Despite not making the final World Cup squad, Fran Karacic has emerged from utter obscurity – not even FFA were aware of his Australian roots two years ago – to become a potential Socceroos saviour in the troublesome quest for depth at right-back.
“I’m not involved in coaching but I coordinate the activities, the youth academy and all aspects of our operations, from financial and match operations, to general organisational issues.”
Again, Gudasic is slightly reluctant to talk to about his own experiences. He sees his role within the club simply, as “a bit of everything” – someone with a knack for business and a passion for football.
But shrouded within his modesty is a series of phenomenal achievements with Lokomotiva, which directly correspond to his arrival. In truth, Gudasic has been impressive in all walks of life.
Croatian business publication Nacional described Gudasic’s “excellent management” of rent-a-car company Sixt as the driving force behind its rapid two-year rise to become the “leading car rental agency in Croatia and beyond.”
Then in 2011, Gudasic turned his focus to football, taking over as Lokomotiva’s Executive Director. Lokomotiva would have been relegated from Croatia’s first division – the HET Liga – the previous year, had enough clubs from the second division qualified for a first-tier licence.
Saved by Croatian football’s “extremely different” operational model, Lokomotiva rebuilt under Gudasic’s corporate acumen. The entire league was restructuring, with relegation extended to the bottom five sides. But the changes implemented by Gudasic and his staff led the club to seventh in the league. Next season, they finished second.
“I don’t want to evaluate my own contribution, that’s for other people,” he said.
“But we’ve had a really intense period of evolvement since I joined. 12 years ago the club was playing fourth division football, so we’ve evolved from that to a stable first division club in quite a short time span.
“Not only do we have the reputation in Croatia, we’re quite well recognised in Europe as one of the continent’s best-organised player development clubs. Statistically, we’re the youngest team competing in the top 20 competitions in Europe.
“We put the focus on the infrastructure and coaching expertise side of the story – everything goes into our youth academy. Everything was focused on that,” Gudasic continued. His passion begins to shine through as he talks about youth development – his desire to improve Croatia in every aspect is his pride-point.
“Even initially we started getting results because we developed our own players. Our strategy is giving young players a chance in the first division.
“We don’t put pressure on players, we understand they’ll have different levels of performance. We show a lot of patience, it’s what the culture is all about – everyone accepts we don’t have an impetus for a certain place on the table, our main focus is to turn out these players on a yearly basis that can develop at the club. That’s our main strategy.”
The club’s emphatic focus on youth-development was partially inspired by the attention of Croatian giants Dinamo Zagreb, which set up a controversial feeder-relationship with the club. Today, almost 50% of Dinamo’s Croatian players spent time at Lokomotiva.
But now Dinamo’s little brother has outgrown this relationship. Only two months ago, Lokomotiva beat the Croatian giants 3-1 in a toppling of the dynamics that have long pervaded Slavic football.
Lokomotiva now boats more than double the amount of players in the Croatian U/21 team than the next nearest club, Dinamo. 85% of Croatian club revenues come from player transfers, so a youth-focus has allowed the club to flourish while other’s have just survived.
Five of the current 19-strong Croatian U/21 squad – which last included Fran Karacic – now play for Gudasic’s club. But this direction hasn’t just assisted the Croatian national side. 14,000 kilometres away it’s had an inextricable impact on the Socceroos.
In the first year of Gudasic’s directorship, Tomi Juric joined the side as a 19-year-old, making 14 league appearances and scoring three goals in his first and only season. Juric decided not to stay at Lokomotiva – a decision Gudasic laments - despite the club describing him as “the next Viduka”. But the Aussie influences were not done there.
Perth-born Tomislav Mrcela was next, signing in 2014. A naturally talented but drifting centrehalf, Mrcela almost doubled the amount of appearances he'd made in the previous five years during his two year spell at Lokomotiva. He’s now a regular for K-League club Jeonnam Dragons.
A 19-year-old Karacic would join a year after Mrcela’s arrival and waste no time imposing himself on the league. Within two years he was a regular for the Croatian U/21 national side and had captained his club to consistent Europa League qualification.
“I was here and very supportive of them coming to the club,” Gudasic said.