s 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. 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 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 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.
The current incumbent, Dalic, was appointed only 48 hours before the final group game in Ukraine, which Croatia had to win in order to reach the play-offs. He met his players at Zagreb airport before flying to Kiev.
All this time the federation’s investment in infrastructure and grassroots football has been down to a bare minimum, their vision non-existent. A couple of years ago they commissioned Romeo Jozak, their technical director at the time, to put together a long-term plan for the development of Croatian football, very much like what Michel Sablon has done for Belgium. Jozak was fired weeks before presenting his plan.
Strategy, logic and order play little part in Croatian football. And some would suggest that ethos – or lack of it – translates to the pitch as well. How else can you explain that a team with some of the best midfielders at this tournament is refusing to take control of the midfield in matches?
Against Russia, Croatia played 109 long balls and, although they were clearly the better team, made things hard for themselves by not playing to their strengths. Consequently they had to rely on another “lottery” to progress.
Could it be, however, that these cheeky and resourceful Croatians, in fact thrive on chaos and lack of organisation? Being used to improvisation from a young age, maybe they have accepted it as part of their mentality and now cannot succeed in any other way as a group? It is a tempting theory – although, of course, maybe they were just plain lucky.
The match against England may provide an answer.
Source: The Guardian