Last month I visited Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb who are considered to have one of the best youth academies in Europe.
It’s responsible for developing players such as Real Madrid’s Luca Modric, Liverpool’s Dejan Lovern, and Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic. Croatia declared independence in 1991 then made a significant impact at Euro 96 and France 98 with past Dinamo graduates Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki, displaying a highly technical imperious style of play.
For a country with a population of around 4.4 million – less than the 5.2 million in Scotland – and a challenging economic climate with around one in five people unemployed, Dinamo Zagreb continues to produce top level footballers and the national team regularly qualifies for major tournaments with a current FIFA world ranking of 14.
One of the main reasons for this success is that players as young as 9 and 10 train for up to four times a week in the Dinamo Academy. Working on individual technique through deliberate practice and repetition, these skills become more automatic and natural as they mature through the different ages and stages of their time at the club. The athleticism and focus I noted is aided by hours of practice as youngsters playing street football and in leagues in and around Zagreb.
Dinamo attracts a large number of the best players in Croatia. This provides a best v best competitive environment within group with squads providing up to two thirds of the national youth team players. Dinamo under-15s were the best club side in the world in 2013, beating AC Milan 2-1 in extra time at Old Trafford in the final of the prestigious Nike Premier Cup. It’s believed that this group of players may have the makings of another golden generation for Croatian football.
Each age group devotes individual position specific work for players, focusing on improving strengths and weaknesses through feedback. This is an area of player development replicated across Scotland in our Performance Schools which provides an additional five trainings per week on top of club sessions.
There are already signs of this approach reaping rewards with two U15 players from our programme representing Scotland in the recent under-16 Victory Shield match against Wales at McDiarmid Park a year ahead of schedule.