The potential of Croatia’s national team hasn’t been a secret but most of that generation is too young to be relevant in Rio, Emmet Ryan looks at how a side somewhat ahead of schedule has a free run in these Olympics
Croatia looks like it is going to be great, like proper fantastic. In Dario Saric (22), Mario Hezonja (21), Marko Arapovic (20), and Dragan Bender (18) that’s a core with ridiculous upside. It’s the type of thing that gets you really excited about what might happen with them a few years from now. The type of age profile where you would hope, assuming everyone is healthy and available, could have a breakout tournament at the 2019 World Cup to set the tone for what could follow in the subsequent decade.
Instead, Croatia have already got a slot in the Olympics. Like it or not, and oh we are going to get to that, the Olympics remain the biggest prize in the international game. The squad isn’t bad but the names we are expecting to form the crux of an eventual European power aren’t exactly running the show. Dario averaged a double-double which nicely complimented the offensive explosion of Bojan Bogdanovic but Hezonja is still only a supporting player in the operation. Arapovic made the roster for Turin but the youngster didn’t make the floor at any stage while Bender wasn’t ever really in the discussion for the roster. None of this is surprising, it’s exceedingly normal and that’s where the whole next stage factor gets interesting.
Croatia’s lone Olympic medal to date came in its first try and its hopes of doubling that haul rest on a couple of factors. The first is, if they make it through the group stages, is to not come fourth because that means Team USA and a swift exit before the medal rounds. The other is realising the chance they have got in Brazil.
This is a side of guys who have been through the wars like Roko Ukic and Krunoslav Simon, young guns like Dario and Mario, and a bunch of dudes who frankly want to remind people that whatever about the next generation it’s not like this is a country that’s been exactly short of talented players over the years.
Mentally the biggest edge is arguably their road to Rio. At the most basic level, it was awful. They looked so so in group play in EuroBasket before getting absolutely throttled by the Cezech Republic in the first knockout game. This wasn’t some aberrant bad day, Croatia didn’t look close to ready and got rightly throttled.
Having got a wild card into the Turin tournament, this side grabbed the opportunity with both arms and ran wild. Greece and Italy both got put to the sword and now here they are in Rio. For the likes of Ukic and Simon, this is probably the last shot for both to win Olympic medals. For the younger contingent, they get to have a proper go on a big stage well ahead of schedule.
It’s not like this team is favoured to win a medal but the shake-up in tournament play favours at least one slightly unexpected semi finalist emerging. The USA will win its game against whoever comes fourth in Croatia’s group but outside of that, the shake-up is a lot prettier.
It’s entirely plausible that Croatia comes fifth and doesn’t make the knockout rounds but the pressure on this side to deliver is lower than any other trip by Croatia to the games before. Making it to Rio this time was essentially a bonus. Playing with that kind of freedom can do wonders for a team. They essentially have house money here. With the possible exception of Nigeria, no other team at Rio has that kind of comfort zone. It’s going to be interesting to watch.