“I hope 2011 brings health and happiness to my family. It would also be nice if we could perform well and get some good results on the sporting side too.” Modest though Ivan Grnja's hopes for the coming year may appear, the 61-year-old has big plans for his Croatia side at this year's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia, as he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
“We’ll be playing to win in Colombia. We’re a disciplined team who will show plenty of commitment, motivation and pride. All the players representing Croatia at the U-20 World Cup will respect those values 100 per cent. We want to go one better after reaching the last 16 in our previous appearance at the tournament,” said the former Toronto Metros-Croatia and Tampa Bay Rowdies striker.
Six pillars of the team
Croatia's success in South America will largely depend on six players who made their names by reaching the semi-finals of last year’s UEFA U-19 European Championship. “Matej Delac, Arijan Ademi, Zvonko Parnic, Filip Ozobic, Renato Kelic and Franko Andrijasevic are my key players. Those six all have the strength, talent and the desire to improve every day. They’re the most important pillars of my team,” said Grnja.
The young Vatreni needed just one 5-0 success against Portugal and a draw with Italy to reach the last four of the continental showdown in France and subsequently secure their ticket to Colombia 2011. “I didn’t expect us to reach the semi-finals of the European Championship ahead of the tournament. Nonetheless, what I did believe in was the potential of the team – and they didn’t let me down in France. When you consider the difficult conditions at that tournament, of course I'm satisfied with the result. The important thing was that we qualified for the U-20 World Cup in Colombia,” said the former coach of Croatian first division outfit NK Osijek, where Grnja was in charge in 1991 and during the 1993/94 season.
Hoping for progress
Nigeria 1999 was Croatia’s first and until now only appearance at a FIFA U-20 World Cup. Back then the team a recorded a victory over Kazakhstan (5-0) and draws against Ghana (1-1) and Argentina (0-0) to reach the last 16, where a 4-0 defeat to Brazil brought an end to their campaign. Now Grnja is determined to go one better at Colombia 2011.
“Qualification for the U-20 World Cup is a real success for our small country. It has enhanced the reputation of Croatian football enormously. We’ve proved that we have plenty of young talent coming through. I’m very proud that we’re back again after 12 years,” said the likeable tactician, who has been involved with the Croatian FA since 2005.
Of course Grnja’s players are similarly enthusiastic about proving themselves on the international stage. “Colombia 2011 will be unforgettable for my players. They’ll gain experience which will be enormously important for their further development. All of them will make a personal step forward at this tournament,” said the Croatian boss.
The coaching staff behind the Croatian U-20s are leaving nothing to chance ahead of this summer's youth spectacle. Almost five months prior to the start of the tournament, Grnja and Co. are way ahead in their preparations, with even the finest details such as how they will travel to their first group match already planned. “Our preparations for the tournament are well underway. As well as a training camp, we’ll be playing several friendly matches to make sure we go into the tournament in optimum condition,” said Grnja.
The Croatians have also been focusing heavily on their upcoming opponents in Colombia. After all, if they want to bring home more than just the Fair Play award they won in 1999, they will need to be ready to face all comers. To conclude the interview, Grnja identified the nations he feels will pose the biggest threat to his side's bid for the coveted trophy: “In my eyes the European teams from France and Spain are the top candidates for the title. Brazil and Argentina are up there as well. I think the hosts, Colombia, can achieve a lot too, especially with home advantage.”