For those bemoaning the absence of Ireland from a World Cup gradually catching fire, the ascent of Croatia is a reminder of how a country of similar size doesn’t haven’t to fall back on excuses.
Indeed, the popular riposte that failure must be tempered by our low population is crushed by the fact Croatia, at 4.17m, has just 600,000 more inhabitants.
Of course, the apologists may argue, the Balkans doesn’t have competition from GAA. Yet, handball and basketball are prominent enough alternative codes to vie for the hearts and minds of the sporting public.
It’s not merely that the Croats are making their fourth appearance in five tournaments, rather they have steadily climbed to within the top 20 ranking since their ‘golden generation’ claimed the bronze medal at the 1998 showpiece.
Instead of veering backwards, as Ireland have following their last qualification in 2002, Croatia used success as a springboard for stability.
Four successive European Championship appearances underline their consistency.
Those results stem from quality of personnel. That the last five Champions League finals have featured a Croat in the starting line-up demonstrates how highly their players are regarded, not just Luka Modric’s three-in-a-row of appearances for Real Madrid but also Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mario Mandzukic (Juventus) and Dejan Lovren (Liverpool). Mateo Kovacic, on the bench for Real in the last two deciders, reportedly has a release clause of €280m amid recent interest from Manchester United.
The production factory didn’t occur by accident.
Croatia’s record of exporting talent is illustrated by the annual presence of Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split amongst the top 10 clubs supplying players to the highest level. In the latest survey, 55 graduates from Dinamo were operating across the five leading European leagues in Spain, Italy, England, Germany, and France.
Conversely, since John O’Shea was part of the Manchester United squad to reach the 2011 final, Irish interest in the Champions League group stages has been virtually non-existent.
When an Irishman next features at that stage of Europe’s premier competition for an English representative, our largest market, is difficult to predict. Burnley, who finished seventh last season, were the highest placed team in the Premier League to include members of Martin O’Neill’s squad.
Replicating the standard bearer of the medium-sized nations in Croatia is a stretch but the FAI’s attempts to even begin bridging the gap have provoked debate.
Their Player Development Plan, unfurled by high performance director Ruud Dokter in 2016, centres on two prime planks — transferring the role of nurturing elite underage talent from schoolboy clubs exclusively to League of Ireland outfits and switching our season to summer soccer.
With unnecessary haste, the first part of the charter has entailed national leagues expanding to U15 level, added to by an U13 equivalent from next March.
This despite nothing being in place after the U19 instalment, creating a vacuum for drop-outs from the system. Perhaps the association were better served introducing U21 or U23 tiers first. They are, instead, prioritising the overhaul of a sector further down the food chain that only requiring tweaks.
The consequences were evident lately at the famed Kennedy Cup, an U14 tournament which John O’Shea cited as the catalyst for his international career.
Every year, the best gems represent their 32 leagues in a week-long football festival, watched by an array of scouts for domestic and UK clubs. Only this time the best against the best principle didn’t apply.
A sprinkling of players, recruited by League of Ireland clubs, are no longer part of the schoolboy league sphere and didn’t participate. It will mean home-based players in next season’s Ireland U15 squad won’t have savoured the Kennedy Cup experience like O’Shea, Damien Duff, and Robbie Brady.
Elsewhere, leagues are slowly being dragged kicking and screaming into line with the FAI’s directive of a uniform season residing from March 2020. At a recent meeting of affected parties at Lansdowne Road, even chief executive John Delaney admitted the traditionalist in him favoured matches over the Christmas period.
The new schedule, activated across the Dublin leagues this year, sees kids this week taking a nine-week mid-season break after just nine weekends of matches. World Cup fever, Irish style, would be alien to the Croatians.
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