5 Things Croatia Must Change to Be Competitive for Euro 2016
The Croatian football team has returned home after another failure in a World Cup.
As soon as the plane touched the tarmac at Zagreb's Airport, the discussion about the future began.
In the last 18 years, since they played their first major tournament, Croatia have established themselves as a constant in the world of football. A place at the European Championships in France in two years from now is the next goal.
However, to be competitive in this tournament, the Croats will have to make significant changes not only in their team, but the organisation and structure of football as well.
Here are five things Bleacher Report believes they should change.
Keep the faith in Niko Kovac
Niko Kovac took over the coaching post in a terrible moment for Croatia. Even though his predecessor Igor Stimac managed to secure second place in the qualifying group and reach the play-offs, the atmosphere in and around the team was toxic.
Inexperienced Kovac had some luck when the play-off draw placed Croatia with mediocre Iceland, but his biggest win was not qualifying for the World Cup but restoring the positive surroundings and the faith among the fans.
Eight months later and things are far from ideal in Croatia, where people are disappointed with the fact that the Vatreni fell at the first hurdle. The public opinion about Kovac has been split, some blaming his inexperience and bad calls in the last match for the failure.
Still, the only logical move would be to keep Kovac as a head coach and give him time to introduce his ideas and visions to this team. He'll have to make some serious moves—including being more self-critical and realistic—but he deserves a second chance.
Introduce Fresh Legs
The World Cup in Brazil was supposed to be the pinnacle of the generation that was captained by Darijo Srna, but it ended in another disappointment. In two years from now many will be over the hill.
The defensive midfielder Ognjen Vukojevic, who Niko Kovac deprived of playing time in the World Cup, was the first to publicly announce his retirement from international football. It is expected that some players will do the same in the next couple of days, Eduardo da Silva being among them.
However, the question is if some of the others are ready to admit that they are past their prime? The goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa is 35 years old and his reactions in Brazil were partly to blame for poor results.
Kovac returned Danijel Pranjic to the team, but he is 32 and it is hard to expect him to be a better player in two years from now when France 2014 arrives.
The same applies to Srna, who is 32. The superb Ivica Olic, who was one of the most agile players of the generation, will be 36 in France.
Obviously, it is time for some serious changes.
Be More Realistic
A problem with Croatia—as well as any other team from the Balkans—is the expectation. There is no place for anything in between despair and euphoria and that creates an unrealistic picture of the team's capabilities.
The fact is that the Croatian national team is made up of some of the best European players in Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic. But, it is also a fact that the quality is unbalanced and that some parts of this team are weak.
This is entirely normal. But, the problem with Croatia is that they start to recognise their own flaws and weaknesses after the (bad) work has been done; when it is already too late.
Approaching things with more reality and self-criticism would help Croatia for the future. The great Zvonimir Boban summed things up rather well in his column for Croatian daily Jutarnji list, writing that only ostriches stick their heads in the sand and that running away from the truth is immature and fatal.
Improve Things Back Home
Most of the Croatian team has been built on players that are playing for clubs in foreign leagues. Some of them are even born and raised—football educated—outside of Croatian borders.
However, to improve the national team the Croats will have to improve the organisation of the domestic game.
The domination of Dinamo Zagreb in the Hrvatska Nogometna Liga, their top division, has weakened the competition and the clubs as well. Dinamo, who have won nine titles in row, have the most money and because of that they control not just the market, but the complete structure of Croatian football.
The Federation's president, the iconic striker Davor Suker, has been under huge criticism and he'll have to make some serious moves if he doesn't want to be blamed for all the bad things in Croatian football.
Of course, the success of the national team does not depend strictly on this, but the complete atmosphere in the game in Croatia does.
They Should Simplify Things
Both Igor Stimac and Niko Kovac have tried to introduce their own style in the Croatian game.
Of course, nothing is wrong with that, but sometimes that brings improvisation and, with it, complications. This Croatian team had a couple of weak links and it was unbalanced, but it may have looked much better had they kept things simple.
Croatia has some brilliant players like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, players that were in a way lost in tactical games that Stimac and Kovac played in the last two years.
No one can guarantee that things would be better that way, but maybe it is time to simplify things and just try to play all the players in their natural positions. Try to adjust the system to the players, not the players to the system.