A road less travelled for Croatia
St Petersburg: As France and Belgium battled it out in the World Cup semi-finals last night, England and Croatia looked on with interest.
As with every one of these journeys that is transformed by hindsight into a road map, Croatia’s route to the semi-finals is fascinating.
Belgium had set out to not just be world champions, they would be the smallest nation to wear that crown since Uruguay in 1950. It would be a beacon to others, proof that smaller nations can compete with the superpowers, a paradigm of how to make the most of comparatively little.
It is a seductive idea in football. Countries, like club teams, invest millions in identifying, nurturing and coaching young players. They build lavish facilities and fund extensive recruitment programmes and self-flagellate when they do not work.
The concept that a country — especially one, like Belgium, with a population of just 11 million — might have found a way to ensure a constant flow of young talent is a source first of envy, and then inspiration.
As Belgium were crashing out at the group stage 20 years ago, Croatia were on their way to the semi-finals. It was the country’s first trip to the finals as an independent nation; what that team achieved has remained the benchmark for every group of players in its wake.
“We had this famous generation, and now we are close to them,” defender Vedran Corluka said. “We are in the semi-final again, after twenty years. That is something special in our country.”
In many ways, Croatia’s story is even more remarkable than Belgium’s. Croatia has a population of just four million, and many members of their current team grew up during, or in the immediate aftermath of, the bloody, internecine war that accompanied the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. That it has twice come so close in the years since independence is, by any standard, extraordinary.
Yet nobody invites representatives of the Croatian Football Association to explain the secrets of their success; as countries like Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy pick over their various failures at or before this World Cup, none will talk about the need to follow the Croatian model, to find their own Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic.
There is a good reason for that: Croatian football is in a state of near-permanent chaos. Two players — Modric, the captain, and Dejan Lovren, a defender — have been accused of perjury in the case of Zdravko Mamic, the former president of the Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb. For years, Mamic ran the country’s football programme as his own personal fief; in June, he was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for embezzlement and tax fraud.
The country’s clubs exist hand-to-mouth: Hajduk Split, one of the traditional giants, has twice come close to bankruptcy; Dinamo’s business model, under Mamic, was to use the Champions League as a stage on which to advertise its young players before selling them off to the highest bidder.
Croatia’s place in the World Cup semi-finals is not the natural conclusion of an intelligent, long-term project.
For those tasked with finding a way to consistently produce outstanding young players, it is much more difficult to put the same question to Croatia. What can be taken from the Croatian model? That sometimes exceptionally gifted players emerge because of the challenges they face, not despite them; that truly transcendent talent, like that of Modric, does not require immaculate training fields or a perfectly plotted development pathway to shine; that, sometimes, there is no order in the chaos.
Besides, there is perhaps a greater truth in Croatia’s origin myth than there is in Belgium’s. Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne was unlikely to win many friends at his country’s association when he offered his own explanation for how this generation came together: “Because we were given the chance to play in other countries,” he said.