This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Josko Vlasic can tell you the exact date when he decided that his son Nikola was going to become a professional footballer.
It wasn’t just that, actually; there was more to the future he envisioned for his youngest progeny. If Vlasic Sr wasn’t completely sure his little Niksi had the potential to reach the top level, he probably wouldn’t have bothered taking him on as his next project. But he was – the boy was a “motoric monster”, he would later say – and Josko couldn’t ignore it. So he opened up a fresh notebook and entered the date: 31 May 2002. Nikola was four and a half years old at the time.
Of course, Josko Vlasic is not just any dad. A former decathlete who holds the Croatian national record in the discipline to this day, he is also a renowned fitness guru and has worked with individuals across various sports; more important, he had already raised and trained one world-conquering athlete within his family.
Blanka Vlasic, the eldest of four children to Josko and his wife, Venera – herself a former basketball player and cross-county skier – is a two-times world champion and double Olympic medalist in the high jump, with her personal best of 2.08m ranked joint-second highest of all time. Her father was there with her from the very start and on a daily basis but, as she came of age and he got her a specialised coach, he became restless. Nikola, 14 years younger and a full six inches shorter than his big sister, provided a new challenge.
Vlasic devised a plan and an activity log. For many years, they’d just play ball for days on end – sometimes just the two of them, sometimes Nikola played with other kids and Josko would watch and sometimes they would team up against older boys. The people in their hometown of Split would laugh off this middle-aged man with a silvering moustache having a kickabout with kids in the street or at the school playground; if it were anyone else, maybe they’d even call social services on him. But Josko knew what he was doing. Crucially, despite his own coaching career in physical preparation, he was well aware that it was much more important for the kid to acquire skills and develop his coordination early on.
“We played everywhere,” Vlasic Sr told Vecernji list in 2012. “Even in the living room or in the elevator … I’d never let him lose. Once I accidentally defeated him and he cried a river of tears.”
He wasn’t going to leave anything to chance, though, or rely on his own expertise. It just so happened that he didn’t have to look very far: right there, near his doorstep, he had the Hajduk Split icon Tomislav Ivic, a legendary coach had who won trophies in seven different countries – including league titles with Ajax, Porto and Marseille – and was known for developing young talent. Ivic shared some of his vast knowledge and advice along the way and, by the time Nikola started school and joined a local youth club, Dalmatinac, he had already scored 30,000 goals by his father’s count.
Later he moved to another club that specialised in youth development, Omladinac Vranjic, and eventually ended up in Hajduk’s academy. Josko followed him as long as he thought he could help, his fitness coaching skills more than welcome in those clubs. In 2013, when Nikola turned 16, Josko told Jutarnji list: “All this time Nikola’s talent has been supported by a thousand right decisions. He can achieve anything you might imagine.”
None of that meant the little Niksi was going to have it easy once he turned senior.
In 2014 he scored on his debut in a Europa League qualifier against Dundalk, aged 16 years and nine months. He made the first edition of the Guardian’s Next Generation selection and proceeded to make 37 appearances in all competitions that season. But as Hajduk continued to struggle financially and competitively, Vlasic became a victim of constant changes in coaching personnel and vision. A lack of viable options up front meant he was forced to play as a false 9 or deeper in midfield – although Josko saw him as an attacking midfielder from the age of eight – and an injury also hampered his development. It wasn’t until 2017 that his huge promise really began to show.
And as soon as it did, of course, he was sold. Ronald Koeman saw it with his own eyes as Hajduk and Everton faced each other in the Europa League play-off round and was quick to sign him. The Merseyside club, however, weren’t very patient and, despite a good start, a change of manager meant Vlasic was required to seek his fortunes elsewhere. A lack of football meant missing out on a chance to be included in Croatia’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, where they sensationally finished as runners-up. He did go to Russia that summer after all, though – only it was on loan to CSKA Moscow, who eventually bought off his contract. He soon became one of the best players in the Russian Premier League.
His real chance in the national team came in late 2018 and by the end of the following year he outshone all of his Croatia teammates from big clubs in western Europe to become a hero of the European Championship qualifying campaign. Yes, Luka Modric still reigns supreme in midfield, but it was Vlasic who scored the key goals or participated in them, giving Zlatko Dalic a dynamic, direct No 10 option that Croatia have always lacked.
Still only 23, Vlasic has had his share of trials and tribulations and is now on the verge of a big breakthrough. For all his long-built reputation as a wonderkid, he may have taken longer than expected to become a player everyone had hoped he can be. But all the hardship and missed chances have made him stronger because of his foundation – a talent supported by a thousand right decisions, as Josko would say.
Just watch him do it. He can achieve anything you might imagine.
Alex Holiga writes for Telesport.
Follow him on Twitter @AlexHoliga.
For a tactical guide on Croatia click here.