Wednesday, 17 April 2024
Englishman in Dubrovnik Englishman in Dubrovnik

How can Croatia with a population under 4 million be so successful at sports - I have a theory

Written by  Jan 21, 2023

“Why do you think that a country with a population of less than 4 million people is able to do so well at the World Cup?” asked a journalist friend of mine in the UK. He was writing an article about yet another successful campaign for Croatia, along the way beating a country with a population of over 214 million, Brazil. I have been asked this question many times before. I do have a theory.

“You have to also bear in mind that football isn’t the only sport that Croatia excels in,” I started to explain to him.

Now one part of my theory is that children still play outside. You might think that that’s a strange thing to say. However, one South American football expert explains that one of the reasons that Brazil and Argentina produce such gifted footballers is that they learn from an early age, on the streets, to play against bigger, older and stronger boys and indeed girls.



Modrić is a prime example of this. He started to hone his skills on a concrete carpark of a hotel in Zadar where he and his family were refugees. You don’t want to fall over too many times on concrete. He learned how to beat bigger boys.

Luka Modrić limač

Early days of Modric's footballing dream - Photo Wikipedia 

Yes, the climate plays a factor. Just as in South America the warmer climate lends itself to being outside.

And safety is another major factor. It is still largely safe for children to play outside. Of course, the biggest threat to future generations of Modrićs doesn’t come from safety, the weather or decent areas to play. It comes from a passive generation who have grown up with a virtual playground in their hands, their mobile phones.

When I compare the situation with the UK the same can be said, at least as far as children being “slaves” to their mobile devices. However, far, far fewer children play outside, on the streets, today in the UK.

Things have changed. Society has changed.

I can remember as a child rushing home from school, dropping off my bag and then running out with my friends to play. “Be home by 5 o’clock,” my mum would always say as I charged out the door. I rarely was home on time for dinner. We’d come home with scratches and bruises, trophies of our afternoon kicking a ball around. And summer holidays were like the World Cup for us, a constant game of football in the summer sunshine.

Like I said society has changed and now many games are in a controlled environment. In fact, the same can be said of South America now. But Croatia is still in the shadows. It has managed to remain a small haven of fun for children. And Croatian sport is picking the fruit of this.

And in Dubrovnik how refreshing that the childhood games of our past have been nurtured and cherished with the City Streets Games events. Games that were often made up on the streets of the Old City now brought to a new audience.

This is something not only to be praised but supported. Some of these events and games may seem quirky but that is the point. When you had to make up your own games, rather than being served them on a phone, then your creative juices would run wild. Being active rather than passive.

I can vividly remember playing a lot of the same games on the streets of England when I was a child. The point was we were out and socialising being physically active. And at the same time we were learning to fall.

It is just as important, probably more important, to learn how to lose than to win. This could also be why the Croatian players at the World Cup in Qatar were so gracious in defeat and humble in victory.

Modrić learnt this in a concrete carpark in Zadar. But how are future generations going to learn it from an electric device? Children can’t bounce off the walls if you take away the walls. But as long as the sun keeps shining, the streets are safe and initiatives like the City Strets Games events keep coming I am pretty sure that for now the future of sports in Croatia is in good hands.

Not all classrooms have four walls.

The Voice of Dubrovnik


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