MARK LOMAS KUWAIT CITY: Croatians are very much in vogue at the moment. Now, after the World Cup final and Luka Modric’s Ballon d’Or triumph, Kuwait are hoping the trend pays off for them.
Dr. Romeo Jozak may have been national team coach for just two months but the former Dinamo Zagreb man has arrived in the Gulf with a plan to propel Kuwait into a new era.
There is certainly a need for optimism. A two-year FIFA suspension penalized Kuwait for political interference and left the country firmly in the football doldrums. In 2015, they scored the opening goal of the Asian Cup against hosts Australia; in 2019, Kuwait will be watching from afar as every single Gulf nation but them competes in the UAE.
However, after successfully romancing the Kuwait FA, Romeo is determined to turn things around.
Central to that ambition is the professionalization of the Kuwait Premier League. Currently a mixture of amateurs and professionals, the division requires a drastic change, according to Jozak.
“We don’t need multiple professional divisions but just one would make a big difference,” the Croatian told Arab News. “Without that my coaches and I can do miracles here but when the players go back to the clubs all momentum is lost.
“Players can’t be going to work in the morning and then leave at 4pm with their boots in hand to go to training at 5pm. How is development supposed to happen? How can you compete with teams like Australia, who have guys playing in the English Premier League?”
Jozak’s experience of developing players was a key factor in his appointment. A former technical director at the Croatian FA, his coaching career began at Dinamo Zagreb, where he nurtured the potential of a slight teenager who would go on to light up the world’s biggest stage for club and country.
“I can’t stand here and say that I knew Luka Modric was going to be the one,” Jozak admitted. “But yes, of course he had some excellent qualities.
“Even though he was short and skinny, he was aggressive. He had his eyes open, always looking for the space, his body position was always great. Right now I see the importance of these little moments but back then I honestly didn’t know I was watching a future (world player of the year).”
Modric was not Jozak’s only success story, with fellow World Cup finalists Mario Mandzukic and Vedran Corluka also among those he coached.
“When I saw all these guys playing at the World Cup it gave me goosebumps. Just talking about it now gives me goosebumps. I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I was involved in a small way.
“This success was no coincidence. I was one part of a huge machine — coaches, technical staff, clubs — that was working, not for two months before the finals but for the past 15 years, to make Croatia ready.”
His task in the Gulf is not just about repairing the confidence of the senior team. The FIFA ban hit every age group, with one Kuwait FA official lamenting a “lost generation” of young players whose development was stifled.
But while Kuwait’s coach recognizes the negative impact of the ban, he feels the situation is salvageable.
“Obviously it seems the first team is the one most effected as people follow it the most but the damage caused to the Olympic and youth teams has been even worse. A long gap in football from 19-22 is much more detectable than 26-29. This is a critical period.
“It’s not a lost generation but it’s very tough. Still we have to believe we can help these players recover — we can’t write them off.”
Jozak has shown a willingness to trust young players since taking over and results have been generally encouraging. A draw with Iraq and a victory over Asian Cup participants Lebanon gave his reign an early boost, before a 4-0 defeat to Australia earlier in October brought Kuwait back down to earth.
The gulf in class between Jozak’s side and the reigning Asian champions was all too clear, though Kuwait did create chances and notably improved in the second half. For the Croatian coach, each game has represented a step in the right direction.
“This game against Australia came too soon for us, we were not ready to play such a good team. But it is a good experience for the players and I don’t think 4-0 was a fair reflection.
“I know this is a challenging job but I am an ambitious man. In Kuwait I see there is potential, there is talent.”