Croatia kick off their FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™ qualifying campaign on 17 September
The country’s new U-15 and U-17 girls’ leagues should provide a firm foundation for future success
The Croatian Football Federation is receiving support from the FIFA Forward Development Programme
With six appearances at the UEFA EUROs and FIFA World Cup™, finishing as runners-up at Russia 2018 and currently in 18th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the Croatia men’s national team is in rude health. It is a very different story for the women’s national side, who have yet to qualify for a major tournament and are currently languishing in 54th place in the world rankings. Yet all this could be about to change.
Last year the first league for U-15 and U-17 girls’ teams was set up in Croatia. The competition, which includes 12 clubs in each age group, was financed by the FIFA Forward 2.0 programme. Three seasons are currently planned, the first of which ended in May 2021 with the second starting on 18 September.
"FIFA’s involvement is very important. The competition’s first three seasons were co-funded by FIFA with $850,000," explained Denis Luksa, who is responsible for the women’s and futsal national teams at the Croatian Football Federation.
"The actual costs for the clubs are very low, maybe as low as five per cent," said Luksa. "We really try to cover everything to help the clubs. We will see how it goes over the next few years. At the moment we are fully supporting this project and the clubs to develop women’s football."
HNS President Marijan Kustić is determined to offer a platform and a pathway for girls to develop. "Encouraging participation in football among young girls and investing in women's football are both among the Croatian Football Federation's strategic goals, and I firmly believe that the new girls' U-15 and U-17 leagues that we've launched with support from FIFA will help us make an important step in the right direction," he said.
"Our previous experiences with national club competitions for boys' teams have clearly demonstrated that investing in young players is one of the best ways to grow the game as a whole, and we're already seeing similar results from the Croatian Women's First Division for U-17s and U-15s. With FIFA's help, we're going to continue working on growing the women's game in Croatia."
The feedback from the newly established league’s inaugural season was overwhelmingly positive even though it, like so many others, was disrupted by the pandemic.
"We can already see the development of the players. The coaches and clubs are getting more and more involved and making additions to their staff. We think that this project and the investment is really good, and expect to start seeing the benefits of this – not next year, perhaps, but maybe three or four years after the start of the first season," explained Luksa.
"We organise summer and winter camps for the U-15s and U-17s as well," he continued. "We can see in the selection process that the players are much better. We only invited 30 players in each category and I could immediately see the improvement compared to the previous years."
The project could certainly pay dividends when it comes to the senior national team, who now have a firm foundation for future success. This is just one more reason why Croatia’s qualifying campaign for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 is so important, as a strong performance could inspire more girls to take up football.
"We are starting the qualifiers against Romania and then we will face Italy," Luksa said. "Our goal is not to win the group but to get as close as possible to the top teams like Italy. We want to beat Romania and I think that we are currently better than Moldova and Lithuania. We want to finish in third place and hopefully we can do that," he explained.
"We are very good when it comes to men’s football and we want to develop the women’s game as well. We don’t want to compare ourselves to Sweden, Denmark, Germany or countries like that, as they are really strong. We have around 3,000 registered players and we are really trying to increase that number and the number of clubs."
One important step in this process is the fact that the budget for women’s football has more than doubled since 2015. The breakthrough idea of creating national girls’ leagues was inspired by the effectiveness of the national youth leagues in the men’s game. Croatian men’s football took a big leap forward when the HNS established the national youth league 25 years ago, with the men’s national teams and clubs enjoying remarkable success at the time. The idea now is to do the same thing for women’s football.
"We took the step and made the decision to invest in youth, and we think that this is the right path to follow," Luksa explained. "We want to develop new players and we hope that we can do this with the new U-15 and U-17 leagues. As I said before, we will see the results of this project in three or four years from now."
Perhaps that is when Luksa’s dream for women’s football, "to qualify for a tournament with the national team – EUROs or World Cup, it doesn’t matter" will finally come true.
Images courtesy of the Croatian Football Association (Hrvatski nogometni savez (HNS)