How Does a Country of 4 Million Get Good at Football?

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Croatia, a nation of only four million people, has made the final of the FIFA World Cup becoming the smallest country to make the final since Uruguay in 1950. With arguably the player of the tournament in midfielder Luka Modric, what is its secret to producing great players?

The iconic red and white checks of the Croatia men’s national football team have graced the latter stages of World Cups and European Championships since the country was formed in 1990.

Beaten by France 2-1 in the 1998 World Cup semifinal stage, Monday morning (NZT) Croatia has the chance to become just the ninth country to win a men’s World Cup title.

With a population smaller than New Zealand, how has it managed to produce a squad that has every chance of taking the biggest prize in world football?

The answer may surprise.

Croatia has no embedded national junior coaching plan, no national talent centre, has not had major government investment in facilities, and has had to deal with the trauma of war in the aftermath of the break up of Yugoslavia in the early 90s.

Simply put, Croatia should not be producing the talent that it does when compared to the systematised approach of many of the leading European football nations.

However, it has prevailed.

The lack of structure may in fact be a benefit for Croatian player development.

Without a national programme there is greater room for improvisation and creativity in the learning process . Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic are both terrific midfield maestros and have been magnificent in Russia.

Even though there is no national programme Croatia does have a broad coaching philosophy.

Speaking to The Independent former national team player and manager Igor Stimac was very clear on what this philosophy looked like.

“The Croatian coaching model is based on developing individual skills, perfect ball control, and a sense for the game.”

New Zealand would do well to take this guidance. Technique is king with football intelligence a very close second.

Amid the lack of any meaningful structure Croatia does, however, have one excellent academy.

Perennial national league champions Dinamo Zagreb have taken the lead on developing players and then exporting them to other European clubs. Of the 22 players in Russia, 13 have come through the Dinamo Zagreb academy including Modric, fellow Real Madrid midfielder Mateo Kovacic, and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic.

However, the Dinamo Zagreb academy is not without controversy. It has the peculiar arrangement of being supported financially by the city meaning that most other young players from around the country move to the capital given the lack of funding elsewhere.

Dinamo Zagreb has also been the focus of investigation following corruption and tax avoidance charges. While off field the club, and certainly the national federation, seem to be marginal in their dealings there is no doubt in the ability of the club to develop and refine talent.

The quality of the Croatian national league has also helped the cause.

While not a top European league, young Croatians are able to experience a decent level of football at home before transferring to bigger clubs. The league does not bring in international stars like the English Premier League. Rather, most of the players are Croatian born.

New Zealand would do well to consider the development role of our summer and winter league clubs.

Are our clubs focusing on developing Kiwi talent or are they importing players from outside New Zealand?

The priority should definitely be the development of youth – it makes senses from both development and commercial perspectives. Sadly, this isn’t the typical situation in New Zealand – yet.

Admittedly the Croatian model isn’t for everyone. Belgium, Iceland, and Uruguay all have much more structured approaches that have worked well in getting the best out of small populations.

However, we should be cognisant that there is more than one way to get the best out of our young players.

Like New Zealanders, Croatians have excelled in a range of sports.

Like us they aren’t blessed with a range of reasons why they should be able to develop players and become a global football force.

However, they have done so in a very unstructured environment.

Croatia is a great example that ultimately, for all the theory around talent development, it comes down to having players that want to learn, the opportunity for those athletes to play at a decent level in their own country, and good coaching.

Let’s not over think pathways and planning.

Rather, the success of Croatia suggests we should lock in domestic playing opportunities for Kiwi talent, with solid coaching support, if we want to take our sport forward.

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