Hajduk Split youngster Nikola Vlasic is the newest exciting prospect coming of age and attracting attention of several major European clubs. But the 16-year-old’s path to stardom has been unique in the world of football.
An ambitious dad would usually be the last person to make a reliable judgement on his kid’s potential.
Of course, Josko Vlasic is not just any dad. He is a man obsessed with sports, training and harnessing young talents. And he has already made one world-conquering champion.
A former decathlete, still the national record-holder in that discipline, is married to Venera Vlasic, who used to be a basketball player and a cross-country skier. But it is their daughter Blanka—named after the city of Casablanca, where Josko won the gold medal at the 1983 Mediterranean Games—who is the most famous athlete in the family.
Maybe not for long.
Blanka ranks second in the all-time high jump rankings, behind Stefka Kostadinova. She has won numerous trophies, including gold medals at two World Championships, silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the IAAF World Athlete of the Year award in 2010. She has tried to break Kostadinova’s long-standing record (2.09 m) so many times that everyone apart from her father probably lost count long ago, but she has stayed just one centimetre short.
And yet her little brother Nikola, who came through the youth ranks of Hajduk Split, could be set to surpass Blanka’s sporting fame. If you were to believe their father Josko, that is—and perhaps you should.
Earlier this month, representatives of Real Madrid and Chelsea came to see the 16-year-old Vlasic in Ireland, where Hajduk played their Europa League qualifier against Dundalk FC. They witnessed the kid scoring on his senior debut for the club.
Tottenham Hotspur have reportedly already made an approach, as per Alan Nixon of the Daily Mirror, and are “trying to buy the latest ‘new Luka Modric’—teenage sensation Nikola Vlasic—in a £3 million deal.”
Mind, Nikola Vlasic is not the next Luka Modric. He’s not even the next Alen Halilovic, the 18-year-old wonderkid who transferred from Dinamo Zagreb to Barcelona this summer. Niksi, as they call him, has something that neither of the two Croatian mini maestros possessed at his age.
He has the technique AND the physique.
While Vlasic's skills with the ball and his understanding of the game look hugely promising, he is also incredibly strong for a teenager. He has looked really impressive in all three games he has started for Hajduk so far and has probably been their best player at the beginning of the season.
Hajduk have been using Vlasic as a midfielder, although he can play on either wing, as a second striker or as a false nine. Make no mistake, he is the real deal.
A complete package like that doesn’t just happen, regardless of natural talent. It has been for years in the making. More than a decade ago, Josko Vlasic first told people that his youngest progeny would one day become a top footballer.
But first there was Blanka. Her father recognized her talent from a very young age and, while she dreamt of becoming a professional sprinter, he persuaded her that she was naturally best suited for the high jump.
Josko worked with his daughter individually for many years and her career proved him right.
He has also coached numerous other Croatian athletes, mainly in athletics and basketball, garnering a reputation of a physical preparation guru. And then came Nikola, 14 years younger than Blanka (they have another two siblings, who also tried their hand at sports but didn’t reach professional level).
May 31, 2002. That was the exact day when Josko started coaching his son—who was four-and-a-half years old at the time—to become a footballer, he revealed to Sportske Novosti’s Alen Orlic in November last year (original article in Croatian). He said he wasn’t sure if he had the strength to devote himself to Nikola’s development in the same way he did with his sister, but that he couldn’t ignore the talent he claimed to have recognized in him.
Even though his area of expertise was fitness, Josko decided it was more important for the kid to acquire skill early on.
In a 2012 story for weekly sports magazine MAX! (original article in Croatian), Vlasic the father told Ozren Marsic about some of the details of his individual work with Nikola, describing his motor abilities as “monstrous.” Josko set out to develop his coordination and technique first—so what they did was, basically, play ball for days on end.
Sometimes, it was just the two of them; sometimes Nikola played with his peers and his dad would watch, and sometimes Josko—by then a middle-aged, moustachioed man—would team up with Nikola against older kids in the street or at the school playground.
He would ask for expert advice from Tomislav Ivic, the legendary Croatian coach who won titles and cups in six different European countries. He spent countless hours and days working with Nikola individually. There probably hasn’t been another player in the world who received that kind of help from a renowned coaching expert in his early development.
One detail says it all about Josko Vlasic’s obsession: In that MAX! story, he claimed Nikola had scored “around 30,000 goals” before he joined his first football club.
And when the youngster moved to Hajduk from a smaller local side at 12 years of age, Josko also accepted a job at the club, with a task of revamping their youth academy system. Naturally, he did so: Today its products present the most valuable assets for Hajduk. They recently sold Mario Pasalic, 19, to Chelsea in a deal worth around £3 million; Josip Basic, 18, and Andrija Balic, 16, per Simon Jones in the Daily Mail, are also on the radar of some of the European giants and their transfers could offer a lifeline for the financially strapped club.
It’s a little bit different with Nikola Vlasic.
Although some media outlets, like the Daily Mirror’s article, cite Hajduk's rate for him at £6 million, Vlasic is not for sale—yet. His father and him feel it’s best for the youngster to stay at the club until 2016 at the very least and become an important player for the club in the process. Josko has planned every aspect of his son’s development ever since he was four and he isn’t likely to just change his mind.
Nikola has worked hard every day for 12 years to get to where he is now. While his sister jumped over two metres, he jumped categories and broke records, too:
In March, he scored the winner for Croatia under-18 national team to defeat England in an international friendly, aged 16 years and five months. In Dundalk this month, he became the youngest player to appear for Hajduk senior squad and their youngest ever scorer. It was a dream come true for the whole family.
Now it’s time to set the bar a little higher. The next goal for Vlasic is to establish himself as a regular at Hajduk, the team he wanted to play for ever since he started training to become a footballer. His father feels it’s best for him to develop there, at least for another two years—and so far he has been proven right with almost all of his judgements regarding his kids.
In the meantime, Tottenham, Chelsea, Real Madrid and all the others will just have to wait.