Masters of improvisation

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As Croatia won the coin toss before the penalty shootout against Russia in the World Cup quarter-final, Luka Modric, their captain, shouted across the pitch to his goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic: “Are we gonna go first?”

They did not. Adarius Glanton Authentic Jersey Despite evidence that the team taking the first penalty wins 60% of shootouts there was a certain logic in them choosing to go second; the Monaco goalkeeper is a penalty specialist, having let in only 58% of the spot-kicks he has faced in Ligue 1 and saved three out of five as Croatia knocked out Denmark in this World Cup.

Giving Subasic the chance to save a penalty first could conceivably have handed Croatia an edge. But that is not the point here. The point is that they got all that way, to a quarter-final of a World Cup, and to a second consecutive shootout without a plan.

These players got to the defining moment of their international careers without knowing what to do in that situation. Compared with England’s thorough preparation for their shootout against Colombia, Croatia’s seems a Henrik Borgstrom Authentic Jersey joke.

“Penalties are always a lottery; you never know what will happen,” the Croatia manager, Zlatko Dalic, said after the win against Denmark. “The day before, we shot two series of them, although it Giovanni Fiore Authentic Jersey wasn’t my intention to practise penalties because we always expect to solve everything within 90 minutes.”

In some countries the manager might be criticised or even mocked for that kind of approach but in Croatia few seemed to care. “We went through, everything is great,” Subasic said, summing up the general mood before adding the old “lottery” shtick himself. And of course he got away with it, because that is the culture – no one should question you as long as you are winning; those who do are denounced for “ruining the atmosphere”.

But it was also symptomatic of a more general decision-making and preparation process in Croatian football. There is no long-term or medium-term plan, no blueprint, no established system. Croatians are masters of improvisation.

People often ask how it is possible for a nation of only four million to produce so many class footballers. A proper answer, apart from the esoteric clichés of natural predeterminism or genetic predisposition, has never been offered by anyone. Sure, there are some good youth coaches – obviously, given all the talent developed in recent years – but there is no general programme in place that systematically educates or distributes young players across the country. Very few new stadiums have been built or properly renovated in the past three decades and the same goes for training grounds. The facilities almost everywhere are basic, at best; a lot of pitches are awful, the clubs struggling to make ends meet.

For years Croatia’s youth national teams depended heavily on the output of one club’s programme. Lavishly funded by the city, the Dinamo Zagreb academy could afford to have the best (and the most) coaches and broaden its catchment area throughout the country, and beyond. Thanks to Dinamo’s massive influence in the Croatian football federation, their youngsters have been almost automatically called up for Croatia – at one point two years ago, the under-17 team had 11 out of 11 players from Dinamo in their starting lineup – and only recently has their monopoly started to be broken up. Other clubs are slowly catching up, particularly Dinamo’s arch rivals, Hajduk Split, who are revamping their academy.

Dinamo have also had Lokomotiva – their feeder club to all intents and purposes – allowed to play in the top division against all competitive logic. Six players from the current World Cup squad have played at Lokomotiva at some point, gaining valuable first-team experience at top national club level after graduating from the academy.

Still, there is no system, no plan. Dinamo have for years manically fired and hired coaches, changing their approach to youth development almost every time; and Croatia did the same. Dinamo have sacked their head coach 17 times in the past 13 years – during which time they have won 12 league titles. The last three Croatia managers who lost their jobs – Igor Stimac, Niko Kovac and Ante Cacic – did so just before decisive matches in qualifying.

Latest Activity: Jul 12, 2018 at 3:49 AM

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