FIFA World Cup 2018: How coach Zlatko Dalic took Croatia from brink of qualifying exit to title-decider in 10 months

As the darkness above the Russian capital began to fade and the sky turned pinkish, Zlatko Dalic sauntered around in the bowls of the cavernous Luzhniki Stadium. He ambled through the mixed zone, the place where coaches, above all, don’t talk. Gareth Southgate had carried his trolley behind him and navigated his way past the preying press pack, staring into the middle distance, contemplating a nigh terminal defeat. Dalic smiled, reflecting on a consummate last-four win over the Three Lions.

The 120 minutes of nerve-shredding, stomach-churning and epoch-defining football had taken their toll: Luka Modric had begun to fade in the 80th minute, Ivan Strinic limped off injured and those that were left fought, hassled, pestered and bullied the English defence with the minimal energy that they had left in their sweat-drenched, dehydrated, energy-sapped limp bodies. Yet Dalic, amid all the hysteria of drinking in a seminal win, remained pleasantly calm and stoic.

 FIFA World Cup 2018: How coach Zlatko Dalic took Croatia from brink of qualifying exit to title-decider in 10 months

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic at the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Reuters

At the press conference and in the mixed zone, as journalists beleaguered him with queries about endurance and questions of admiration, he simply wore Croatia’s iconic checkered white-and-red shirt, a testimony to how much Zlatko and his players had invested in this World Cup campaign and the extra-time last-four win over England. His Q and A was, in a soothing glow of triumph, almost valedictory: Croatia had tamed their much-heralded opponents heroically. Dalic’s self-control and self-command were a beacon in the frantic hours that engulf a game of this magnitude. In his analysis he offered simple words — character, stamina and energy — but also a conviction that they had prevailed as the better team.

He succeeded Ante Cacic in 2017 as Croatia, after a second round exit against reigning European champions Portugal at Euro 2016, were teetering the edge of the abyss, needing a win against Ukraine to ensure a spot in the World Cup play-offs. Croatia’s results have progressively worsened during the qualifiers, but in a moment of crisis, Dalic proffered stability in the fractious Croatia camp and a genial moment of last-ditch improvisation against Ukraine. Still, he neither tweaked Cacic’s tactical line-up much nor committed his predecessor’s capital sin of an all-too-close rapport with his players. Dalic was both friend and coach, Cacic never was.

In many ways, he was the perfect match for this extraordinary generation of Croatians. Amid the entanglements and complexities of Croatia’s FA divides and incessant mass criticism by media and fans alike, Dalic, a close associate of Croatian football’s “Mr Big,” Zdravko Mamic, was not per se an insider. He had coached in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to school himself and gain international exposure.

“I have always taken the harder path and had to fought for everything myself,” explained Dalic at a news conference. “I didn’t want to stay in Croatia and be a middling coach and live off handouts. I went abroad whenever it was possible to find a job. We are not respected in Europe, although Croatian coaches have great results. In Europe and in Asia, they look for brand names. I started in a small club [Varteks] — I told them big money, big names, big mistakes.

Croatia's run to the final. AFP

Croatia's run to the final. AFP

“In one year I was the best coach in Asia,” highlighted Dalic. “One year later, I managed Al Hilal. I won the Crown Prince Cup. Then Al Ain. I won a title and then the semi-final and final of the Asian Champions League. We can’t sneeze at that. This is a major competition. I worked there for seven years. I built a name, this was the hard part, but I believed in myself. When Croatia called I never doubted — I knew we had great names and that I could do it. Nothing was given to me on a plate, unlike some managers in Europe who can be given a club because of their name. There are great Croatian coaches in Europe — Nico Kovac at Bayern Munich and Slaven Bilic — this is proof that we know what we are about.”

Dalic was shaped by his Gulf experience and, by his own account, he has been greatly influenced by his mentor and tutor Miroslav Blazevic, the godfather of Croatian coaches, who guided Davor Suker and his famed colleagues in a 3-5-2 formation to that dreamy bronze medal at the 1998 World Cup in France. Blazevic moulded Croatia into a formidable team, and Zvonimir Boban’s genius and Robert Prosinecki’s talent nearly toppled the established order, but Lilian Thuram decided otherwise.

Dalic’s philosophy, however, remains an enigma. He is a pragmatic liberal, having cherry-picked ingredients from Blazevic and other coaches, but allowing his players the freedom to roam around on the field to express their game. He hasn't applied a tactical straitjacket.

“I convinced my players we were the best in the world and they accepted it,” said Blazevic 20 years ago after Croatia had humiliated Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals. It’s a line that wouldn’t ill-befit Dalic. In his 10-month reign, he has instilled his players with confidence and mental fortitude. He can’t teach his players football, but on Sunday he may well, with his soothing presence, lead them to eternal glory.

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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2018 20:36:20 IST

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