Croatia, Europe and beyond

The World Cup in Russia showed the dominance of UEFA and Conmebol countries over the other confederations. Among the two confederations; UEFA was the more dominant one with all four semifinalists coming from Europe. The quarterfinals had two Conmebol teams and the rest were from UEFA. This has been the trend since 2002, the last time a Conmebol country Brazil won the Cup. Since then, Italy, Spain, Germany and France won the World Cups. Since 2002, only three Conmebol teams made it to the semifinals; the rest of the semifinalists (13) were from Europe. This is not surprising.

The top 20 wealthiest soccer clubs are all from Europe. Club ownership in major leagues is relatively stable, with only 5 percent of clubs changing hands in the last 12 months. More than 20 clubs in the top 15 major European leagues are linked to multi-club ownership structures. Record aggregate operating profits of €833m (before transfers) were reported by European club football in 2016. Combined bottom-line losses (after transfers) have decreased by 84 percent since the introduction of financial fair play in 2011. Just fewer than half the top-division leagues (26 of 54) reported aggregate bottom-line profits in 2016, another record high. So soccer is also flourishing on the business side in Europe.

Another interesting outcome of the World Cup was the performance of Croatia. Croatia is a small Eastern European country that gained its independence in 1991. It has a population of 4,154,200 and has an area of 21,851 square miles. It has entered the EU in 2013 and has a GDP per capita of $14,788. So it is neither a populous nor a wealthy country with European standards. It definitely is a sporting nation. 

Croatia is successful in various team sports along with soccer. Its men's team handball team won the gold medal in the 1996 and 2004 Olympics. The men’s water polo team won the gold medal in 2012 Olympics.  Its men's basketball team won the silver medal in 1992 Olympics. In individual sports, Janica Kostelic won four gold medals in Alpine skiing; high jumper Blanca Vasic won a silver medal in 2008 and a bronze medal in 2016; Goran Ivanisevic won the Wimbledon in 2001 and Marin Cilic the US Open in 2014. Although it had been competing in the Olympics only since 1992 Croatia has 33 medals in 13 different summer sports. That is a very impressive performance by a nation of that size and economy.

On the soccer side, the Croatian MNT qualified for all World Cups except in 2010 since its inception in 1991. It took the third place in 1998 and was runner-up in 2018. It has a total record of 11 wins, 4 ties and 8 losses. Its current ranking is fourth with an average ranking in FIFA rankings of 21st and a best ranking is third in 1999. So Croatia's MNT success story is a very sustainable one crowning it with second- and third-place finishes in the World Cups when they have a good generation of players. Also the country is “soccer crazy”. According to Kuper & Szymanski’s book “Soccernomics,” Croatia leads all nations in core TV viewing rating for soccer as percentage of households with TV sets with 12.4 percent. (For the USA this figure is 0.6% making it one of the least enthusiastic nations.) These figures are based on Kevin Alavy’s research of 2008. Since then USA’s share should have been increased.

The Croatian Professional League is the youngest professional league in Europe. Croatia has about 150,000 registered players. (It is a high percentage of the population – 3.75%). If you look at the roster of the Croatian MNT during the World Cup only two players play in the Croatian Professional League. Sixteen of the players play in the top five leagues of Europe and the others in other European leagues. Croatia is the seventh country in the world for exporting players with 346 expatriates in 2018. Just to give you a comparison, top-ranked France – the world champion – has 821 expatriates. It is very clear that the French develop good quality players in big numbers. They play at younger ages in their own leagues and to develop further they go and play in other European Leagues. 

The success story of Croatia cannot be explained by numbers. It cannot be explained with diversity and immigrants like you can with France, England and other industrialized western European nations. It cannot be explained by well-defined and well-executed development plans of Germany and Belgium. It may be explained by subjective concepts like creativity and improvisation coupled with a sporting “soccer crazy” nation.  Recently I have been reading about the Croatian Federation’s soccer development plans although not as well-defined and as detailed like others. “Such success vindicates a national strategy for player development, emphasizing different skills at different ages, that all Croatian clubs have agreed to implement, with technical assistance coming from the football federation.”  This is what Guy de Launey of BBC concludes in his article.

