Soldo: When I think about it, I'm speechless

Talent, ability and perseverance are qualities that all of the players taking part at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which kicks off on 17 October, have shown during qualifying. Yet in Chile they will be confronted with two additional and decisive aspects: excitement and nervousness. None of the players have ever performed on such a grand stage before.

“We’ve been told that there’ll be over 45,000 spectators in the stadium,” said Vinko Soldo, a key member the Croatia U-17 side that will have the honour of facing the tournament hosts in their opening game, in an interview with FIFA.com. “I don’t think any of us will ever forget playing at these finals. Our coach has told us that a lot of times already. When I think about it, I’m speechless. There are no words to describe this feeling.”

However, come kick-off at the Estadio Nacional Julio Martinez Pradanos in Santiago de Chile, they will have to be fully focused. Rounding out Group A are two top-class teams in USA and defending champions Nigeria, meaning any slip-ups could prove costly. “We’ve definitely got a tough group but I believe we can reach the next round,” said Soldo. “We’ve already played against USA twice and narrowly lost 1-0 each time. We recently beat Nigeria 3-2.”

Extraordinary pool of talent Soldo is one of the stars of the team and is another product of the excellent youth academy at Croatian record champions Dinamo Zagreb. Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, and more recently Alen Halilovic, who shone at the U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates two years ago and signed for Barcelona shortly afterwards, have all achieved the defender’s dream of embarking on a career at a top European side. Of the 21 players in Croatia’s U-17 squad in Chile, 12 are on the books at Dinamo.

“Our coaches are very committed, they look after us and invest a lot in the future of our sport,” Soldo continued. “A big thanks goes to our parents too, as they often have to cut back on things so that we can make our way.” And despite recurring rumours about big clubs allegedly interested in securing Soldo’s signature, the player sees his immediate in Zagreb.

Nevertheless, an eye-catching display in South America would likely open a few doors for him. It might even allow him to follow in the footsteps of his idol Dejan Lovren and experience England’s Premier League. Lovren is also a product of Dinamo’s youth academy and after a spell at Olympique Lyon he is now at Liverpool.

“He completely dedicated himself to football, he worked hard in order to improve and now he’s made it,” said Soldo. Now, alongside Lovren’s brother Davor and Halilovic’s brother Dino, Croatia are aiming to finally advance beyond the group stage after falling at the first hurdle in 2001 and 2013. Good omens A glance in the history books could provide them with extra impetus, as playing in Chile holds fond memories for the country. In 1987 the former Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was a part, lifted the title at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. They did so with the help of numerous Croatian players who later went on to forge successful international careers: Zvonimir Boban, Pedrag Mijatovic and Davor Suker - the current Croatian FA president - were part of that squad, as was Robert Prosinecki, who won the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.

Now, 28 years later, a new generation of Croatians will take to the global stage. The fact that they are facing Chile in the opening game could also be a good omen. In 1987 Yugoslavia’s U-20s met the hosts in Santiago in front of a crowd of 67,000 in the tournament curtain raiser. The Europeans won that game 4-2 and went on to lift the title.