Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

"When do we play against San Marino?"; Shame on you!"; "Congratulations, Dino [Radja], great job." It's several examples of messages Croatian fans flooded the official Federation channels with after yet another debacle on the international basketball stage.

Mario Hezonja

Mario  Hezonja
Team: UNIKS Kazan
Position: SF
Age: 27
Height: 202 cm
Weight: 91 kg
Birth place: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Despite having an 8-point cushion with 2 minutes to go in the do-or-die game of the FIBA World Cup 2023 European Qualifiers against Finland, the Croats lost their gear on offense and gave away the crucial victory to their opponents. Lauri Markkanen got the job done for the Finns, connecting a game-winning shot from deep.

Croatia finished last in Group C with a 1-5 record and will miss next year's FIBA World Cup. The latter major event is the fourth one in the last decade Croatia did not qualify for. The basketball nation skipped the 2012 and 2020 Olympics and 2019 World Cup, adding to the latest fiasco.

Following its poor performance in WC Qualifiers, Croatia joined the likes of Cyprus, Romania, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, and others who will have to participate in EuroBasket 2025 Pre-Qualifiers.

At least Croatia has never missed the European championship since declaring its independence in 1991. But Croats will have to go a long and twisty road ahead to repeat the trend.

It's quite a sloppy result to compete with countries whose existence on the basketball world map is under the radar, to say the least. How can it be for the nation that managed to dominate in the early 1990s and produce four Hall of Famers and two NBA champions?

There is a saying: "The fish stinks from the head." When Stojko Vrankovic (President of the Croatian Basketball Federation), Dino Radja (President of the expert advisory committee), and Josip Vrankovic (General Secretary) took over the reins of the Croatian Basketball Federation in 2016, they had a lot of support because "let's return basketball to basketball people" idea was finally fulfilled.

However, six years passed, and the results are arguably the worst over a 30-year span.

"Is it my fault?" Radja asked rhetorically while giving an interview to Index.hr. "We did everything we could do. Most of the players had the best possible conditions for preparation, they were in Opatija in a five-star hotel. We had four NBA athletes. Sh*t, they didn't jell together. We only had Zubac and Bogdanovic for three days in training camp. What can you do in three days?"

However, the legendary Aco Petrovic, who coached the Croatian national team on three occasions (1995, 1999-01, 2016-17), has an answer for the culprit. He called out the same Dino Radja on Twitter, writing ironic and critical comments.

"I see that the consensus is around Radja's departure. I think he should remain the President of the expert advisory committee and be a true leader on the road at the Pre-Qualifiers in Gibraltar, San Marino, Luxembourg, or wherever the draw takes us," the 63-year-old specialist tweeted with a pinch of irony.

"In 6 years, Croatian basketball collapsed, missed two World Cups, spent 3,000,000 euros for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Split, made bad relations with the leading clubs, declared war with the ABA League, wasted 4 coaches... Look in the mirror, Radja," Petrovic addressed the Hall of Famer in his other tweet.

As we can see, there's plenty of finger-pointing within the Croatian basketball community. The same situation exists in the club basketball department, which is another topic to expand on.

"They say we [Federation] are to blame for this situation. Look at Cibona, Zadar, and Split. Cibona are constantly in some debt, and now we are guilty of what happened," Radja defended himself and his colleagues.

Credit AP – Scanpix

From a historical standpoint, the last time the Croatian team participated in the EuroLeague was back in the 2015-16 season. And even then, Cedevita Zagreb had a mediocre display at best, with 8 wins and 16 defeats.

The last time the Croatian club participated in the EuroCup? Cedevita Zagreb again, back in 2018-19. The record was rather similar, with 5 victorious efforts and 11 losses.

Even the Basketball Champions League, widely recognized as only the third strongest division in European club basketball competition, is without Croatians. Last year, KK Split had a chance to earn their spot through a qualification tournament but failed.

There are no teams even in the qualification stage this year. It's mindblowing that BCL has one team from Cyprus, Kosovo, Portugal, and Denmark each and absolute zero from the basketball nation of Croatia.

Credit FIBA

The Balkan region has a competitive Adriatic League (ABA). Last season three of Croatia's teams participated in the tournament. Unfortunately, participation was all they did, as Cibona (8), Zadar (12), and Split (13) all failed to register a winning percentage of above .500.

The last meaningful season for Croatian clubs in ABA was in 2013-14. Cibona and Cedevita made it to the league's final, with Cibona winning the championship.

If it's not enough proof of what kind of situation Croatian club basketball is in, we can continue.

Top-performing Cedevita is now based in Ljubljana and represents Slovenia on the European stage. Split and Zadar can barely survive in the Adriatic League and practically live from month to month.

