By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | November 27, 2019

Croatia was on Cloud Nine last year in Russia as they made it to the final of the World Cup winning hearts the world over as they lost to Didier Deschamps’s ultra-defensive France. Whilst their countrymen were out on the streets celebrating, President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was warming hearts with her hugs to the tired Croats as they trudged back into the dressing room after beating the host country in a cliff-hanger to make it to the last four. And then in the final, she had the world in thrall as in pouring rain, she cheered as the winners went by, whilst the ‘almost there’ footballers mingled their tears with the rain.

Another man who was closely following his countrymen’s forceful march to the top was Dr. Romeo Jozak, Former Technical Director of the Croatian Football Federation. Dr Jozak was not surprised with the team’s brilliant showing. “I was really positive during Russia because I knew it was the peak of the careers of most of the guys. It was their ‘now or never’ moment. Dr. Jozak should know; he was instrumental in grooming most of the players doing national duty at the World Cup when they were training under him at Dinamo Zagreb as teenagers. He understands young footballers and their psyche and can pick a winner from a kilometre away.

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However, now that the team is at the top he cautions as it is difficult to keep the momentum. The last qualifying match against Slovakia was a scare even though they topped their group. The master tactician that he is, Dr. Jozak says, “After a big success, there is always one way—which is a way down from the top and we have been at the top. It’s not easy to stay at the top so I’m happy we qualified for Euro 2020.”

Opening Doorz caught up with Dr. Romeo Jozak, for his insight into the world of Croatian soccer post the World Cup success, the positives and the magic that was Kolinda. “Ironically, as we speak, she is running for her second mandate as President and I personally hope and I think she will get the next term as well,” says Dr. Jozak.

Excerpts:

Croatia created history in Russia 2018. No one expected them to make it to the final, but they won hearts whilst France won the Cup. Even your president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović won hearts the world over. What has been the mood in Croatia post Russia 2018?
It was the biggest sporting success in Croatian sports History. We have won some medals in different sports like Handball, Tennis, Water Polo (being the World Champions), but nothing can be comparable to the second place in the Football World Cup. It was a pleasant time for us in the country because we were on the Map of the soccer world and standing out and everybody wanted to have connections; it helped promote our country through not only sport, but as you said, even our President made a huge impact in the best possible way.

Speaking about your President, I mean her gesture, it was unprecedented…
[Cuts in] Obviously, even the players were touched by her gesture. Seeing her, a lot of politicians also jumped on to the topic. Earlier, they weren’t aware of how much power or credibility they could gain.

As a player, coach and a Croatian, how do you see this motivation of hers?
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, as a President, is not only present in the football stadium, she’s really going all around, supporting all the athletes of Croatia: Tennis, Waterpolo, Handball, Basketball… and it’s a huge motivation. She has had a positive impact on the athletes overall. She’s really beloved and admired by the athletes. She is always around and she’s not in the VIP boxes—she’s in the normal stands surrounded by normal people showing her appreciation and support to the players from the ground level. Ironically, as we speak, she is running for her second mandate as President and I personally hope and I think she will get the next term as well.

Croatia_Euro_2020_Luka_Modric
Slovakia done and dusted… Euro 2020, here we come!

Qualifying for Euro 2020 obviously has to be another huge high?
It’s been a year-and-a-half now, you got to accept the reality of moving on so I’m happy that we are still keeping up the quality of Soccer and qualifying for the Euro 2020, which sometimes isn’t the case. Take a look at the big soccer nations achieving something: Germany winning the World Cup (2014) and the next time they didn’t even cross the group stage. So usually after a big success, there is always one way—which is a way down from the top and we have been at the top. It’s not easy to stay at the top so I’m happy we qualified for Euro 2020.

What are your expectations for Croatia at Euro 2020, as a Croatian?
I think it’s going to be very hard now. It’s a big difference when you play against anybody as a World Cup runner-up—everybody wants to get your scalp. I can feel it being a Croatian. We have the privilege on the one side and on the others side a huge pressure that is going against you. People generally think now that we are WC runner-up, it’s normal to win big games. Well, it’s not that normal once you reach at the top. You have to sustain your stay at the top. We are going to be having some strong opponents, we have to have a good momentum and we have to keep it up on the similar level as we were in Russia.

What are your expectations for Croatia at Euro 2020, as a Coach?
As a coach, I would say it’s not going to be easy especially keeping in mind that half of the roster has changed—quite a few new players have been added, talented players but it’s a different story to be talented and another story is being experienced and having your peak as a player. A lot of the new guys don’t have that experience; yes the most important players are still there. Luka Modric is still there and quite a few guys around with him are still there. We have a team that has a similar quality, but we also have bigger expectations now.

Also Read: Detecting soccer talent at an early age

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