Croatia have tasted success in France once already
Mainplayer profile: Ivan Perisic
When Ivan Perisic was growing up, his friends used to call him Koka (Hen). It was because he used to help out on his father’s chicken farm just outside his hometown of Omis on the Croatian coast. He didn’t care for the nickname and fortunately it didn’t follow him to Split, where he was playing in the youth ranks of Hajduk – the club that the Perisics, just like pretty much everyone in their local community, proudly supported.
Nevertheless, it was the family business that set the course for Ivan’s career early on – although we would only find out about it years later.
They’re taking them younger and younger each year. These days the clubs in Croatia routinely sell off their most-prized teenagers to wealthier foreign clubs after they have only played a handful of decent senior games. Ideally, though, they want them even before that: in a business where youth is fetishised, it’s a matter of prestige to snatch the latest hot talent ahead of the competitors. Not all of them will reach their true potential, separated from their homes and families at such an early age, but that’s the risk the clubs are willing to take; there’s less money to be paid for the transfer fee if the player hasn’t yet begun to establish himself, because those young players’ market values tend to grow very quickly.
Perisic was a forerunner of the trend. This summer marks a full decade since he left Hajduk Split without even as much as appearing in a competitive game for the club he had dreamed of playing for as a kid. He is one of those who have made it, which perhaps shows the strength of his character, but it was never easy.
"When I sit on the bench, I’m dying," Perisic once said. Not playing has always felt like a punishment for him, but he had to learn the ways of professionalism the hard way and it took some mental growth to become the player he is now.
That summer of 2006, the newspapers were reporting about a curly-haired youngster who impressed the Hajduk coach, Zoran Vulic, during the pre-season training camp in Slovenia. They were discussing whether he would be a backup for the team’s biggest star, Niko Kranjcar, or could perhaps feature in the starting lineup alongside him. There were also reports about various European clubs following him, but that was only usual for any major talent at the time and nobody thought much of it. What the reports failed to mention was that Perisic was yet to sign his first professional contract.
Then one of those suitors, Sochaux, sent a private jet to Slovenia and took Perisic away. And so the drama ensued: Hajduk were unwilling to let him go, but he refused to sign a contract with them and had already moved to France with his mother and sister. In the end, the two clubs settled and Hajduk were paid €360,000 for the 17-year-old’s services. It was actually less than they received for him this summer from the ‘solidarity fund’ scheme (which pays the club where the player was originally developed), when Perisic moved from Wolfsburg to Internazionale in a deal worth €20 million.
It was only two years ago, in the aftermath of Ivan’s wonderfully Gareth Bale-esque goal against Cameroon at the World Cup (he sprinted from the halfway line with the ball before hitting the net), that his dad, Ante Perisic, revealed what had happened. It was all his fault, he said – he ran into financial difficulties and his chicken business was on the verge of bankruptcy. He badly needed the money, so he told his son to accept the offer and the rest of the family to go with him. Meanwhile, he stayed and tried to save the business.
"Leaving for Sochaux was best for the family at the time," Ante Perisic confessed in an interview for the Slobodna Dalmacija newspaper. "I wanted them to move away from me and my suffering."
But Ivan did not play for Sochaux, either. In his three seasons there, he only appeared for the ‘B’ side and was shipped out on loan to Roeselare, a modest Belgian team, in the winter of 2009. The next summer he moved to Club Brugge, and by 2011 he was honoured as the Jupiler League’s top scorer and Footballer of the Year. It was then that he also got his debut for Croatia under Slaven Bilic. "If need be, I’ll collect stray balls during the training sessions, just to get a chance to play with the likes of Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar," he said.
Next was Borussia Dortmund, where he had some really memorable performances and scored some great goals – like the volleyed scorcher from outside the box against Arsenal upon the club’s return to the Champions League – but also fell out with Jürgen Klopp, especially after Marco Reus was brought back to Dortmund. Perisic complained to the press about not playing often enough and the coach answered: "Public whining belongs to kindergarten, not to the world of adults. If he doesn’t play, a football professional will shut his mouth, work hard and make the coach select him – not complain about it to the reporters."
