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.