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Inside Dinamo Zagreb's academy: Why Dani Olmo's decision to leave Barcelona reflects the special work at the club

Dani Olmo's decision to leave Barcelona for Dinamo Zagreb in 2014 did not come out of the blue, it reflected the work being done at the Croatian club. In an exclusive interview with former academy boss Romeo Jozak, he explains what sets Dinamo apart...

Spain midfielder Dani Olmo
Image: Spain midfielder Dani Olmo took the unusual decision to join Dinamo Zagreb as a teenager

"I love Dinamo, it is my club," Romeo Jozak tells Sky Sports. "But just imagine how hard it was for him to go from Barcelona to Dinamo Zagreb. How can you even compare?"

Jozak, the former academy director at Dinamo, is reflecting on the decision made in the summer of 2014 by Dani Olmo. At 16, the Catalan walked away from perhaps the most famous academy in the world - La Masia - and took the road less travelled.

Others have left. Cesc Fabregas before him, Eric Garcia since. But they headed for the riches of the Premier League. Olmo's decision marked a shift from the usual trend, a reversal of the direction of travel in this globalised economy. He looked east to Croatia.

Olmo was attracted by the opportunity to play, the pedigree in bringing through Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, and his decision was vindicated. On November 15 2019, while still a Dinamo player, he made his debut for Spain and marked the occasion with a goal.

Dani Olmo found path to Spain team by moving to Dinamo Zagreb
Image: Dani Olmo found his path to the Spain team by moving to Dinamo Zagreb

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Seven years on from his transfer, it remains an unusual move but one emblematic of Dinamo's enduring ability to compete with the most celebrated academies. A recent study by the CIES Observatory ranked it as the fourth best in Europe. Above Barcelona.

Olmo has since moved on to RB Leipzig but that ranking reflects the fact that Dinamo's journey continues and helps to explain why Jozak's views remain highly sought after.

For seven years as academy director, he was part of one of Europe's little miracles, a club with an academy budget of around one million pounds that was able to maintain the same standards as much-praised institutions with 10 times that budget. How did it happen?

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Most want to know the secrets of the training ground. It is true that Jozak, in his later role as head of Croatia's football federation, wrote the country's coaching manual, identifying over one hundred desirable technical traits in young players aged between eight and 12.

But this success was about much more than that.

"It was not about drills," says Jozak. "Anyone can find them on YouTube. The selection of the coaches was the main trigger. People who were honest, passionate, ambitious and loyal to the game rather than taking advantage of situations for themselves or for agents.

"I let go around 30 people I had inherited and hired around 35 new ones. The selection of the coaches was the most important thing, the turning point. We wanted to create an environment that was driving people on, pushing you where you want to be pushed.

"We were applying all these modern ideas. We were looking for talent, speed, aggression, tolerance to pressure, the quickness of the rondos. Everything that I hear spoken about now, we were doing it then, and I had 35 people there who were as crazy as I was.

Kuwait's head coach Croatian Romeo Jozak reacts during a friendly football match between Kuwait and Australia at the Kuwait Sports Club Stadium in Kuwait City on October 15, 2018.
Image: Romeo Jozak completely revamped the coaching at Dinamo Zagreb's academy

"It was crucial to make those changes. Anyone can wear a Dinamo Zagreb jacket but it is all about having the right people in place. We talk a lot about talent identification with players. Very rarely do people talk about talent identification with coaches.

"Yes, we hear about the UEFA Pro Licence. But coaches with the same UEFA Pro Licence are not the same. Doctors, teachers, mechanics, some are better than others even with the same qualifications. You are looking for something more, something else on top.

"There are five criteria for me. They have to be smart. If you have to tell someone the same thing three times they are not for me. They need to be honest. No interfering with agents, they should be loyal to the game. They need to be passionate, not money driven.

"They have to have a talent for the game, a sense for players. These four things together with the licence. The licence was the least of my worries because if you are intelligent and driven you will get the licence. That was what I was after. We changed the momentum."

Still ahead of the game...

Dinamo Zagreb recently became the first European club to partner with the International Soccer Science and Performance Federation in order to ensure their coaches remain at the cutting edge.

Modric was the most high-profile addition, spirited away from Hajduk Split. "They told him he was not good enough." Dinamo's commitment to youth development was such that they won both the U17 and U19 national championship four times in a row.

"For the first three or four years, nobody knew about our work. But then they started to come through. It was a rolling wheel that just kept rolling and is still rolling now.

"These were the best times of my life."

By the time that Jozak left, the coaching staff had almost doubled and the scouting operation was expanded too. "We did not allow anyone to be missed. Now everyone is turning over every stone looking for talent. Back then, it was only us. It was easier then.

"We are a role model for others now."

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Jozak mentions a couple of other factors. The need to keep the players within a group at a similar level. "If it is too big, the better one will be bored, the lesser one will be intimidated." The importance of external competition too. "If you are winning 7-0 it is no challenge."

But opportunity remains the biggest differential between Dinamo and the other top academies. Last year, Robbie Burton, a young Welsh midfielder, arrived from Arsenal.

"How do you develop a youngster at Arsenal? Once in a blue moon can you put a 17-year-old player into the first team and not suffer results wise.

"We were fortunate to be so much better that we had the privilege of being able to have one or two spots in the team specifically to develop young players because you cannot play five teenagers in the same team and win the league no matter how talented they are.

"With us, the most talented ones were able to jump straight into the first team because they had that protection. Kovacic skipped the U19 team and went into the first team at the age of 17. Alen Halilovic started at 16. Sime Vrsaljko was a regular at 18."

Spain international and RB Leipzig midfielder Dani Olmo is being linked with a move to the Premier League
Image: Former Dinamo Zagreb player Dani Olmo in action for Spain against Italy

Add Olmo to that list. He came seeking opportunity and found it, making more than 100 senior appearances for the club before turning 21, going on to enjoy a wide range of experiences that included being part of five title wins and playing regularly in Europe.

"When I started in the academy, getting one of Barcelona's best young players to come to Dinamo would have been impossible. At the time, they would have said I was a lunatic. But because of our image, because of our pathway, Olmo made that move.

"Together with his parents, he put the numbers together. He knew he would get a chance at Barcelona B but he had all these names in front of him. His father was humble enough and smart enough to analyse the environment and the clubs all around Europe.

"He realised that we were the ones giving the best young players their opportunity. We were doing it for business reasons, of course, because you want to sell the player down the line, but the pathway was there for him. There was a pure logic to it.

Manchester City's Fernandinho challenges Dinamo Zagreb's Dani Olmo during the UEFA Champions League match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday October 1, 2019. See PA story SOCCER Man City. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Image: Dani Olmo in Champions League action for Dinamo Zagreb against Manchester City

"Even so, it was a big decision. Barcelona was sunny but when the planes land in Zagreb in November you have to be careful. Croatia has nice weather generally but where the capital is it can snow and it can rain, it can get very windy and foggy there.

"But he kept fighting and performing, showing this ambition. As a teenage kid, he must have had doubts, but his parents and his representatives had a vision and he stuck at it, I have not seen that often. You have to respect that decision. He deserves huge respect."

Olmo is receiving nothing but respect now, a regular in the Spain squad and tipped to make the next big career move before long. A return to Barcelona is anticipated by those in the know. "Maybe not this year but soon." It will be styled as a romantic homecoming.

But Jozak sees it a little differently.

"Who produced him? Not Barcelona. We did."

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