They face Iceland tomorrow but Croatia are already through to the knock-out stages of the World Cup, having captured the attention of the planet by potentially ending Lionel Messi’s international career with a 3-0 dismantling of Argentina last week.
To even the most casual football fan, that result will only have come as so much of a surprise. After all, this is a Croatia side that features four-time Champions League winner Luka Modric of Real Madrid, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren and plenty more representatives of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
With such a talented generation of players in tow, Croatia have become perennial dark horse picks at recent major tournaments. Should they follow up their eye-catching performances in Group D, which also include a 2-0 win over Nigeria, with a run into the latter stages of the competition it will be a long way from the biggest surprise the World Cup has witnessed. If anything, Croatia’s failure to reach the knock-out rounds since their third-place finish on their debut in 1998 might be considered something of a disappointment.
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Yet in perception terms Croatia are a victim of their own overachievement. Their population of 4m may dwarf that of tonight’s opponents Iceland but it is smaller than average for a European nation and minuscule compared to the potential number of players in the two vanquished continental giants in Nigeria and Argentina, which have populations of more than 180m and around 45m respectively.
Since the nation became independent in 1990, Croatia have qualified for 10 of the 12 major tournaments that have been open to them. The other countries that used to comprise Yugoslavia have nine major tournament finals appearances between them. The next smallest European country with a qualification record to match over that period is Portugal, with a population of 10m.
“That’s one thing that tells me we’re onto the right path,” Romeo Jozak, the former technical director of the Croatian Football Federation, told City A.M.
Jozak says that Croatia differs from the continent’s traditional heavyweights such as England or Germany, where the talent pool is so large that academies can hoover up players and afford to let a few potential stars fall through the cracks.
“One of my priorities was that we could not afford to lose or neglect any kind of talent no matter what age he is,” said Jozak, who also had a spell in charge of the academy at Croatia’s biggest club, Dinamo Zagreb.
“You have to treat the talent with 100 per cent capacity and passion to get the best out of him and that pays back in the long run. We’ve really paid close attention to individuals.
“The development of the individual is something we depend on in Croatia and that’s a pressure in a way. If you don’t that you won’t survive. You’ll be bankrupt. You have to produce or you don’t get a paycheque.
“It’s not a pleasant situation to live with but once coaches get used to that you’ve got to develop a system that gets the best out of what you have in front of you.
“If we don’t qualify for a championship, we’re not going to be getting a budget.”
Many of the features of Croatia’s youth development system, such as small-sided games on small pitches to allow young players more touches of the ball, have been adopted as best practice in a number of countries looking to produce more technically gifted footballers — including in England, where the Football Association in 2015 introduced reduced-sized teams for age groups under 13.
Yet if a smaller population is a curse for coaches looking to produce results, it is a blessing for those players who benefit from the extra attention when learning how to apply that technique to games.
Players such as Modric and Rakitic are extremely skilful, but their superior technique is more commonly expressed in the clinical precision that saw Argentina dissected last week than any Neymar-style flicks. Jozak says Croatia’s youth development system is about giving players the “functional technique” to master any match situation.
“If we’re going to miss the correct application of talent in the right situation you’ll always remain a circus, samba player,” says Jozak. “It’s about transferring from an unserious to a serious football.”
This year’s World Cup probably marks the last chance for a particularly stand-out generation of Croatians, including Modric and Rakitic, who are now the wrong side of 30. But as might be expected from such a details-focused system, their heirs have already been identified.
Says Jozak: “I can put down on paper the starting XI and reserve team at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar out of the guys who should be there, if everyone’s healthy and not injured.”