It was Croatian football coach Slaven Bilić who dubbed the young striker, Nikola Kalinić, "the future of Croatian Football". With a tally of 30 goals in 35 matches, for the National Youth Squads, no one can question his ability, which begs the question, when will his time come?
I say the time is now.
In the the next two weeks Croatia will kick off its campaign to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and will face England on Sept. 10. This time around England is out for blood, and Bilić's Croatian side is not as strong as it was when it eliminated England last November. Since then it has lost two of their main attacking options in Eduardo Da Silva and Niko Kranjćar.
Attacking midfielder Ivan Rakitić, after netting two goals, proved in their recent 3-2 win over Slovenia that he can make up for some that slack. However, if Rakitić has an off day, there will be little then to turn to for hope.
Sure, there is still Tottenham Hotspurs star midfielder Luka Modrić, but Modrić is a playmaker not a goal scorer. And as we saw in Austria and Switzerland this summer, having a playmaker without a goal scorer is can be costly.
Fortunately though, and unlike in other years since '98, Slaven Bilić's Croatia has depth upfront, but they only do if Bilić choses to use it. I know that statement may seem silly, but this is what Croatia does. They keep a very capable young player on the bench for four years, until there is enough of a public outcry (usually resonated after disappointing tournament showings) to give the kid a chance.
In Nikola Kalinić's case, the stakes are much higher because Bilić will not just be keeping a quality young player on the bench, he'll be keeping "the next Davor Šuker" on the bench.
Slaven Bilić has created a national squad that has commanded the world's respect, but if he fails to listen to his own words about Kalinić, Croatia may lose the respect it so rightfully deserves. On Sept. 10 in Zagreb, Croatia will face arguably its toughest opponent since France in '98. Sure the stakes may not be as seemingly high, but can you ever put a price tag on the merits on honour and respect?
I believe that if they want to remain being a European super power, and owners of a title which some still refuse to acknowledge; then Croatia will have to embrace the light of a new generation in Croatian Football, Nikola Kalinić.
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