FIFA World Cup

As World Cup final beckons, a look at Croatia's incredible turnaround after a brutal war

Genetic disposition in terms of speed, anthropometry and capacity is a big factor for certain positions.

After closing in on 11 years of coaching and multiple study visits overseas, the biggest change in approach to conducting came thanks to Tom Byer, the globally renowned expert on grassroots, who taught me the importance of first considering the historical, socio-cultural and larger sporting influences that drives the day to day of what takes place on the pitch before looking at the curriculum, documentation, quality of infrastructure, use of new age technology, coaching badges and finances that are available.

A young nation like Croatia has endured a lot from the time they shed communism, seceded from Yugoslavia and suffered a brutal war of independence. After this period of struggle the people who led the country scripted their resurrection as a nation by placing a heavy emphasis on sporting success.

Franjo Tudman, their first elected leader, was a high-ranking sports official in Yugoslavia who fully understood the power and energy that sports can bring in the process of creating a national identity referred to the nation’s athletes as “Croatia’s greatest ambassadors to the world”.

The new Croatia was unified a strong sense of pride, identity and connect to the nation and its symbols. Through these times, football and Dinamo Zagreb especially grew in prominence. This emphasis on sport is seen in handball, volleyball, tennis and basketball where this country with very limited resources is punching far above its weight in what it achieves globally. Each of these athletes draw a lot of strength from wearing the chequered jersey in a land where representing Croatia is seen as the highest of all virtues.

Croatian Football Culture

Now that we know population has little to do with success, for a small nation of 4.4 million people with significantly limited resources, the Croatians have established a successful production line of players that play in the best leagues of the world and unite to represent the national team when duty calls.

Petar Skansi in a BBC article elaborates on this quite well, “In a world in which money dictates everything, Croatia can compete only at the national teams’ level, because at club level it cannot keep pace with exceptional European clubs.“

Historically, Croatia has always had squads with exceptional individuals who have in various competitions like the Euros and World Cup have expressed both verbally and in their performance just how important that jersey is to them. The strong sense of patriotism, pride and belonging that binds them is obvious regardless of where they have grown up.

The Croatian national teams has always been looked upon as strong competitors and earned the respect of their opponents who will attest that regardless of the score line you will ‘never get an easy game out of them’.

The Croatians have always worked hard for they achieve, and this willingness to graft was directed well during Romeo’s time at the Croatian FA (HNS) as the Technical Director. He oversaw all age group teams from the U21 downwards and overlooked a successful period in which the national teams secured consistent qualification to major UEFA and FIFA age group tournaments. He articulated on how important it is to have a high pedigree of youth players with experience at the highest level of national team youth competitions to build the foundation for a strong national team in the future.

The opportunity to compete against the powerhouses of world football at an early age does a lot for their maturity, confidence, self-awareness and fearlessness as they grow into full professionals.

135,000 registered players

This team of hard competitors who are described as ‘ruthless toughness in a chequered jersey’ also carry the label of the ‘Brazilians of Europe’ and is better explained in this Corluka quote on Croatian football: “When you are born, the first thing your father gives you is a football. It’s in our blood. On every street, you see people playing. As a kid, you want to score goals, so every kid is a striker. We have had so many good attacking players.”

Romeo too sees a big advantage in that the young players have a lot of contact with the ball when growing up and spend more time outdoors playing in open parks and streets than most parts of Europe even today.

This serves the academies around the country who get a good level of players when they start development programs by ages 7-9. The player identification process places a lot of values on players who have developed a sense for the ball and reading the game at very early ages without which the Croatian development structure would suffer a massive loss if another approach was taken.

Ivan Kepcija the assistant Academy Director at Dinamo Zagreb at the time of my visit elaborated from a Zagreb specific perspective:

“The first challenge is the lowered level of sporting activity. In today’s society young children have a poor foundation in movement and athletic ability. Due to this there is a mention of certain regions in Zagreb that are not as affluent but do a lot to develop a core of the players that dynamo inherits in the younger age groups due to better access to play the game. These regions provide opportunities to players to engage in informal games everyday and continue to maintain a strong link to the bygone days of ‘street football’ as players continue to grow up with little technological interference.”

