Igor Biscan has always seemed a slightly gloomy soul, but it still comes as something of a shock when the second sentence he utters during our conversation is that life "in some ways can be depressing". He is, he hastily insists, talking only about football, but still, it's difficult not to wonder whether he regrets returning to Dinamo Zagreb, the club at which he began his career.
"Football and everything that surrounds football here is far from perfect – the infrastructure, the quality," he said. "Things have to be better if we want to keep this quality of the national team. We have to raise the level of the domestic league, which is now I would say average, maybe even worse than that. So these are the things I mean when I say it's depressing, because I don't see any progress being made."
He was, it should be said, speaking 36 hours before England's 4-1 victory over Croatia; this was no knee-jerk response to a humbling defeat. Things haven't been easy for the midfielder-cum-centre-back since he left Liverpool in 2005. He spent two seasons at Panathinaikos, then took six months out of the game, mostly spent playing tennis and looking after his new-born baby, before rejoining Dinamo in December last year.
Biscan has already picked up one league title – Dinamo's third in a row – and given they are already three points clear, albeit in the midst of a wobble during which they have drawn against NK Zagreb before losing to Hajduk, another one seems more than likely. It wasn't quite that way when Biscan moved to the Premier League in 2000, but the problem is that since the Zagreb municipality began a programme of investment – which has allowed Dinamo to sign the likes of Biscan and the former Aston Villa forward Bosko Balaban - the titles now come rather too easily. They bring no sense of satisfaction, and leave players unprepared for a higher level of competition.
"Dinamo have changed a lot," Biscan said. "Financially it's much more solid than it was when I left. But quality wise, it's a little better but not enough. Every season we have the same story. We dominate domestically, but when we are close to entering the Champions League, we are not good enough. This is one of the reasons we cannot compete with European clubs, because we don't have enough hard matches so when it comes to one or two tough games of course we cannot match teams from a higher level."
This season they beat Linfield of Northern Ireland and Domzale of Slovenia in the first two qualifying rounds of the Champions League, and were then drawn to play a Shakhtar Donetsk side that had had a dreadful start to the Ukrainian season. Dinamo were hammered 5-1 on aggregate, and so dropped into the Uefa Cup. They began that with an unconvincing goalless draw at home to Sparta Prague last Thursday. Lose the return in the Czech Republic and it is almost as if their season is over, even though they are favourites for the league title.
The attacking midfielder Marijo Mandzukic, who scored Croatia's goal against England, continues to impress, and big things are expected of the 21-year-old forward Josip Tadic. But the big disappointment so far has been Pedro Morales. Signed to replace Luka Modric, the Chilean is just as diminutive and is similarly deft of touch, but Dinamo fans are already doubtful of his capacity to produce against better opponents.
"Mandzukic has potential for sure," said Biscan. "But he needs more difficult games to realise how difficult it is to play abroad and if he doesn't get that experience then he won't fulfil his potential." It is a hugely difficult situation, one that requires patience and understanding on both sides.
Biscan acknowledges that he probably made the leap from Croatian league to Premier League too quickly, and fears that Modric will be dismissed before he has time to settle. "The step was too big for me, and it took one year, maybe two, before I reached the level and the expectations of the fans," he said. "Everything is quicker, you have to be much stronger, you don't have time on the ball, you don't have space, and this is something you cannot dream of here."
A club in an intermediate league – Holland or Portugal – probably would have helped, he says, but even the need for players to leave, whatever the benefits in terms of toughening them up – something about which Slaven Bilic has spoken passionately - creates knock-on problems for the league. Mandzukic aside, the only Croatia-based player in the squad that faced England was the 20-year-old Hajduk Split forward Nikola Kalinic, which means both a dearth of quality at home, and a tendency for fans to follow their players abroad on television rather than going to watch their local club.
And, as Biscan points out, it is not even as though all the present Croatia squad has been produced domestically. "Coaches and young players need to have good centres," he said. "We have a lot of talent, but in the end you only get one or two in a year. Most of the players coming into the national team are born in Germany, born in Switzerland, born in Australia. We are looking for players in South America. Very few of the players are coming from the Croatian league. This isn't going to last for ever. If we look to the future, it's going to be very difficult to keep this standard."
And yet the terrible catch-22 is that even if Dinamo do prosper in Europe, and so generate the funds to establish an academy, that would not necessarily help the Croatian league. Yes, success would stimulate interest, but if they were, say, to reach the group stage of the Champions League, the income that would bring in would simply widen further an already vast gulf between them and the rest. Whether that would have an impact on the national side, given it is already so divorced from the domestic game, is debatable, but it would only push the Croatian league further into irrelevance.
Unless there is a cataclysmic collapse in football's finances, it is, as Biscan says, an impossible situation. No wonder he looks so gloomy.
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