For some Davor Šuker became a household name when he dominated the 1998 World Cup and brought global attention to his Croatian squad. With six goals in seven games, Šuker collected the Golden Boot award along with the Silver Ball given to the second best player in the tournament.
However to get to that point one had to work hard, very hard to achieve the results that he along with the rest of his red and white checkered jersey teammates did: “Let me tell you something. 10% is talent and 98% is hard work. That’s more than 100% and that’s the quality now of today’s player. It’s not enough to just have the will, you need to have a lot of things in today’s day and age. You need to have a good atmosphere surrounding you, you need to have your family, you need a good team and you need to have the burning desire to win. As a child in Osijek I dreamed of playing in a World Cup and then finally in 1998 we had the first chance to play on the grandest stage.”
Croatia gained independence after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the formation of the new country had growing pains for everyone including its footballers: “The hardest thing for the football federation was the fact that the war started at the beginning of the 1990’s. For Boban, Prosinečki, Asanović or Bokšić they lost four years of International competition which is huge. Imagine if today Spanish, Italian, Dutch, English or German teams would lose four years of international competition, it would be terrible. Imagine the 1996 European Championships was our beginning and then in 1998 the World Cup was full of our dreams. What could be better than that, to represent the 4.5 million Croatians living in our country? Our flag, our jerseys and our pride. What can be any better in sports? I don’t think that anything can be better than playing in a World Cup wearing your jersey in a packed stadium.”
One of the most interesting things Šuker says is that his country only boasts 4.5 million inhabitants which is over 3 million less than in Israel. So the questions bears asking as to what has been the secret of the country’s footballing success? “The secret is the street. In today’s day and age you have a better chance to be a good footballer if you live in the rural areas of the country than in the larger or capital cities. School tournaments are the first steps in getting young children around eight or nine years old to begin their relationship with the ball.
Then it’s onto the street where you need to do thousands upon thousands of repetitions controlling the ball. Today, everyone may be able to run but those with the tricks of the trade are the ones who will win when playing 11 versus 11. That’s the most powerful thing to do.”
With Šuker at the helm of the Croatian Football Federation since 2012 a renaissance has been taking place across the FA, he explains: “The Croatian FA has over 200 games a year and we invest a lot of funds into the youth programs from the Under-15, Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 teams. We play around the world in tournaments and in friendly games and if you don’t give the Under-15 or Under-17 players the chance you’ll never know what you have. That’s why we are hosting the Under-17 European Championships in Croatia and we will have 16 teams in the tournament. That’s the first time we will be having a tournament like this on our big stage.”
The grassroots effort that is taking place amongst the younger children has been having an impact on football throughout the nation and that includes everyone involved in the sport: “For us, we must have success at the youth team level. To succeed in football you can’t just say when I have time I’ll have a match with 22 players. It’s not a sport that you can do this with. We are not a fast food restaurant where you can have instant satisfaction and instant success. We invest in a lot of grassroots projects in Croatia and we are working with the coaching system, the referees and everyone that works in the federation to help raise these children.
The footballing great also acknowledges the need to follow a well laid plan and find a way to have the government involved in developing the young talent: “You may not see the success right away as we have seen in other countries but it’s how you invest the funds and put the strategy in place that will make the programs succeed. The former President of the FA Vlatko Marković put the programs in place and we are just following his blueprints, but we also need the help of the Croatian government in helping with the infrastructure in building more artificial pitches. If we don’t have the facilities or the “street” how can the kids play?”
As we wrap up our conversation Šuker has one last message that should be taken to heart by all of the footballing world on the importance of playing competitive matches frequently. It’s also a lesson that the Israel Football Association should look at very strongly as they try to move up the footballing world’s ladder: “Play football, football is friends, football is relationships and play plenty of games. Even if you are not playing in the World Cup or European Championships or their qualifiers make sure to play friendly games. Football breaks down all barriers. Keep playing.”