Croatia's footballers have long been respected for their technical ability, with recent luminaries including Davor Šuker, Zvonimir Boban and now Luka Modrić, and with talent scattered all over the football-mad country the building blocks are being put in place to ensure the next generation follows this skilled tradition.
The game's popularity in Croatia has never been in doubt, and the national team's qualification for UEFA EURO 2012 continues a fine record of missing only two major championships since the team's debut as an independent nation at EURO '96. This success has increased the thirst for football among local youngsters which is being quenched by a range of well-subscribed youth tournaments.
Croatia forward Ivica Olić believes this is a recipe for future success. "It is very important for kids to play as many tournaments as possible when they are young," the FC Bayern München player told UEFA.com. "I played a lot of youth tournaments as a kid, it helped me develop my skills and learn new things. I am always supporting youth competitions.
"I am looking at my son – he is nine and has already played a lot of tournaments and both of us are aware how important it is for his future in football. Kids are meeting different teams this way, different styles of play and new friends from abroad. They can learn a lot. It's also great that they play against stronger players than themselves, which is good for their development."
One of the most significant projects latterly has come out of Kurilovec in the city of Velika Gorica, near Zagreb. Two years ago NK Udarnik Kurilovec, a club from the Croatian league's fourth tier, started a tournament for Under-11s, inviting respected clubs from the region. Subsequently, the Alpas Cup, held each summer, has grown into one of the outstanding new junior football events of central Europe.
"There are no tournaments like this in the region for this age group," said tournament director Vlado Stepanić. "This is the strongest competition around and we are trying to create a good balance, for kids to compete while also making new friendships and having fun."
The second, 2011 edition of the Alpas Cup featured 32 teams including GNK Dinamo Zagreb and HNK Hajduk Split from the host country, Hungarian outfits Ferencvárosi TC and Újpest FC, SK Sturm Graz of Austria, Slovenia's NK Maribor and FK Crvena zvezda from Serbia. Most have already agreed to return next June, when the tournament will be expanded to 48 sides with the addition of a qualification stage for Croatian clubs.
"The atmosphere in Kurilovec was absolutely fantastic and I want to thank the organisers for making a competition like this. We are leaving full of great experiences," said Crvena zvezda coach Ivica Momčilović after the 2011 final. Momčilović's team lost 3-1 to Dinamo Zagreb in what was the first meeting of the clubs at any level since 1990.
Backed by the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) and the country's ministry of science, education and sports, the Alpas Cup is absolutely prospering. So when Croatia's national side are pitting themselves against Europe's elite in Poland and Ukraine next summer, future EURO stars may well be emerging at the same time closer to home.
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