When Croatia begin their FIFA U-17 World Cup campaign in Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates on 18 October, much of the spotlight will fall on one player: Alen Halilovic. 

The 17-year-old, who signed professionally with Dinamo Zagreb shortly after his 16th birthday, is regarded as one of finest young talents in European football. Not only is he the senior Croatian national team’s youngest ever representative, he is also the youngest ever player to appear, and score, in his country’s top flight. Understandably, the expectations surrounding him are sky high. 

Yet Halilovic remains relaxed, despite the pressure he carries on his shoulders. “It isn’t always easy to meet these expectations, but when I’m out on the pitch, I just try and enjoy the game and forget everything else. At the end of the day, I love football,” he said calmly in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. 

“Every player has an equally important role to play, so I just want to give everything I have and do as well as I can to help the team. I also want to draw on the experience I gained in the senior squad and show how important it is to have a winning mentality and a strong mental attitude in the dressing room.” 

Learning from different continents
Nicknamed the ‘wonderkid from Dubrovnik’, Halilovic can hardly contain his excitement ahead of the first game of the FIFA World Cup. Indeed, he has been looking forward to the tournament since the day Croatia qualified, and has high expectations of the competition. “I’m really anticipating the challenge of competing against the best players in the world from our generation. I’m expecting high-quality football and some good performances.” 

For such a young player whose career has only just begun, Halilovic is taking a very mature view of the competition. “For youngsters like us, it’s a great opportunity to test ourselves against players from different continents, to notice the differences in technical ability and to learn from them.”

Croatia’s U-17 team are making their second appearance at the FIFA World Cup in the United Arab Emirates and Halilovic is understandably ambitious about their return. In 2001, they missed out on reaching the last 16, while the current crop also failed to make it past the group stages of this year’s UEFA European U-17 Championships. However, the nifty left-footer and his team-mates are hoping to write a different script this time around. 

Giving it everything
“We’re expecting a better end result than at the Euros, where we didn’t get out of our group. We drew against Russia and Italy, both of whom ended up reaching the final. The only reason we didn’t qualify for the semis was because we didn’t score enough goals. We have a strong team, though, and we’ve been playing together for a few years now and all know each other really well. I think that will be the key for us to perform well and have a successful tournament,” said the holding midfielder confidently. “We get on with each other great and work really well as a group. Our team spirit is the most important thing for us. We have outstanding individual players, but we’re strongest as a unit.” 

To achieve that success, Halilovic and Co must first overcome Morocco, Panama and Uzbekistan. It is a challenge that Croatia’s hottest talent is certainly up for, as he explained in a strong statement of intent at the end of our interview.

“I expect our team to give it everything on the pitch. We want to show that we qualified for the World Cup for a reason and that we can compete with anyone. We have big expectations and this Croatia side are really strong. That said, I think every team that have qualified for the World Cup are strong, but if we play to the level that we’re capable of, we don’t need to fear anybody.”