Think of Croatia. The Dalmatian coast, the capital city Zagreb and talented footballers: Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker, Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric. One thing all these technically gifted Croats have in common is Dinamo Zagreb, Croatia's answer to La Masia's endless stream of sprightly five foot six attackers popping passes left, right and centre.
Based in central Zagreb, just below the neighbourhood park to which their Maksimir Stadium takes it's name, Dinamo have succeeded in dominating the Croatian domestic league in recent years, winning six consecutive titles since 2006. But - aside from domestic domination - the Modri (meaning 'blue' in Croatian) have seen graduates of their formidable academy regularly fill the eleven starting places of the national side, as well as some of Europe's biggest clubs.
There is, as tends to happen on Dinamo's illustrious conveyor belt, a new kid on the block this season. An attacking midfielder graced with poise, remarkable technique and what appears to be an intuitive footballing brain for someone who has experienced just seventeen years and four months on this planet that we call Earth. Mateo Kovačić has risen early on this season to be classed among the most promising in a side of fabulous young talent. Apple's ripe for western European picking include deep-lying playmaker Milan Badelj, pacey winger Ivan Tomečak and all-action right-back Sime Vrsaljko to name just a few. However, Kovačić is now the word on the lips of Croatian journalists, pundits and players with some, perhaps prematurely, speculating that the attacking midfielder could become the greatest product of Croatian football. Ever.
Born in Linz, an Austrian city made famous as the childhood home of one Adolf Hitler, to Bosnian-Croat parents, Kovačić joined up with the local side's academy before being spotted by a number of Europe's larger clubs at the Justin Bieber loving age of thirteen. Stuttgart, Ajax, Juventus and Bayern Munich were said to be in the frame but the youngster, advised by his family, chose the prodigious academy at Dinamo to continue his footballing education. Outside interest, however, hasn't ended there. Arsenal chief scout Steve Rowley, as reported by Croatian daily Sportske Novosti, made the trip to Zagreb in 2010 to see the 17-year-old play and, this year, Juventus Sports Director Guiseppe Marotta was said to have been spellbound after his scouts' trip the Maksimir.
The scouts were watching again last week when the twinkle toed midfielder went twinkle toe to twinkle toe with Real Madrid and the good looking, rich and talented Cristiano Ronaldo - if you believe the Portuguese winger's account. And, as scouts from Manchester United, Real Madrid, Arsenal and Barcelona will have noted, Kovačić was quite impressive.
After the match with Real Madrid Sportske Novosti ran with the headline: "A star is born! Dinamo and Croatia will soon have a new Luka Modric!" Exclamation marks a plenty do well to illustrate the fervent enthusiasm that the Croatians have for this new young star. Ivan Cvjetkovic, a former Croatia international who reminds us he's played with Prosinecki and Boban, gets straight to the point with his view that "Mateo Kovačić is the best footballer ever born among the Croats" and, as most commentators have been unable to resist doing, compares the youngster with a list of other Croatian attacking midfielders. "Today, at 17 years and 136 days, he is more mature, with a far greater impact and a stronger status than Boban, Prosinecki, Modric and Kranjcar were. The four of which were educated in the same Maksimir Academy."
Mateo Kovačić may well be a player that goes on dominate European and World football but, as things stand, he hasn't achieved anything concrete as of yet. And the gushing Croatian sports press need and should remember that early promise doesn't always transfer into the worldwide impact that his talent suggests. As Bosnian journalist Sasa Ibrulj commented to me this week in regards to Cvjetkovic's comments, "the boy is fantastic, but this is pure exaggeration. He has played less than 30 senior matches and comments like this can just cause him harm. The expectations are now huge and that is never good here in the Balkans. He needs time, like every young player." Indicating, as happens with every young talent in any country, (NB: Joe Cole and Jozy Altidore) the Croatian/Austrian/Bosnian prospect needs space to make mistakes, improve his game and adjust to life as a footballer.
And whilst the Croatian newspapers remain in a state of enthusiastic delirium and the western vultures circle, the player - perhaps owing a deal of his apparent mental maturity to a tortuous leg break suffered in 2009 - offers some calming and assuring tonic to the recent hype: "Nothing was compared to that injury, when my leg was broken. That proved that nothing can break me, even this euphoria. I stand firmly on ground. I have my family, friends, coaches and fellow players beside me, and with that kind of support nothing can negatively effect my play."
And, perhaps more importantly for his teammates, his manager and the Dinamo Zagreb fans Mateo Kovačić, the boy wonder from Linz, says, "I am interested in football and Dinamo, nothing else! I just enjoy!"