• Already vastly experienced at just 21
  • His father is his role model and biggest fan
  • "A special bond between team and fans"

When Tin Jedvaj moved from Roma to Bayer Leverkusen in 2014, he was soon regarded as one of the continent’s most talented defenders. Despite a lengthy injury lay-off, the Croatian has since made more than 70 top-flight appearances and gained valuable UEFA Champions League experience – and he is still only 21 years old!

Experiencing great things at a young age is nothing new for Jedvaj, who made his international debut for Croatia in a friendly against Cyprus at the age of 18, just weeks after his first senior appearance for Leverkusen. “It was unbelievable,” he said when recalling the special moment in an interview with FIFA.com. “Every kid dreams of playing for their country and my dream came true so fast. I’m still delighted whenever I’m called up. We’re a young nation, so there is a special bond between us and the fans. We genuinely love to compete for our country.”

After a less-than-satisfactory UEFA EURO 2016, the Vatreni set their sights on the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Five games into their European qualifying campaign, coach Ante Cacic’s side lead Group I with 13 points, scoring 11 goals while conceding just one. “The players get on extremely well,” Jedvaj explained. “Although we have big names like [Luka] Modric, [Ivan] Rakitic and [Mario] Mandzukic, when we get together, it doesn’t matter whether you’re older or younger. We enjoy playing and training together, and our results reflect that.”

Brought to Leverkusen as a central defender, Jedvaj soon established himself at right-back and can now play equally well in both positions. When asked about his preferred role, the youngster replied: “I feel slightly more at ease in the centre than out on the wing, but have adapted to my new position after playing so many matches there. It isn’t really a factor for me. Although I played at centre-half in France [at EURO 2016], I’ve since represented the national team at right-back. I just want to play, so the position isn’t really important.”

While the man from Zagreb has yet to become an undisputed member of Croatia’s starting line-up, this does not worry him. “I’m one of the youngest players in the squad, so I don’t have to be in the starting 11 yet,” he said. “What’s important is that I’m in the squad and learning. I’m waiting for my opportunity. I don’t feel any pressure. Being in the national team is an honour.”

A product of the youth system at Dinamo Zagreb, where he made his senior debut, Jedvaj knows his personal development is far from over. “I can still improve every aspect of my game, as I’m still young and play for a club that has confidence in me,” he said. “That became clear to me after my serious injury [he missed almost the entire first half of the 2015/16 season with a thigh problem]. They stood behind me and believed in me through everything.”

Having played professionally in Yugoslavia and Austria, Jedvaj’s father Zdenko is an invaluable mentor to his son. “I’ve learned everything from him,” the 21-year-old explained. “I can learn something new from him every day. I listen to him carefully and he’s my biggest fan. Although I’ve had plenty of coaches, you only get one father,” he added.

The 2016/17 season was a difficult one for Jedvaj at club level. Although Leverkusen reached the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League before being eliminated by Atletico Madrid, they spent much of their league campaign battling relegation. “We can’t take a single match lightly and will have to work hard this summer to ensure we play better next season,” said the defender, who is known for never giving himself or his opponents a break. He will be hoping to sustain this positive momentum all the way to the World Cup in Russia.

While every Croatian team is inevitably compared with the legendary team that finished third at France 1998, the youngster believes the response to this comparison should always be the same. “We don’t want to copy them,” he explained. “We want to write our own story and perhaps record even better results, if we can. The players and fans believe that we can achieve great things.”