The Croatian FA’s 2 million annual investment in youth is spread across the two divisions of professional football and another 1500 clubs that have 135,000 registered players out of which 90,000 are aged between 6 and 19. This platform is enabled by 5000 coaches of which 3000 have regular contact with players where many serve as volunteers.

This investment is strengthened by a development strategy for players that emphasises age specific skills at different stages of development and something that all clubs in the federation agreed to implement.

Vatroslav Mihacik, a football school professor 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.”

Dinamo Zagreb Program

Romeo Jozak’s humility won’t ever accept the revolution that he brought about at Dinamo Zagreb where he was the Technical Director. He only sees it as result of doing his job sincerely and nothing more. The names that have come through and are seen in this Croatian national team speak for his work and legacy at the club.

Interactions with some parents (one who was a former academy player himself) that spoke English had mentioned that at one point in time the academy was known as a ‘graveyard for talent’ where the players came in for the reputation of Dinamo and were failed over and over again by the old fashioned thinking, methods, reputations and approach to player development.

Romeo Jozak’s introduction as Academy Director saw a world of change come through as he was someone who had been on the outside looking in and had amassed a world of experience and a strong academic foundation to infuse his thinking and methodology to the create an effective youth system.

Romeo saw the free-flowing culture of street football where kids would play every day for hours at end without any guidance would develop a lot of good as well as bad habits that often take a lot of effort to reverse. He wanted to unite the starting phase of informal play to a development pathway to create high quality players under expert guidance.

Technique is looked upon as a tool through which a player can execute his intended actions and the role of the program is to enhance technique to a point where the players are not fighting technical deficiencies when executing the right decisions. The tools for efficient decision-making relies high levels of technical ability, without which excellent decisions are fruitless and intelligent insight is valueless if they cannot be met with ability to execute under pressure in a game situation.

A glance at the program that was introduced by him to the HNS and large parts of which have been at work at Dinamo for years now show how much effort, detail and care goes into developing world class players.

Romeo who has dedicated a doctorate to his profession and is among the more sought after technicians in Europe and the world put together a program that leaves nothing to chance and eliminates any dependence on luck towards the making of the end product. The main brand of the program has always been the attacking style of play carried out by the highly technical, athletic and confident players.

Ivan summarises the program by stating that the aim to develop players that are two footed, with high levels of ball mastery, well-conditioned, fast and highly technical through a playing style that keeps the ball on the grounds, plays through the thirds with a possession based attacking model football using quick combinations and responsible individuality to advance forward.

Romeo believes that to teach the game effectively it is necessary to have a large scientific foundation of applicable knowledge in motor-development, sport pedagogy, bio-mechanics and sports- science.

With the time becoming the most precious resource in a player development process where all you get is 5-10 hours depending on the age groups, the need for a strong program that governs these hours is essential to ensure that the education and development of a player is comprehensive and meaningful.

A ‘no flukes’ approach

Drawing examples from the school system where you have a structure through which people learn reading, writing, analysing, interpreting skills in a phased approach where each year of progression takes them through a progressively challenging curriculum- such a program is needed in developing players as well.

Such a “no flukes” approach depends greatly on the well-defined criteria that indicates the quality of players that are expected to be identified and recruited by the club.

A lot of value is placed on players that have a non-quantifiable sense or feel or idea for the game that enables them to stand out by way of their decisions on and off the ball. The program is well researched to introduce new skills and enhance existing technique. It is the game sense that the players were recruited for which completes the process.

Personality is identified as a vital aspect in the long run to becoming a professional player where emotional stability, tolerance for pressure and aggression (psychological and physical) which is described as the ability to constantly fight back and confront challenges. Physical/genetic disposition in terms of speed, anthropometry and capacity are a big factor for certain positions and the genepool of being a club in among the tallest countries in the world is acknowledged as an advantage.

There is a lot of attention to see to it that the individual development is not lured by a singular aspect like size, dribbling etc. which are all important but not without assessing the whole picture.

(Part 2 of this series deals with becoming a professional at Dinamo Zagreb, one of Croatia’s premier clubs. Part 3 deals with how Croatia gives great talent the professional touch.)

Richard Hood is the Head of Youth Development at the All India Football Federation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.