After an incredible week for Croatian sports, which saw the football team topple the former World Champions at the World Cup and Marin Cilic and Borna Coric take down current and former World No.1s to win titles on the same day, the question how a country with a population of only around 4 million people has managed to excel so much on the international sporting stage is raised again.
That is a question which has been asked often, and with good reason. This weekend Germany’s Bild declared Croatia the best sporting nation in the world.
Croatia has achieved remarkable sporting success since gaining independence in the early 1990s. Croatia has punched above its weight with major success in some of the world’s most competitive sports.
Although keenly debated, a number of critics agree that football and tennis, with the amount of participation in the world, are the top two most competitive global games.
In these two sports, which is a good starting measure of a nation’s sporting prowess, Croatia has achieved what some of the so-called ‘big’ nations could only dream of.
The nation won bronze at the 1998 FIFA World Cup and the following year climbed to 3rd in the FIFA rankings. Croatia has also qualified for all but 2 major tournaments since its 1998 debut.
Local Croatian clubs have also supplied Europe’s top clubs with dozens and dozens of players over the years, highlighted in this year’s UEFA Champions League semi-finals with Croatians in all four teams.
In tennis, Croatia could have possibly gone one better. In 2005 Croatia won the Davis Cup out of over 160 teams in the world and was runner-up last year.
It has produced Wimbledon (Goran Ivanišević), US Open (Marin Čilić), and French Open (Iva Majoli) champions, as well as a number of doubles and junior titles. Mate Pavic, who has won three Grand Slam doubles titles, is the No.1 doubles player in the world currently.
Moving on to other sports and the roll of honour is even bigger. Croatia has been the world and Olympic champions in handball, rowing, sailing and water polo.
There are also a host of individuals who have been world champions in their chosen sports, such as the great Janica and Ivica Kostelić (skiing), Blanka Vlašić (high jump), Sandra Perković (discus) and Sara Kolak (javelin), Martin and Valent Sinković (rowing), Giovanni Cernogoraz, Snježana Pejčić and Josip Glasnović (shooting) to name just a few.
There have been big successes in basketball, most notably the silver medal at the 1992 Olympics. There is also the large number of Croatians who have played in the NBA.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics Croatia placed 3rd on a gold medal table weighted by population size.
Punching above its weight? It sure seems like it. But how? What is the secret?
Genetics, quality coaching and development structure, passion, culture, and an enormous love for country are some of the main reasons according to Romeo Jozak, one of the people most qualified to provide some insight.
Jozak is the former Technical Director of the Croatian Football Federation. He has a Doctorate in Science and has worked in almost every role in Croatian football, including working with Dinamo Zagreb’s famous Youth Academy.
Jozak believes that it comes down to a combination of few things.
“One obvious reason is the innate talent for sports that the people in this part of the world are born with. This is clearly something intangible we were blessed with in the genetic makeup, but it is undefinable. If we could find a way to bottle it and sell it, it would no doubt be the most sought-after product in the world,” Jozak says.
Jozak says that there are a couple of other facts involved apart from genetics. He believes that the high-level quality of youth coaches in sports like football, handball, basketball, and water polo, plays a huge part in shaping the raw talent into something more, and eventually into producing elite athletes.
“We’ve strategically approved our technical development curriculum. That’s a guide material that a lot of coaches and academies are following. The same or similar view on developments is crucial,” he adds.
“The final part, for me at least, the one that binds together everything is the passion and love for sport that is deeply rooted into every Croatian, the love for our country that we can express most visibly when competing,” Jozak says, and there are others who agree this has played a big part.
“It’s a chance to show the world, through different sports, that we exist. Sportsmen are the best ambassadors for us. It is a great inspiration to represent Croatia. There is a lot of pride. With the war and everything that went on, that increased the national energy. We don’t have to teach the kids to sing the national anthem. There’s national pride,” former footballer Igor Stimac once said.
With football being his expertise and him playing a part in the development system, Romeo has some specific views why Croatia has excelled in football.
“Football as a game has a long history in Croatia. Many don’t remember that the Croatian Football Federation was the first such institution in former Yugoslavia. From there on in, the core of every big team in Yugoslavian history was made from Croatians, leading up to 1987 when the only Yugoslavian World Cup title in football had been won, with players such as Boban, Štimac, Prosinečki, and Šuker as the biggest names. It almost seems that from the very beginning we were destined for this game,” he believes, before adding.
“On a more practical note, apart from the factors I mentioned earlier, it is all down to hard work. We have to make sure we don’t miss a single player with the potential to become great, be it in Croatia or in the Croatian diaspora worldwide. Find the players early and then develop them properly, that is where the coaches are the key.”
Does Jozak believe certain areas or regions stand out when it comes to talent in Croatia?
“There are great athletes from every corner of our beautiful homeland that have risen to the very top and made us all proud. Zagreb, Split, Osijek, Rijeka, Pula and many many others.
In the end, it is perhaps this unity most of all, that is sometimes lacking in other areas, but which really comes together in sport, that makes us so successful competing on the world stage.”