This time last year, Zlatko Dalic would have laughed if you’d told him he would be heading to the FIFA World Cup™.
At that stage, the then Al Ain coach was still smarting from missing out on the FIFA Club World Cup, with the memory of his Emirati side’s narrow defeat in the AFC Champions League final painfully fresh. Croatia, meanwhile, looked to be well on course for Russia 2018, having recorded a convincing 2-0 win over Iceland in their most recent qualifier.
Fast forward to October, though, and the national team was in dire need of a hero. Defeats in Iceland and Turkey and a draw at home to Finland had cost them automatic qualification, and even their play-off place was in jeopardy. Dalic, having been lured from UAE to take temporary charge, rose to that challenge. A superb 2-0 victory in Ukraine represented the perfect start, and it was bettered when he guided his revitalised side to an impressive 4-1 aggregate play-off win over Greece.
Now, having been lauded by Croatia’s players and handed the reins on a permanent basis, the 51-year-old is preparing for a World Cup he never dared believe possible. “My dream has come true,” he told FIFA.com. “I feel proud and honoured to be in this position.”
The opportunity is all the more precious to Dalic as, despite a creditable club career with the likes of Varteks and Hajduk Split, he never ascended to the national team as a player. The closest he came was a spell as assistant coach with Croatia’s U-21 side. “Many of those players are in the senior team these days, such as [Mario] Mandzukic, [Nikola] Kalinic, [Domagoj] Vida, [Sime] Vrsaljko and [Dejan] Lovren,” he reflected. “And now we are back together.”
Dalic’s appointment also vindicates a decision to embrace coaching opportunities outside Europe, with his career since 2010 having been spent with clubs in Saudi Arabia and UAE. Yet while he looks back on those seven years in the Middle East as “a great experience”, the opportunity to return home – and to lead his country to a fifth World Cup – was one he could never pass up.
FIFA.com: What approach did you take, tactically and mentally, to give the team the boost it needed after being appointed so late in the qualifying campaign?
Zlatko Dalic: I have to give all the credit to the players. There wasn’t much time for training and preparation, so I focused on meetings, communication and motivation. We changed some details tactically, but the most important thing was for the players to be aware that this was their last chance to reach the World Cup – and they stepped up at the most important moment.
Luka Modric praised you for having done “a phenomenal job”. How important was it to have the support of key players like him?
Such words are obviously satisfying for any coach. If a player like Luka is satisfied with your work, it means you did something well. I always try to push everyone to reach their potential, and I look to have a good relationship with my players. That’s not always recommended, but it’s my style – I want to give full support to the players and to communicate with them a lot. Having players’ trust is the most important thing for me. With the national team, the key factor was that the players and I ‘clicked’. We have a strong group, with really good players – they just needed a little ‘push’ in a right direction.
Speaking of Modric, you were in UAE to see him named player of the tournament at the recent Club World Cup. Just how good is he at that elite level, and how important is he to Croatia?
Once again, it showed how important Luka is for Real Madrid. He played brilliant football, and in my opinion, was the best player in that tournament by far. As for Croatia, he is our best player – he’s the engine that makes us go. He’s also a captain who leads by example. He always gives his maximum, he sets high standards with his attitude, aggression and energy on the pitch, and with his behaviour off it.
What are your priorities for the months ahead as you prepare for the World Cup?
I plan to travel and meet with players and their club coaches, to talk about their status and form. I am focused on only choosing fully fit players, and they know that. We also have two great friendly matches in March against Peru and Mexico in USA, and I hope to have two more strong opponents in June. We want to see how good we are and what we need to improve on before the World Cup, and to play teams with similar styles to those we’re going to face in Russia.
Looking at those teams you’ll face in Russia, what do you see as their biggest strengths?
Well, Iceland were the best team in our group. We know them very well and had a tough loss against them in Reykjavik. Argentina are obviously one of the favourites to win the World Cup, while I see Nigeria as a young, potent and hungry team with great potential. That first match against Nigeria is very important – it will set the tone for the rest of our tournament.
And what would you say is Croatia’s most important attribute?
We have good players in big European clubs, so obviously we have great individual quality in the likes of Modric, Mandzukic, Rakitic, [Ivan] Perisic, Kalinic and others. But our main strength has to be the team. I believe that pride and patriotism show by our players when playing for Croatia is a very important attribute. That’s something we need to combine with our quality; if we do that, we’ll have a good chance of reaching our goals.
Everyone still remembers Croatia’s performance at the 1998 World Cup. What are your memories of that tournament, and how important was it to the country?
It was my first World Cup as a spectator and, when I think of it now, it still gives me an amazing feeling. Even today, it gives me chills to think back to our performances and the wins we had. Croatia had become an independent country in the early 1990s and that World Cup came very soon after the war, when every game involving the national team meant more than just football. That team, and that World Cup, was our way of introducing Croatia to the world. Thanks to our bronze medal, those wins against Germany and the Netherlands, and Davor Suker winning the Golden Boot, the whole world heard about Croatia and was introduced to our red-and-white check kit and the talented players we had. It is impossible to overstate the significant of that World Cup for Croatia as a country. It gave us recognition and self-confidence.
Credit – FIFA