Croatia’s run to the 2018 World Cup final was a minor miracle. Where the likes of England, Brazil and Germany failed, a country with a population of just four million succeeded. That they fell at the final hurdle mattered not, Zlatko Dalić’s side had already achieved the virtually impossible.
Yet within the small miracle was another. And that is of the 22-man squad –Nikola Kalinić was sent home before the tournament began – which finished as runners-up in Russia, 13 had represented Dinamo Zagreb in their careers.
Several had come through the Croatian club’s academy, think the likes of Luka Modrić, Dejan Lovren, Šime Vrsaljko and Mateo Kovačić. Others had used Modri as a finishing school, their final stop before a big-money move to a European powerhouse.
So if a club wants to sign the next Croatian star, they shouldn’t look beyond Dinamo. And they shouldn’t look beyond Antonio Marin.
The 18-year-old has made just nine first-team appearances yet has a reputation as not only the standout young player in Croatia but one of the brightest in Europe.
That was cemented last season with his performances for Dimano’s youth side in Premier League International Cup. Marin was instrumental in victories against Liverpool, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur, and then claimed three assists in a 3-1 semi-final win over Southampton.
He also shone in the UEFA Youth League and struck twice against Chelsea in a quarter-final tie that Modri lost on penalties. It’s little wonder interest in the winger has quickly grown.
Zagreb's Antonio Marin dismantling Chelsea's u19s in the Quarter Final of the Uefa Youth League. 60 minutes gone 2-0 with Marin getting both goals.
Here's his second, starts off the move dropping deep and switching play before finding space in the box via blind-side movements pic.twitter.com/NLIiT2wP7q
— Marc (@RastafariMoore4) April 3, 2019
Prior to signing his first professional contract in October 2017, he turned down offers from Manchester City, Milan, Juventus, and Internazionale. Dinamo have since rejected a £10million bid from an unnamed Spanish club.
Marin is in no rush to leave Zagreb, though. “In these developmental years, I feel more and more complete every day,” he explained in an interview with Croatian outlet 24sata.
“There is still a long way for me to go and it means a lot to me to train with the senior team. Sometimes [with the youth side] it’s easy to think you know everything but then you go to that senior level and realise how much you still have to learn.
“Fortunately there is a healthy environment around me. It ensures I do not run early; my feet stay firmly on the ground. There have been many great talents and they did not make the step up to senior football. I want to be different.”
Such a grounded attitude should serve Marin well throughout a career which is expected to take him to the top of the European game. Impress in the Dinamo side during the forthcoming season and a lucrative move to one of the Champions League elite will soon follow.
He is a winger blessed with pace, skill and most importantly end product. Predominantly stationed on the left of a front three, Marin is as comfortable coming inside onto his stronger right foot as he is going on the outside of a full-back and delivering a cross with his left.
His dribbling style is reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo; he remains quite upright with the ball at his feet. It allows him to be unpredictable, to shift the ball onto either foot without giving too much away to the opposing full-back.
And much like the Portuguese star, Marin has a penchant for the spectacular. He is capable of weaving beyond several rough challenges to then fire home, can whip free-kicks into the top corner with unerring accuracy, and can pull off an incredible piece of skill – such as a rainbow flick – to get beyond a defender.
“I play with the same pleasure I had when I was a kid playing on the street, that hasn’t changed. Imagine how many of my peers would like to be in my place, for someone from Zagreb to play for Dinamo is a privilege.”
Marin’s first-team minutes so far have been limited but it hasn’t stopped him from being influential when on the pitch. He has three assists to his name, two of which came in a 3-2 win against Inter Zapresic in May, and a first senior goal will soon arrive once the 2019/20 season gets underway.
From then on it will be a case of when rather than if the teenager joins the illustrious list of Dinamo alumni who’ve gone on to represent Europe’s biggest clubs.
Modrić, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, is undoubtedly the valedictorian of Dinamo academy graduates but Marin has the potential to one day rival the midfielder. Although in his mind, he has already achieved his dream.
“From the first moment I kicked a ball my only wish was to play for Dinamo. I’ve done this. I never thought I would do anything else in my life than play football. I’m living my dream.”