All eyes are on Croatia's next wonder kid as they take on Morocco in Group C.
Graduation time nears for Croatia’s next Luka Modric
There was a time, only a decade or so ago, when it seemed axiomatic that to be a top-class footballer you had to be six feet tall (1.83m) and rippling with muscle. Then, in 2005, the ongoing liberalistion of the offside law took a decisive step.
Changing the definition of what it was to be interfering with play so that a forward had to touch the ball for the flag to go up meant that teams could no longer play an offside trap in the same way, pushing up relentlessly.
That increased the effective playing area and, by creating more room and reducing physical contact, that in turn allowed the return of players who were skilled but diminutive: Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Luka Modric … all have been allowed to flourish.
In that tradition comes Alen Halilovic.
He turned 17 only in June, and but the Croatian, who stands 1.70m, already has won three full-international caps.
He is perhaps a little stockier than Modric, and his darting, head-up style recalls his countryman – although he suggests his style is more akin to that of Silva.
Like Modric, he came through at Dinamo Zagreb, signing a contract with them as soon as he had turned 16.
Then, 101 days later, he was making his debut, coming off the bench with 10 minutes remaining in the Eternal Derby against Hajduk Split to become the youngest player to play for Dinamo.
Eleven days after that, he had become the league’s youngest scorer, getting the last in a 4-1 victory over Slaven Belupo.
The following season, Halilovic came on against Paris Saint-German to become the second-youngest player in European Champions League history.
Little wonder Tottenham Hotspur spent most of the summer trying to sign him, only to be thwarted, apparently, by Halilovic’s family.
Whether they felt their son should have more time to develop at home or whether they were after more money is difficult to say, but Alen’s father, Sejad, was a Bosnia-Herzegovina international so may be expected to have some idea of the best way for Alen to mature.
There is also a younger brother, Dino, who is now 15 and making waves in Dinamo’s youth ranks.
“He’s a wonder,” Dinamo’s sporting director Zoran Mamic said of Alen.
“A lot of people have compared him to Luka Modric, but he’s better than Luka was at this age. Everyone at the club thinks he has even more potential and that he will become one of the best players in the world.”
The feeling is, though, that Halilovic has stagnated over the past year, perhaps having been pushed too hard too early.
He will probably graduate to the centre eventually, but, although left-footed, has been used on the right by Dinamo, which has perhaps made him a touch predictable, constantly cutting infield.
While his first touch and his finishing are exceptional, concerns linger over whether he tries to dribble too much and his reluctance to perform defensive duties.
Back at youth level, playing against his peers, should be a chance for Halilovic to remind the world just how good he is.
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