Monday 28 September 2020, 05:20

Croatia look to generation next with youth tournament

  • Croatia youth tournament introduces teenagers to international competition

  • Vlatko Markovic International Tournament supported by FIFA Forward Programme

  • Host nation won second edition of the tournament with a perfect record

Few nations have produced as much talent on a per capita basis as Croatia. With just four million inhabitants, the Vatreni’s fairytale third-place finish at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ - their very first global tournament as an independent nation - quickly became part of football folklore.

But that storied run under the French summer sun was no one-off, and Croatia very nearly became the smallest European nation to win the World Cup two years ago in Russia.

At youth level, rarely has a side made a statement of footballing greatness as the Yugoslavia side which won the 1987 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Future Croatia household names such as Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Šuker all underpinned a remarkable side of players hailing from various parts of the Balkans.

Now the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) are focussed on giving the nation’s generation next every opportunity to follow in the footsteps of their iconic predecessors.

With support from the FIFA Forward programme, the second edition of the eight-nation U-15 Vlatko Markovic International Youth Tournament was held over the past week in Osijek. It is the second of four scheduled annual editions of the tournament that is being partly funded by the FIFA Forward Programme, following on from the tournament’s maiden event in May 2019.

Croatia’s youngsters revelled in the occasion and topped their group with a perfect record, before capping a memorable week with a 4-0 win over Group B winners Romania in Sunday's final. “We are really very pleased, this generation is of very high quality with a lot of potent players which, if we develop properly, means we will have a great generation again,” said Croatia coach Tomislav Rukavina.

The other nations in the competition were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Qatar and Zambia.

International introduction for future stars

For many participants the tournament is a tentative first step in national colours, and allows a first audition for players in the next FIFA U-17 World Cup cycle. Young referees were also utilised throughout the tournament in what is an important step in their career development.

“I’m proud that, even in these particular times, we’ve managed to maintain this tradition and organize this tournament for a second year in a row,” said HNS head instructor Petar Krpan. "The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t make things easy for us – we’ve had to move the tournament from the spring to September - but in the end the most important thing is that we’re here. Hosting a youth tournament is an especially important thing in these conditions.”

Notably, the tournament was named in honour of a man who made a lifelong contribution in every facet of the game. Vlatko Markovic represented Yugoslavia with distinction at the 1962 FIFA World Cup, coached a number of prestigious clubs across Europe and in his homeland, before ending his professional devotion to football with a 13-year stint as president of the HNS.

Croatia U-15's celebrate winning the Vlatko Markovic International Youth Tournament