Euro 2008 was the tournament where Croatia announced their arrival as one of world soccer's elite teams. They stunned everyone by beating Germany, winning their group and playing a classic quarterfinal against Turkey. Then 22-year-old Luka Modric, still a Dinamo Zagreb player until that summer, shined brightest and was named to the team of the tournament. Since then, Modric has won the UEFA Champions League twice with Real Madrid, while Croatia has qualified for three more major tournaments.
We didn't know it then, but Euro 2008 was much more than an introduction to Croatia and Modric. It was an introduction to the world's most astonishing pipeline of talent — the Dinamo Zagreb playmaker.
There were two generations of Dinamo playmakers in that Croatia side. The man who preceded Modric in that role (Niko Kranjcar) had just come off his second solid season with Portsmouth in the Premier League and was also an important part of that Euro 2008 side. Kranjcar is no longer national team quality, but besides him and Modric, there are four more Dinamo-developed playmakers in this year's Vatreni team. A fifth — current Barcelona player Alen Halilović, who is coming off an excellent season on loan at Sporting Gijón — has eight national team caps and will likely join them for the next major tournament Croatia qualifies for.
Dinamo Zagreb's first-choice No. 10s of the last 15 years have been, in order: Niko Kranjcar, Luka Modrić, Milan Badelj, Mateo Kovačić, Alen Halilović and Ante Ćorić. All of them spent time in Dinamo's youth system before taking over as the starter. Another member of Croatia's national team setup (Marcelo Brozović) has also spent some time in the role for Dinamo, though he's primarily a more defensive player. Marko Rog, who is also a bit more defensive, is a current Dinamo player.
Ćorić, just 19, is the latest playmaker to emerge and has made this year's final squad. Despite his team's struggles, he impressed in Champions League action and is unlikely to remain at Dinamo for long. And when he departs, another teenager will step up to replace him, likely going on to become a national team star himself.
There's nothing like the Dinamo pipeline anywhere else in sports — one club, expert at producing players in one position, with zero misses over the course of a decade. Every single teenager they've tapped to fill their advanced playmaker role has starred for them, been sold for a hefty sum of money and succeeded in a more difficult league. In the cases of Modrić and Kovačić, they've helped a team become champions of Europe.
But having all of their best players play the same position has been problematic for Croatia. Manager Ante Čačić, just like the last three men who held the position before him, has to figure out how to field a balanced side while getting his most talented players on the pitch. This often leads to one of those great playmakers having to play as a true defensive midfielder or out on the wing, while more than one of them sits on the bench.
Ultimately, having too many superb technical central midfielders is a good problem to have when you're Croatia, a country with just over four million people and an average national league. Besides the six Dinamo-affiliated midfielders in the squad, there's also current Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitić, a Swiss-born player who came up through one of Europe's other stunningly great footballer factories, FC Basel. A midfield of Modrić, Rakitić and a broomstick might be better than any other country's three actual footballers. That Kovačić or Brozović might end up playing a more defensive role than they'd like to isn't that big of a deal.
Spain, the Czech Republic and Turkey are bigger countries than Croatia in both population and soccer history, but all three will know they're inferior to the Croats in the center. Yes, even Spain. And it's all because Dinamo Zagreb knows something about developing playmaking midfielders that everyone else has yet to figure out.