Aleksandar Holiga a few questions on the subject.
The number of young, talented Croatians making a mark in Europe is incredible for such a small country. What is the secret behind all this?
If there is a secret, I don’t know what it is. Been asked this many times before and it seems to me that talented youngsters in Croatia emerge despite the system (or lack there of) rather than because of it. The conditions for player development are not very good (except in the Dinamo Zagreb academy, which is, controversially, funded by the city and able to attract talent from across the country) and neither is the level of coaching. We certainly don’t have a proper long-term vision of what, how and why to develop. Maybe Croatians are just talented for football, I don’t know how else to explain it. You see it in some of the other team sports as well, such as handball or basketball.
Mateo Kovacic, Alen Halilovic, Tin Jedvaj, Marko Pjaca, Stipe Perica, Andrej Kramaric.The list can be made longer. Of the aforementioned players, or someone I might have missed, who is the most exciting?
Oh, there are others as well…
Of these, I’d say all are exciting in their way – maybe Perica won’t reach the senior national team level and I’m not entirely convinced by Pjaca, either. But Kovacic, Halilovic and Jedvaj can become world class. Kramaric is already 23, but I believe there’s plenty still to come from him.
Several other players could soon attract attention of major clubs and the general public. These 4 kids (Pjaca is the 5th) are just amazing:
I don’t like to overreact, and this is uncharacteristic of me, but particularly Ante Coric and Andrija Balic are extraordinary talents – reminiscent of Zidane and Iniesta, respectively. Vlasic has been described as ‘motorical monster’ by his own dad and Marko Rog came out of nowhere and showed some jaw-dropping potential.
Also, NK Zagreb’s goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, Lokomotiva’s attacking midfielder Domagoj Pavicic, Rijeka’s centre-back Matej Mitrovic, as well as central midfielder Ivan Mocinic could all have big careers ahead of them. So could Mario Pasalic, the midfielder now at Elche on loan from Chelsea, defensive midfielder Josip Radosevic of Napoli (he never plays, though) and winger Ante Rebic (RB Leipzig, on loan from Fiorentina) is a massive prospect, but not quite right in the head. Then there is centre-back Duje Caleta-Car and attacking midfielder Ante Roguljic, both 18, making their way into RB Salzburg senior side, Hajduk’s winger Elvir Maloku and an entire Dinamo Zagreb U17 team, particularly wingers/forwards Josip Brekalo and Davor Lovren (Dejan Lovren’s younger brother). Right winger Robert Muric is another young Croatian prospect, currently at Ajax.
With these youngsters sure to make it in to the national team and establish themselves there alongside the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Dejan Lovren, how do you feel about the future of the national team?
Obviously there’s a clutter of talent coming through, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the national team should expect big results. Most of these youngsters play in midfield, which is already the strongest part of Croatia team by some distance, while some other positions (chiefly left-back, defensive midfield, but possibly also at centre-half and up front) are not that well-covered. Our biggest problem right now is how to balance the team and it doesn’t look like that will change very soon.
It’s often been said that players from Balkan often are technically excellent but lack a little mentally to make it to the absolute top. Is that true and if so, why is that do you think?
I think that’s a stereotype that has become increasingly unfair and unjustified. Take Luka Modric, our best player – his mentality may be one of his biggest strengths and it has enabled him to make the most of his talent in my opinion. Even Mario Mandzukic, who used to have a problem with attitude, has managed to overcome it and achieve great things. I think he has made the most of his (somewhat limited) talent as well. A similar thing can be said about Serbia’s best, for example: Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic are “monsters of mentality”, as Jurgen Klopp would say. There are, of course, still some players in every country of the former Yugoslavia who don’t realize their full potential because of their mentality, but I don’t think those are much more common in these parts than somewhere else. Not in Croatia, anyway.
Is there a preference in Croatia to develop creative and exciting attacking players over defenders since it seems most players coming through at a young age are attacking midfielders, strikers or wingers?
Maybe that’s something inherent to the lack of proper system in player development. Creative players tend to thrive in less tightly organized environments, where they are less likely to be fitted into pre-set patterns and can have more freedom to improvise – learn how to make their own decisions from early on, not be told what to do and where to stand by their coaches. They become more individualistic and less dependent on the system. This is just my opinion, but Dennis Bergkamp also talks about something similar when discussing recent reforms made in the Ajax academy – it’s in ‘Stillness and Speed’, but you can also find extracts from that book online.
As a follow up on the previous question, could it be the fact attacking players normally attract bigger transfer sums that make that kind of player more attractive to develop because of the sell-on potential?
There’s probably some of that in the clubs’ thinking, yes.
The biggest highlight in Croatian football history is of course the 1998 World Cup in France where they finished third to win the bronze medal. That national team was very, very good, but something similar hasn’t been seen since. However, times are now changing. The standard of Croatian players in European football currently is very good, as the three stars in La Liga highlight. The future is also looking bright with an incredible number of talented players coming through both Croatian academies as well as foreign. Even though it remains to be seen whether or not these players can make it to the absolute top of European football as the likes of Modric and Rakitic have remains to be seen, and also if they can establish themselves in the national team to drag Croatia towards a new Golden Era. The likes of Kovacic, Jedvaj and Halilovic all possess tremendous talent and potential, but do they have the mentality to make it where others before them have failed? For Croatian football’s sake we’ll have to hope so. The 2018 World Cup in Russia should see a very strong Croatian national team if everything clicks into gear, or maybe even already in the 2016 Euro’s in France. After all, they have done it there before.
Aleksandar Holiga is a Croatian football writer. You can find him writing for (for example) FourFourTwo, The Blizzard, the Guardian, When Saturday Comes and Bleacher Report and follow him on twitter as @AlexHoliga.