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Šuker harbours high hopes for Croatia

Part of an outstanding national team during his prime, Croatian Football Federation (HNS) president Davor Šuker hopes the current Under-17 side can surpass his generation.

Davor Šuker is impressed by his young compatriots
Davor Šuker is impressed by his young compatriots ©Sportsfile

Davor Šuker belonged to not only one of Croatia's, but one of Europe's greatest generations, coming to the fore alongside his exceptionally talented countrymen to make waves at EURO '96 and the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

After leading the national line on the pitch for ten years, the former forward is now leading his nation off it as president of the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) – and is at the UEFA European Under-17 Championship aiming to see a group of players who can match his own.

Making the commute from Zagreb to Slovakia on matchdays, Šuker has been a familiar face in the stands, hoping his presence can help motivate his country's young side to a semi-final place and a spot at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, despite opening the tournament with a pair of Group B draws.

"The priority for this team is to win a place at the World Cup, so it is our goal to be at least third in the group, but as far as the Croatian mentality is concerned, nobody ever thinks about being third – only winning," said the man who hit 45 goals in Croatian red and white. "I hope Croatia will find a way to reach the next stage of this competition."

With the U17 squad attracting attention across Europe after elite round victories against France and Spain, there have been numerous commentators saying the current crop are the best Croatia has produced. However, the HNS president refuses to heap pressure Ivan Gudelj's team.

"It is true there are some nice talents in this generation, but hold on, this is just the first stop on their journey. Yet it is wonderful we have the respect of everyone in the football world and I hope there will be several players who make the senior team from this generation."

Alongside future Croatian internationals Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki, Robert Jarni and Igor Štimac, Šuker lifted the 1987 U-20 World Cup in Chile with Yugoslavia, and was joined by the likes of Alen Bokšić, Mario Stanić and Dario Šimić for the Croatian campaigns of 1996 and 1998. Now in his new role, the ex-Real Madrid CF striker wants to maintain the conveyor belt of Croatian talent, and to forge sides that will challenge at all levels.

"Teams like this [U17 side] show the investment we are constantly making and it is rarely seen. But this is the future of Croatian football and I am positive there will be players from here who knock on the door of older teams very soon.

"If this team reach their World Cup, and if the senior side find a way to the World Cup in Brazil, we will be the only country that have their national team in the World Cup finals at U17, U20 and senior levels at the same time. The dream of every football federation is to have a situation like that."

Pressed on whether present and future generations can surpass the achievements of his own, the president was unable to say – but left no doubt he will continue to work tirelessly to ensure Croatia carry on punching well above their weight on the international stage.

"This is a talented team, but do not put extra weight on their backs. It is up to them and the coach to work hard and do a good job. The future of Croatian football is bright, we can all see that. We raised the bar in 1998 and have been trying to keep our reputation high since. We are working on our identity and we must be proud."