This is the second of a three-part series about the history of Croatian football. For Part 1, which looks at Croatia’s incredible turnaround after a brutal war, click here.
Dinamo Zagreb plays in among the least competitive leagues in all of Europe and has won 11 titles in a row since 2005, only losing out once in 2015-’16 to Rijeka.
Winning the league is a non-tangible as the Uefa participation funding provides for about 30-50% of their revenue depending on how far they progress, while the sale of the academy products takes care of a major part of their operating budget.
To stay competitive, there is a careful calculation that needs to be made between the cost of recruiting players from the transfer market or to retain their best talent in a bid to go further in Europe. And in the absence of finances and high-value talents to rely on what they have by building and re-building squads that do just about enough to dominate domestically with a heavy presence of their youth products. Over the years all approaches have worked with very young squads.
The immense responsibility to meet the domestic league’s expectations and produce high-quality players is placed on the club’s highly reputed academy the Škola Nogometa.
On more than one occasion the Prva Liga, which is the top division in Croatia, was described as a “development league” by the people who I interacted with. This interpretation goes a long way in conveying how the club interprets the league and what the motive of the club is.
“Currently we have around 10 academy players in the first team and they are all doing very well. We aim to ensure that 50% of the senior side is made up of Dinamo youth graduates, while the rest of the side is made of foreigners (35%) and non-academy Croatian players (15%),” Ivanjko (2016) mentions and this statistic is showcased on all presentations as a pie chart made by the club’s highly sought after representatives in global coaching conferences and conventions.
Young players rarely get such a realistic situation to develop and grow, and which helps the clubs around the world to confirm their playing level. The Prva Liga is a solid and respectable league in this aspect which can accelerate the development of young players to come through a lot sooner due to the adaptations they have to make to compete with men.
It is not just about the physical aspects of adaptation as rest of the league fields a lot of young players when compared to most top divisions in the world. The use of the first division as a wake-up call is an effective way of creating memorable challenges and helps players experience the difference between youth and first team football on and off the pitch.
Romeo further clarifies that the need for careful planning and a lot of patience is what counts for more than anything at this level. Many clubs and academies base adaptations on a moment and fail to understand that even after the first opportunity some players will need upwards of 2-3 years to settle into the highest level.
The progression goes beyond just coping with raw physicality. It a major psychological process to adapt to a faster game under higher pressure, which places a stress on technique that needs to be quicker and more precise. An intellectual demand to deal with game situations and match the expectations of more experienced teammates, and recovery demands in terms of physical and mental workload needing to be reproduced at a higher frequency, is also paramount.
The organisation of competitive exposure at the academy plays a big role in preparing a mindset that is ready to take advantage of the step up. While many of the age groups play an age group higher we also see players being pushed higher to compete in older age groups. The competitive program looks at organising anywhere between 50-65 games for each age group and structures the competitive exposure accordingly. The youngest age groups up to the age of 12 compete locally and travel around Croatia and countries that are in proximity by bus and face varied opponents and environments.
The older age groups from age 13 onwards undertake travel commitments that involve flight journeys and feature in some of the biggest and most prestigious youth tournaments in the world with a solid reputation of reaching the later rounds. This reputation allows them to pick and choose tournaments that support the logistics and has come to a point today where they only consider tournaments with all expenses covered.
Ivan mentioned growth of the person when travelling overseas to compete and represent Dinamo which exposes them to different cultures and social circumstances. This experience of playing locally, regionally and internationally across the age groups helps the player form the psychology to break into not only the first team but also feel comfortable and confident when moving onto big clubs across Europe. A move that starts to take place at increasingly younger ages.
Efficient loan system
Dinamo has built a solid foundation of developing players through an efficient loan system that has seen their young players leave to play professionally for other clubs in Croatia and the region where they grow up very fast from boys to men. Realising that not all players develop at the same rate and need a different environment for them to be tested through a loan spell acts as a great bridge between the academy, the B team and the first team.
Luca Modric’s growth through the loan system is well documented and probably interpreted as a lack of faith by Dinamo but the decision makers at the club seemed to have created the best situation for him to grow into a proven talent when they organised two loan spells in Bosnia and within Croatia.
Modric was attached to HŠK Zrinjski Mostar in Bosnia where a brutal, ruthless and physical game is the trademark of the league. His comments that if you can play in the Bosnian league then you can play anywhere are a testament to the growth he experienced in Bosnia where he also won the player of the year award. Locally he was loaned to Inter Zapresic in the suburbs of Zagreb.
‘So when people said I wouldn’t be able to cope in the Premier League it just gave me an extra incentive. I wanted to prove them wrong and now, I think, they have to admit they were wrong.” this quote from an interview for the DailyMail in the UK proves just how important loan strategies such as the one presented to Modric can be in taking advantage of a personality like his.
The teams that bring a Dinamo product on loan do so with a lot of confidence and strike a good balance of estimating what the player can add to their team. The players, often in their late teens, walk into an environment full of experienced battle-hardened professionals where they must meet expectations and embrace the responsibility with a newfound focus, drive, and resilience that is necessary for their development.
A major part of the guidelines in managing a player’s progression is to assess their ability to adapt quickly. Which leads to the practice of delaying position specialisation as much as possible. The players will always have their best or favourite (not always the same) position and they must learn to adapt and perform in different positions.
They believe that the best way to accelerate their development is to push them higher each time they hit a zone of comfort and constantly challenge them by changing aspects of training and competition that they are comfortable with.
The progression pathways are being offered to the players after discussions over the impact it will have on them technically, physically and socially. Getting the timing right during such interventions is crucial.
When planning these progressions, the players own perspective is the first one to be considered. Different rates and stages of growth, social adjustments when changing groups within the academy environment and influence of his personal life can be seen in the level of play that a player displays and often poses a complex challenge for the coach in identifying the direct and indirect interventions needed to help him adjust.
The progression from the academy to the first team is very likely to have players with better ability and experience in the position the player prefers or grew up playing. Under these circumstances, it is vital for a Dinamo player to exhibit a willingness to play where he is told to with competence and reliability. These steps in having to learn and prove your ability at the youth level are vital in preparing the player to do it all over again at the first team level without hesitation or damage to their ego.
The entire system is geared towards subjecting them to do things they are not good at in training sessions as well as in competition. This eliminates the fear of making mistakes from a very early age, high appreciation for hard work, self-awareness, and confidence in the process of growing into a professional.
Ivan added that beyond a point how far a player goes will always be a complex calculation of an educated guess and a gamble. It is a challenge to look beyond the best player in an existing age group and miss out on the one who had more potential to improve for the first team in the long run. This approach has ensured that the players coming through have the survival skills, experience and competence to successfully adapt to the first team due to their experience in the youth years where they come through a 12-year development journey of 600+ youth games of constantly being thrown in the deep end.
(Part 3 of this series explains how the processes in place in Croatian football translate into player development)
Richard Hood is the Head of Youth Development at the All India Football Federation.