It was a song lyric written 22 years ago turned battle cry that compelled two footballing countries into a mini-rivalry. Before their first match against England in the newly created Nations League two months ago, Croatian midfielder Luka Modric reminded us of how disrespected his teammates felt by the English media overplaying the idea that football was “coming home” in the buildup to their World Cup semifinals matchup. Right back Sime Vrsaljko added that despite England manager Gareth Southgate’s desire to play beautiful football, they still resorted to “punting long balls” when under pressure. And even before their most recent 2-1 loss to England last weekend that left Croatia in last place in their group, defender Tin Jedvaj belittled their opponent’s World Cup run by saying they defeated their England “without any problems” in the semifinals despite the match going into extra time. Perhaps more damning, 52-year-old Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic had to admit that with England through to the knockout stages of the Nations League, football may in fact be coming home.
Contrary to the pre-match barbs, there was obviously a significant gap in stakes and tension behind last week’s matchup between England and Croatia compared to the semifinals last July. Croatia also had a new look with Mario Mandzukic, Danijel Subasic, and Vedran Corluka having retired after the high of reaching the finals. And Dalic’s side were far from their best throughout the Nations League, with a predictable hangover in losing their opening match 6-0 to Spain that foreshadowed an exhausted side attempting to find any inspiration. Dalic warned his players that they were no longer the underdog, and their group stage opponents England and Spain each had something to prove.
At its most pessimistic, one could view the Nations League as a money grab for television advertisements and viewers while further taxing players in need of rest. But the artificial tournament did create actual meaning and importance to an otherwise uneventful international break, including building legitimate animosity between England, Spain, and Croatia. In retaliation for Mo Salah’s injury in last season’s Champions League Final, center back Dejan Lovren bragged about purposely elbowing Sergio Ramos in a recent 3-2 victory over Spain while calling out the rest of the Spanish side. With Dalic accepting an award for the European Coach of the Year, he reprimanded Lovren behind closed doors, showing again how the managerial role is as much about dealing with unforeseen circumstances regarding players and their ego as it is making the right substitution to turn a match.
Although Dalic was credited with specific tactical adjustments throughout the World Cup. Croatia’s 3-0 win in the second group stage match of the World Cup was one of the results of the tournament in how it simultaneously foreshadowed their quality while all but ending Argentina’s title perception amongst audiences worldwide. Dalic discussed how they focused on preventing Messi from receiving the ball and quickly closing down his preferred spaces between the lines. While Southgate and Luis Enrique are tasked with guiding an overarching national team renewal, Dalic’s brilliance comes in bits and spurts.
But that was then, and those four months since feel much longer in football time. How long can a side ride the success of an international tournament? In revealing his exhaustion echoed throughout the Croatian side, Ivan Rakitic concluded that footballing fate was on France’s side during their finals loss. There was no grand tactical reshaping like Spain or stylistic shift like England. Croatia are set in a 4-3-3 formation, with players molded to fit specific roles within the system. The current side will go as far as the 33-year-old Modric takes them, with a rumored international retirement following the 2020 Euros. It would be a blow for any side to lose a metronomic midfielder the caliber of Modric, but Croatia already have a succession plan in place, developed over generations.
Modric is expected to be the first Ballon d’Or winner not named Ronaldo or Messi since Kaka won the prize in 2007. It’s a testament to his importance that both Croatia and Real Madrid’s struggles this season were attributed to him playing himself back into form after a long summer. Though he and Lovren face jail time for lying about their relationship with former Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamic which in turn threaten their legacy amongst local supporters, for us watching from a distance, his balletic movements at Real Madrid remain seared into our memories.
While there were questions of whether Modric would return to the national team after the World Cup, Croatia are loaded at the position regardless with Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic, and Mateo Kovacic still to choose from. With a population of just 4.3 million, the country ranks alongside the Netherlands and Uruguay for producing the most talent per capita. Modric aside, their development of physical yet technical center midfielders is having a moment, especially after their run last summer (even further more as they go viral for their in-game intelligence). But there is variety: in making his international debut this past week and creating a goal against Spain, 20-year-old Wolfsburg winger Josip Brekalo is rumored for a move to Tottenham.
The combination of a small population with uneven resources producing talents like Modric is dubbed the “Croatian Miracle”. And while it may appear to be magic from the outside, a talent pipeline that rich is no accident. Like Germany, Spain, and now England, player development and recruitment began from a top-down philosophy. Former Dinamo Zagreb technical director Romeo Jozak played a key role in setting up a development curriculum for the club’s youth academy centered around technique and decision making from a young age (he was credited with both Modric and Brozovic’s growth through the youth academy). As Jozak and other technical directors tasked with ambitious, generational projects understand, player development is measured in years over individual, momentary successes.
From that perspective, the role of Dalic and future national team managers is to steer a team as opposed to implementing paradigm shifting formational innovations (this is in contrast to his reputation he built as one of greatest coaches in UAE club history for his run from 2014-2017). After all, Modric and Rakitic were already on their way to becoming generational midfielders long before they ever came in contact with Dalic at the international level. And in a reversal of foreign managers in the Premier League influencing the development of English players, Brozovic and Kovacic are currently receiving their finishing school in Serie A and the Premier League respectively. Kovacic already echoes manager Maurizio Sarri’s style high-tempo style. With similarities to Argentina, one wonders how outsourcing top players to Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Liverpool and Inter impacted the cutting edge modernity of the team’s playing style. And after starting his managerial career in Croatia, even Dalic refined his methods elsewhere.
Former national team manager Miroslav Blazevic observed that no country identifies itself more with its national team than Croatia, and Slaven Bilic reiterated during their World cup run that the matches represent “more than football”. Modric added after the semifinal win that England “suffered less” than Croatia, as if struggle aided a sense of destiny. But despite the long-term focus, all of this - the newfound rivalry, the attention to youth development - was close to never happening. Croatia had to quality for the World Cup through the playoff round. They needed penalties to beat Denmark and Russia, though every footballing legacy has a bit of luck involved, on small bounces that turn a match. In an interview two years ago, Jozak confidently predicted Croatia’s starting 11 for the 2022 World Cup. That stability is what a developmental cycle looks like. All that remains is getting the benefit of fate.