Ten out of Fourteen
At the time of writing Croatia have just qualified for the Quarter Final of the World Cup 2018 in Russia. Croatia will go into that quarter final game against host nation Russia as favourites to win that game. A potential semi final with England has potential to happen should Croatia and the English both reach the semi finals. That stage of the competition will be new ground for England over the past two decades, but not for their potential opposition. Croatia have featured in no fewer than ten major competitions now since 1991. That's ten out of a potential fourteen major competitions they have qualified for. That stat is only the beginning of some amazing feats by this small nation over the years.
The Picking Fields
Croatia has two major leagues in it's country comprising of the Prva which has ten teams and the Druga HNL which has twelve teams. The country has just over 1500 football clubs with just over 140,000 registered football players (Men and women). Of that figure under a third of the footballers are between the age of six and nineteen. To put this into perspective, England's registered footballers in that age bracket is in the millions. Croatia has a population of just over four million people, when you take into account the huge population mass of teams who have been successful at international level over the past two decades it makes their feats even more extraordinary. Over those two decades the average investment per year into the game by the Croatian Football Federation has been just two million, a minuscule figure when compared to other successful national teams on the world stage. So how are the Croatians producing so much quality?
What is the Key
Two quotes stand out when it comes to explaining a big part of the reason Croatia have been so successful down through the years. Legend Davor Suker who had spells with Arsenal and West Ham in England was once quoted saying "Money is important, but money is not everything". Vatroslav Mihacik a former goalkeeper in Croatia said "Our nickname is the Brazil of Europe because of the style we play. Conditions in Croatia are far worse than in England where you have better facilities, better pitches, experts on nutrition and physiology and so on. But we are creative. Creativity is the deciding factor in growing a good player". It's Mihacik's comment in particular that explains best the mentality that has allowed Croatia become a huge success on the international football stage.
Ahead of Time
In recent years countries like England, Scotland, Ireland and many other european nations have begun to change the approach and structures of their grassroots game. Changes that have long since taken place in Croatia. In Croatia for decades now games under the age of twelve have been small sides games at schoolboy level. Coaches in Croatia have been encouraged for decades to encourage individuality so long as the decision making has been correct. There is never a focus soley on dribbling, passing or any one learning outcome, the focus has been on decision making and what the correct selection of skill set was in each scenario. A country where individuality is encouraged.
Martin Novoselac who played professionally in Croatia spoke about their development. After retiring from playing the game, Novoselac established an incredible career coaching and developing youth football in Croatia. For a long while, Novoselac coached the Croatia national under-21 football team, guiding them to such tournaments as the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship and the 2004 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship. Achieving great success, Novoselac was even considered for the Croatia National Team job. Currently, he is the head of the Croatian Football Federation's youth development program. Novoselac said "The most important thing is taking care over technique and making steady progress. Our boys do not play in real competitions until they are 12 or 13, and even then the result is not everything. Creativity is what matters. We are always teaching them to be creative. They will know how to shoot, play one touch and dribble. But choices are left to them. You can practise for 100 years, but if you don't have the right feeling it's no good.' That 'right feeling' seemed to be what was missing in England, the only country among Europe's top football nations where boys as young as 10 play 11-a-side games up until recent years, with full-size goals on full-size pitches that must seem as big as a cricket pitch to the players. A 10-year-old will be nearly two feet shorter than an adult keeper, yet the goal he must protect is the same size as the England player's. Things thankfully have now changed for the better and already you can see things at their underage level improve".
It's not rocket science. People focused on results before development are a curse on the future of the game and the quality of footballers being produced no matter what country it is. A line from Croatian football legend Petric probably the best way to end this piece "I played my least enjoyable football growing up when I was put under pressure from my parents or coaches. For young footballers it should be just fun". When people enjoy something, they naturally want to improve at it.