Maybe Klopp was right, because after being sold to Wolfsburg in 2013 – and two years later to Inter – you couldn’t hear Perisic complain about anything anymore. But then again, he soon started playing very regularly and also established himself as the most reliable member of Croatia national team – previously he had been criticised for lack of aggression or defensive effort. But ever since the 2014 World Cup he has constantly been their best performer. His contribution will also be crucial for the team’s chances in France.
Ten years after his escape from the chicken farm, Perisic returns to France where his rough education in professionalism started. He may not hold any particularly fond memories of his time there, but he’s no longer the curly-haired rascal who came off that jet: this Perisic 2.0 is something more serious and much more deadly.
Tactics and key questions
Almost all of Croatia’s ideal XI is well known, but their manager’s propensity to tinker extensively from one strategy to another offers little reassurance that he knows what he’s doing.
Ante Cacic inherited the 4-2-3-1 formation and the 4-4-2 midfield diamond as a back-up plan from his predecessor, Niko Kovac. However, he has experimented with a flat 4-4-2, as well as with 3-5-2. Going into the tournament, we still have very little idea of what his primary choice will be.
The sensible thing to do would be to build a team around the world-class playmaker axis of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, giving those two certain liberties, but Cacic doesn’t have a genuine holding midfielder to provide defensive balance and a safety net for them.
Instead, Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic – a dynamic box-to-box midfielder with lungs of steel but not a typical, aggressive ball-winner – should be used to complement them if the manager opts for a triangle in the middle. That means a more advanced role for Modric, who has been known to organise play from as deep as the edge of Croatia’s penalty box, but also means the bench for his Madrid team-mate, Mateo Kovacic.
Monaco’s Danijel Subasic is untouchable in goal. A back three wouldn’t make much sense given the personnel, although that doesn’t necessarily mean Cacic won’t try it – but presuming he doesn’t, Lokomotiv Moscow’s Vedran Corluka and Dynamo Kiev’s Domagoj Vida should be the starting pair of centre-backs, especially after Cacic fell out with Dejan Lovren and is not taking him to the Euros. Of the two, Corluka is better and more technical, while Vida is more aggressive and dynamic. The captain, Darijo Srna, of Shakhtar Donetsk is set to start on the right, although Sassuolo’s Sime Vrsaljko would be a better choice. Ivan Strinic doesn’t play much for Napoli, but he’s the only natural left-back in the squad; Cacic might play Vrsaljko there, though.
Provided the manager sticks with the 4-2-3-1, Inter’s Ivan Perisic and Dinamo Zagreb’s Marko Pjaca are sure starters on the right and left-wing, respectively. The former has been Croatia’s best performer ever since the 2014 World Cup, while the latter is a new force: both are speedy, skilful and can make a difference in one-on-one situations.
Up front, the Juventus workhorse Mario Mandzukic is still first choice, despite scoring only one of Croatia’s 20 goals in the qualifiers and despite his style not fitting that well with the rest of the team. Alternatives are Fiorentina’s Nikola Kalinic and Leicester City’s Andrej Kramaric, who spent the second half of last season on loan to Hoffenheim.
If, however, Cacic decides on 4-4-2 or even 3-5-2, the changes he will make are just about anyone’s guess.
Predicted lineup (4-2-3-1): Subasic; Srna, Corluka, Vida, Vrsaljko; Modric, Brozovic; Perisic, Rakitic, Pjaca; Mandzukic
- Which player will take everyone by surprise at Euro 2016?
Marko Pjaca. As the only likely starter still playing in the domestic league, the Dinamo Zagreb winger, 21, is very much an unknown quantity to most football fans. This should be his breakthrough on the international scene, before you see him strutting his stuff at one of the big European clubs. Direct, fast and strong, he’s everything you want from a modern winger and has bags of confidence to prove it.
- Which player could be a disappointment?
At 34, the soon-to-be retired captain Darijo Srna is not the player he once was, when he charged down the right flank like there was no tomorrow and still managed to close gaps in defence. He doesn’t do either that well anymore and has kept his starter status due to past reputation alone. Srna’s growing weaknesses are due to be exposed in France.
- How far do you think your team will go and why?
