Magical Mario sparks Croatian revolution
LONDON : Wimbledon semi-finalist Mario Ancic is the latest in a long line of sportsmen from the tiny Balkan republic of Croatia to make an impact on the world stage. Since declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, Croatia has produced several top talents despite having a population of just 4.5 million.
For Croatia to produce tennis stars like Goran Ivanisevic, Iva Majoli, Ivo Karlovic and Karolina Sprem would be achievement enough.
But the republic's football team reached the quarter-finals of the European Championships in 1996 and third place at the 1998 World Cup with players such as Davor Suker, Slaven Bilic and Zvonimir Boban.
Croatia are the world champions at handball while skier Janica Kostelic pulled off the unprecedented feat of winning three gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Her brother, Ivica, is the world slalom champion.
Meanwhile, basketballers such as Toni Kukoc, with the Chicago Bulls, and the late Drazan Petrovic, who made his name at the New Jersey Nets, distingushed themselves in America's NBA.
And this despite Croatian sport having no structure for nurturing talent early.
"No system is the best system," jokes Neven Berticevic, a journalist with Croatian sports daily Sportske Novosti.
"The truth is that we really do not have a sports system in our country. There is no system in schools or universities, everything is based on clubs in all the sports."
Success in individual persuits has dramatically risen since independence. Team sports were very strong in the old Yugoslavia, with competitive leagues in football, handball and basketball.
Sport funding was distributed centrally, whereas today the emphasis is on individuals finding the money themselves.
Stars must make themselves in Croatia.
So it helps to have the family onside.
Ivanisevic senior sold the family home when his son was fourteen in order to invest in Goran's talent.
When Ivanisevic junior made it as a professional, capping his career with the 2001 Wimbledon title, the family got their house back.
"They are not going to have any contracts or any money until they get to the top level of their sports, but it's not big money," said Berticevic.
"That's one of the reasons that of the Croatian team at Euro 2004, only one plays in the domestic league.
"If you want to succeed at a higher level and make big bucks, then you have to go abroad. A lot more people leave now."
But despite the flight of talent from Croatia once it has reached international level, the fight to have made it stays with their players.
"He represented Croatia in so many ways," Ancic said of his mentor Ivanisevic.
"You saw here great Croatian performances. I think it's great for a small country that it is going to start developing even more. I think that's good."