The news that Croat central defender Igor Tudor had been voted the country’s Player of the Year for 2001 certainly met with the approval of national coach Mirko Jozic.

“Igor Tudor richly deserved this award,” he said. “Over the past year he has done great things. He’s been playing incredibly well for Juventus and undoubtedly was the best player in the Croatia side in the World Cup qualifiers.

“Those who looked at him as a kid at Hajduk and tipped him to be a big star were right. He is sheer class, one of the 10 best players in the world.”

Hyperbole? Probably not. Tudor has made significant strides since moving from Hajduk Split to Juventus for œ2.5million in the summer of 1998. He is now the identikit high-class central defender: powerful, athletic and strong in the air in both defensive and attacking modes – not surprising for someone who measures 1.92m [6ft 4in]. Tudor has also matured tactically in the Italian blackboard jungle and boasts considerable technical prowess.

Add his versatility – he can play right-back or in a midfield holding role – and it is easy to understand why Manchester United were reported to be considering a œ15m bid for him at the end of last year.

Tudor made only three substitute appearances when Croatia exceeded all expectations by finishing third at France 98. However, in South Korea and Japan he is bound to be much to the fore. With Croatia in a reasonable opening-round group, with Italy, Mexico and Ecuador, 23-year-old Tudor is optimistic of a good tournament.

“The draw was as favourable as we could have hoped, and it gives us a great opportunity to progress. It will be a failure for Croat football if we don’t finish in the top two in our group,” he says. “Obviously, Italy are the favourites because of the many stars in their squad, but we have achieved some good results against them in the past and we will be strong rivals.

“Of course, being a Juve player makes the Italy game very special for me. I can’t wait to go head-to-head with some of my clubmates in the World Cup. When the draw was made I told Alex Del Piero to watch himself and wear tough shinpads when I mark him in Japan.”

But before he leads the Croat challenge in the Far East, Tudor has a number of other priorities to address. He needs to regain fitness and his place in the Juventus starting line-up after injuring an ankle late last year and spending three months on the sidelines. Then there is the none too incidental matter of finally winning a medal or two at club level.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m just unlucky, but the fact is that I’m in my seventh year as a professional with Hajduk and Juventus and I keep on finishing second in the League,” he laments. “It’s strange that Juventus haven’t won a trophy since I joined them, and I really want this run to end.

“Juventus rightly have ambitions in Serie A, the Champions League and the Italian Cup this season, and if I can help them win one, two or all three of these it will be a great preparation for the World Cup.”

Club Juventus (Ita)
Country Croatia
Born April 16, 1978, in Split
Previous club Hajduk Split
International debut November 1997, v Ukraine
International caps 25 caps (0 goals)