What do all these tell us about developing our MNT to be one of the best in the world?

  1. There is no universal player development strategy that fits all nations.
  2. On the other hand, development of coaches and referees are universal in nature.

So instead of taking one of the DFB, FFF or FA player development models and adapting locally -- which we have done in the past -- we can adopt UEFA’s approach and philosophy to soccer development. UEFA has been supporting and assisting its national associations through different venues so that the smaller nations can catch up and compete with the bigger ones.  That is its basic principle and philosophy regarding development across the continent: Creating an incubator environment for all nations.  Through the Jira Convention, UEFA was able to standardize coach education in Europe. So a PRO license you get in Malta is valid in Germany and the curriculums and teaching methodologies are very similar if not carbon copies of each other. Also the UEFA Referee Convention standardized the development of referees from the grassroots to the professional leagues across Europe. This broke the hegemony of some of the leading soccer countries over refereeing. In the World Cup 2018, the best four referees from UEFA were Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands), Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey), Damir Skomina (Slovenia) and Milorad Mazic (Serbia). If you put Kuipers aside, the last time Turkey had a referee in the World Cup was in 1974 (Dogan Babacan). Serbia had Zoran Petrovic in 1990 and Slovenia had none. I personally know how much the Referee Convention helped Çakir to be one of the best in the World.

UEFA is a golden standard in soccer. With great pleasure, I see how U.S. Soccer has taken the UEFA’s coach development model, fine-tuned and started using it. Although there are complaints about the cost and accessibility of the system, over time USA with the help of its resources will develop some of the best coaches in the World.  Also recently, U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro created board committees to get the board members more involved with running the Federation like they do in UEFA. I believe these committees could be expanded to include some key constituents chaired by board members.  This will make U.S. Soccer more accountable to its constituents. There are a lot of things one can learn from UEFA. 

Standardize coaching and refereeing development across all states; support, assist and guide the States technically and financially so all states can reach a minimal standard. Let the states across the fragmented youth landscape choose their own models of development within the framework of the basic principles of a U.S. Soccer Youth Development Mandate. This Mandate should be simple, basic and should be discussed and agreed by all State Associations. The Task Force mentioned by Cordeito is the correct first step in this direction. U.S. Soccer should play the role of UEFA towards its state associations. 

We do have two obstacles on our path even if we choose to adopt UEFA’s Development principles. UEFA, although is a confederation, acts like a federation whereas although U.S. Soccer is a Federation it acts more like a confederation. Slowly and steadily U.S. Soccer should move through cultural and historical barriers to become a real Federation.  The other one is the status of the youth players. In Europe and the rest of the world, the young players are seen as a product. A product which can be identified, developed, marketed and eventually professionalized to become a source of revenue for the developer.  The club cares about developing a good “product” because its existence depends on that. Here in the USA, the young player is seen and treated as a consumer.  Satisfying the consumers’ demands and creating new demands is the main concern of the club. This conflict can also be viewed as the conflict between quantity and quality. This obstacle caused by the conflict is far more difficult to circumvent than any other issue that stands between the USMNT and the World Cup trophy.

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.

2 comments about "Croatia, Europe and beyond".
  1. Wooden Ships, August 17, 2018 at 10:58 p.m.

    Thanks for the work Ahmet, always appreciate your perspective. 

  2. frank schoon, August 18, 2018 at 7:46 a.m.

    Ahmet, I wish they would study in depth how the average youth in Croatia learns to play what he does day to day as far as soccer goes. What makes them produce such good players. I would  like to discover those little nuggets that we can use and incorporate into our youth development here, considering  the lack as far as facilities and monetary support goes. This was a good article,thanks....

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