Croatia’s progress to the World Cup final has prompted much soul-searching in Scotland with regard to the population of both countries but the Balkan nation should not be used as a model, writes Joel Sked.
When Mario Mandzukic snuck in behind a dozing John Stones and fired the ball past Jordan Pickford in extra-time of the World Cup semi-final to put Croatia ahead against England, many in Scotland were summoned hastily from their couches, stools, knees and pews.
Around 15 minutes later Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir signalled the end of the game. Scots who couldn’t bear to see their rivals win the World Cup rejoiced. But that joy was mixed with feelings of envy, of frustration.
‘How can a nation of 4.1 million reach a World Cup final and we, a country of 5.4 million, fail to qualify for an international tournament in more than 20 years?’
Predictably, the Scottish FA, those mysterious ‘men in blazers’, have been mentioned more than once as the reason.
When it comes to Scottish football and the national team, a semblance of disappointment, a chance to pass blame, the SFA are the targets. Rationale and original thinking go out the window, especially when you can find common ground with like-minded fans, gain ‘numbers’ on social media, by putting out a condemning tweet about the organisation, about the state of football in the country.
Croatia’s success is simply the latest stick in which to find an SFA blazer and bludgeon them. If it weren’t for those pesky blazers and an apparent corrupt SFA Scotland would be a dominant force. More so than in the 70s and 80s when star-studded squads did qualify for tournaments, but when they got there? Failure.
There was a time when these blazers were detrimental to the progress of the national team and the game as a whole. You don’t have to go too far back to unearth anecdotes or details of incompetence or downright slapstick.
Yet, ironically, Croatia have reached the 2018 World Cup final on the back of corruption, farcical situations and little to no plan. Croatian football is such a convoluted, Byzantine and capricious entity that it is easier to tackle it with bullet points.
• The current executive director of the Croatian FA was sentenced to three years in prison earlier in June.
• Manager Zlatko Dalic was appointed only 48 hours prior to the final qualifying group game, a must-win encounter with Ukraine.
• The man charged with plotting a long-term plan for Croatian football was fired before he could deliver his plan.
• Luka Modric could face up to five years in prison for perjury.
• Fans fought among themselves during Euro 2016 after throwing flares on to the pitch to disrupt their own team. Croatia, winning 1-0 at the time, would lose 2-1 to Czech Republic.
The trial of the former chief executive of Croatia’s biggest club Dinamo Zagreb continues to hang over the country. Zdravko Mamic, a close friend of the Croatia’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, is at the centre of it all. He was sentenced to six-and-half years in jail for embezzlement and tax fraud during his time at Dinamo, which included transfers of Modric and Dejan Lovren. He has since fled to Bosnia and Herzegovina to avoid imprisonment.
Zdravko Mamic was also previously vice-president of the Croatian FA.
Croatian football has been a murky ocean in which Mamic has reigned, his tentacles reaching far and wide.
Despite the animosity which has festered for years, Croatia have reached the World Cup final. They have done so with no grassroot plan or grand visions, no yearning for reserve football, no academy centres. This isn’t organised chaos. Simply chaos.
Writing in The Guardian, Croatian football journalist wrote: “There is no long-term or medium-term plan, no blueprint, no established system. Croatians are masters of improvisation.
“Strategy, logic and order play little part in Croatian football.”
Patience isn’t necessarily a strong quality within the corridors of Croatian football, neither is infrastructure. Domestically, Dinamo Zagreb have dominated, winning 12 of the last 13 league titles, while hoovering up talent from around the country.
Aberdeen defeated the league’s runners-up Riekja in 2015. A year later they won the league. Celtic won one and lost one, when they met Dinamo Zagreb in 2014. The national team have never defeated Scotland, with the Scots winning both games during qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
That all highlights there is no ‘Croatian way’ of sorts to follow. They’ve produced players years, supplying many of the former to Yugoslavia before the breakup, in spite of any predefined plan rather than because of it.
There is, however, one aspect which has been beneficial to the national team, which much of the squad have in common.
A look around the starting XI against England shows the players getting exposed to first-team football at a young age before earning a move. The majority of the team left Croatian football by the time they were 23 years old. Every player turned out for the country’s under-21 side, most playing for various age groups during their development.
These early experiences are strengthened by broadening their horizons in other countries and leagues where they experience different football cultures and increase their learning.
This issue is a regular refrain of young Scottish players, a general reluctance to move abroad, aim higher than Championship football and trips to Wigan, Reading and Preston, to really challenge themselves.
Yet, there are positive shoots. Clubs are more willing than ever to give youth a chance, to look within. Celtic and Brendan Rodgers should be respected for their faith in Scottish talent when they could easily flood the team with signings from abroad, providing winning experience and exposure to European football on a regular basis.
With the likes of Billy Gilmour, Harry Cochrane and Michael Johnston emerging there is the promise of a brighter future, of a football culture which is slowly but surely changing.
But, hey, Croatia have a smaller population, let’s follow their path of chaos, improvisation and institutional strife.
The World Cup finalists should be used as inspiration at what a small country can achieve, but in terms of how they achieved it, Scotland should continue on their own path and refrain from basic and inadequate conclusions.