I’m very pessimistic and fear the ‘Vatreni’ might not get past the group stage, which would be a disaster for a team with so much individual talent. Too much is just not right – not least the manager, who might be out of his depth and has done very little so far to prove otherwise. He doesn’t appear to have the players’ trust, either, so things might turn ugly if we lose the opening game against Turkey.
Secrets behind the players
- Mario Mandzukic
Among Mario Mandzukic’s many tattoos, the one on his lower back attracts particular attention. It was supposed to read "What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger" – a popular paraphrase of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote – written, for some peculiar reason, in Hebrew. Except it doesn’t say that. Maybe the tattoo artist used Google Translate, because the literal translation of his work would be: "If it’s not to kill me, it will make me stronger". But that’s not all – to make things even more hilarious, the message is written from left to right (and not the other way round, which is how Hebrew is written), so it actually says: "Regnorts em ekam lliw ti, em llik ot ton s’ti fi".
- Marcelo Brozovic
Parents usually want to make sure their footballer sons acquire education in case they don’t make it as professionals, but Marcelo Brozovic’s dad was nothing like that. A butcher by trade, he advised his son to drop out of high school because "football and school don’t go well together". At the time, Marcelo was 16 and coming through the youth ranks of Hrvatski dragovoljac, a Croatian second division club. Fortunately, it did work out for him.
Ahead of his transfer abroad, from Dinamo Zagreb to Inter Milan, it was also revealed he enlisted Nives Celzijus – a pop singer and socialite known for using her raw sexuality to promote her stage persona (think Croatia’s answer to Katie Price) – as his life coach.
- Ivan Rakitic
Earlier this year, video footage of some kids manually changing digits on a big, improvised scoreboard made of wood went viral on the internet. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so unusual if the said scoreboard didn’t belong to Radnik Bijeljina, who compete in the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the nation’s top flight. Having seen the video, Ivan Rakitic decided to help. "We talked on the phone and he said – ‘right, guys, I’ll buy you a new scoreboard’. It was as simple as that," Radnik’s chairman Mladen Krstajic, a fomer Serbian international and Rakitic’s team-mate from his Schalke days, revealed. Rakitic kept his promise and soon a brand new digital scoreboard was delivered and installed in Bijeljina.
- Ante Cacic
Back in the 1980’s, Croatia manager Ante Cacic used to repair TV and radio sets for living; he owned a small shop in downtown Zagreb. Recently a journalist asked him if he could now repair a modern, flat-screen TV. "I wouldn’t know where to start, to be honest," Cacic replied. Cynics would say that is also true for his current job.
- Darijo Srna
In late 2014, Darijo Srna bought 20 tonnes of tangerines from the plantations near his home town of Metkovic. He paid to get them shipped to elementary schools in the war-torn Donbass region, where more than 23,000 kids received them along with special postcards with his picture on them. Srna, who captains both Croatia and Shakhtar Donetsk, is a big humanitarian and has often helped underprivileged kids in various ways.
- Vedran Corluka
While he was at Tottenham, Vedran Corluka once gifted a £36,000 worth watch to a waiter he had never met before. The defender was dining at a restaurant in Mayfair with some friends and the waiter complimented him on his diamond-encrusted Hublot. Corluka took it off and told the guy to give him his Seiko in exchange – and so he did. Some tip.
Danijel Subasic (Monaco)
Lovre Kalinic (Hajduk Split)
Ivan Vargic (Rijeka)
Vedran Corluka (Lok Moskau)
Darijo Srna (Schachtar Donezk)
Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiew)
Sime Vrsaljko (Sassuolo)
Gordon Schildenfeld (Dinamo Zagreb)
Ivan Strinic (Napoli)
Tin Jedvaj (Leverkusen)
Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona)
Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid)
Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Mailand)
Milan Badelj (AC Fiorentina)
Ivan Perisic (Inter Mailand)
Marko Rog (Dinamo Zagreb)
Ante Coric (Dinamo Zagreb)
Mario Mandzukic (Juventus Turin)
Nikola Kalinic (AC Fiorentina)
Marko Pjaca (Dinamo Zagreb)
Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim)
Duje Cop (Dinamo Zagreb)