Cibona are falling apart after most players terminated their contracts due to unpaid salaries. At the moment, only Mateo Dreznjak, Kresimir Radovcic, and captain Roko Prkacin are available for the new season if the club is saved.

The current Cibona management is still working to keep the club alive: trying to bring in rescue investors and intends to collect several million euros for debt settlement and further functioning.

All of this leads to another issue. Croatia suffers the most in various FIBA Qualifiers when it comes to local players. Athletes, who play in the Croatian clubs, bump into the wall when facing national teams with a deep rotation of mid-level sportsmen. They aren't used to intensity, nerves, and taking the initiative in difficult situations.

When Bojan Bogdanovic, Mario Hezonja, Ivica Zubac, Ante Zizic, or other big names can join the national team, then it's all about them. They have to create, penetrate the rim, play post-up basketball, shoot from downtown – pretty much do everything by themselves. The supporting cast fades away into a shadow.

Credit FIBA

For example, the four mentioned players scored 79.7% and 69.6% of total team points in the last two games against Slovenia and Finland accordingly.

"Bojan [Bogdanovic] plays one way in Utah and another way in the national team. In the NBA, someone else creates opportunities for him, there, he should do it himself. It doesn't just happen overnight, it takes time to adapt," Dino Radja told Index.hr.

"That's our reality. This is the point of everything: we don't have players of EuroLeague level. What role do our clubs play in the ABA League? Totally inferior. And so from year to year. And then those guys come to the national team where they have to decide something. They lose the whole year in the ABA League," continued the decorated Croatian legend.

"For example, Roko Prkacin, junior ABA League champion and MVP, plays in Cibona, which has a win-loss record of 2-20 throughout the last six seasons with the top four ABA clubs. What kind of player do you raise if you have 25 losses out of 30 games in a season? And all the main roles are played by foreigners. I'm talking about the entire league, not just our clubs. And then we wonder how we lost to Finland.

Lovro Gnjidic plays defense two meters from his player. Someone in the club allowed him to do that. He has been playing like that for two years," Radja finished the case of young Croatian talents.

One thing is clear: Croatia suffers greatly from a lack of quality in the point guard position. Roko Leni Ukic was a long-term solution, but since he is 37, not much is left in his tank.

Maybe it's time to repeat history and naturalize a foreign player, what lately Spain has done with Lorenzo Brown. According to a poll conducted by Index.hr, the country's support for such a move is convincing, as 62% of respondents said "yes".

Credit BasketNews

Nevertheless, Dino Radja, the President of the expert advisory committee, has his stiff stance.

"It's weird to me. In my opinion, only a Croat from Croatia, a Croat from Bosnia, a Croat from Germany, someone who has at least one Croatian parent, and someone who feels the honor of playing for the national team can compete for our country. After all, is a foreigner any guarantee of success?" Radja told Index.hr.

"To me, buying a foreigner for the national team is like buying a university degree. Is that person an engineer then? Would anyone let a doctor who obtained his degree in this way perform a surgery? To me, this is a falsification of history.

My favorite medal during my career is a silver in 1992 [Barcelona Olympics]. Sweeter than Seoul's [1988], sweeter than gold in Zagreb [EuroBasket 1989] or Rome [EuroBasket 1991]. Because I won it with my friends: Stojan Vrankovic, Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Arijan Komazec and all the others who were at that time. It was an unrepeatable emotion. That medal would have been less valuable to me if an American had been there.

I will not agree with a foreigner on the national team. I don't spite anyone. I told everyone in the Federation that if they want a foreigner, feel free to add him, but then I'm leaving. I don't want to come to a national team match and cheer for an American," Dino Radja concluded in his monologue.

Earlier, two American-born guards, Dontaye Draper and Oliver Lafayette, wore red-and-white jerseys. The first one participated in three EuroBaskets in 2011, 2013, and 2015.

Draper was instrumental in reaching the semifinals in 2013 as it was the first time of such a long Croatia's run in a major competition since 1995. The latter date still marks the last time Croatia won any award.

Lafayette played in the World Cup 2014 but did not have a significant impact. However, even such a playmaker would be very useful in nowadays Qualifiers where the system prevents the head coach from using all the best players.

All in all, blaming each other is not a solution for Croatian basketball. Whether poor results would be an issue of Federation heads, domestic clubs, a big talent gap between the players, or the bad karma of Dragan Bender (as some of the fans noticed), Croatia needs to take action and move forward as soon as possible.

Good thing there's a golden sky at the end of the storm. Croatia has qualified for EuroBasket 2022, and that's where a new beginning could start. Fingers crossed.

Credit FIBA

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