Road less travelled: Trading in Barcelona’s youth setup for Croatian football proved a make or break masterclass for Dani Olmo

Featured in the Raumdeuter Online Magazine – Edition #6

Barcelona are famed for their La Masia academy, producing some of the world’s best young stars and playing an integral part in the Catalan giants’ European dominance. A centre of excellence for youth development, training within the esteemed halls of the academy is a dream for countless young footballers around the world.

As such, the thought of putting that all behind oneself to move across to far less glamorous pastures in the Balkans seems like an unthinkable move.

Yet, that is the very move one of La Masia’s brightest young Spanish stars did just a few seasons back. A local lad, captain at his youth level, Dani Olmo swapped the bright lights of Barcelona for the gritty, uncompromising reality of the Croatian First Football League.

An exciting attacking midfielder, Olmo had joined Barcelona from neighbouring Espanyol at age 9, and was widely expected to progress through the ranks and youth levels in La Masia’s long-established, structured pathways.

When he’d reach that first team readiness was not necessarily clear, but there was little question on one thing; Olmo was good enough.

He would play for Barcelona in the future, once he had developed at the worldclass academy.

As such, his move in 2014 across the Mediterranean to pastures new in Zagreb stunned those who were following his progress. It was as bold as move as one could make, swapping the accepted best of youth development for an untested, uncertain future in an entirely foreign, lesser established country.

Yet, there was some logic to the 16-year-old’s decision to depart the Catalan club. He and his father Miquel Olmo, who had played for and later managed various clubs in Spain, acknowledged that for Dani to break into the Barcelona first team regularly, he still had a lot of years ahead of him and would be trying to stand out among a sea of shining superstars.

In Croatia, for all the risks attached, the young Spaniard could immediately show his stuff. Senior football was much more accessible, with Dinamo Zagreb – while not the same in name and reputation as the likes of La Masia – still boasting a well-reputed record of producing good Croatian talent. The likes of Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic had been formed at the Zagreb academy, so there was pedigree there.

However, there was always going to be doubts from those outside. Choosing Croatia, even if it was at a top academy there, was a major risk for a player already captaining his generation for the Camp Nou club, and with interest across Europe from the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City. It would be taking a relatively uncharted path, an enormous gamble which would either pay off spectacularly or fail horrendously. For Olmo and his father, that was a risk they were willing to take.

In pitching themselves to the Spaniard and his family, Dinamo Zagreb were keen to stress how developing players and selling them was the very core of their business, and the 16-year-old talent would be made into a club ‘project’.

A first team debut came in February 2015 against NK Lokomotiva, after moving the summer before. From there, Olmo has never looked back as he establishes himself further and further as a key cog in the Dinamo machine.

Recently, back in June 2019, Olmo was named the best player and best young player of the 2018/19 Croatian First Football League season.

Olmo took a risk in moving to Croatia, but it has proved the making of the man. The now 21-year-old has continued to be identified as one of the stars of football’s next generation and remained a key part of the Spanish national setup at youth levels – with senior international football likely not far down the pipeline.

A success story which should be lauded over and over again, Olmo’s move to Croatia might have been mocked and ridiculed at the time, but what a revelation it has since become. As such, it has opened new doors to young stars around the world, at these top academies.

Much the same way we are seeing young English stars move across to Germany to further their development, Olmo’s path to professional football success challenges the archaic methods.

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