Two days before Croatia’s semifinal against England, Croatian manager Zlatko Dalić sat with his fingers intertwined, sipping on a coffee and staring almost rebelliously into the cameras. Ruffling his hair, he ruminated aloud while the press look back at him bemused … “Everyone has problems. Everyone has not slept. Some have not slept enough. We will not allow any problems to interfere with us. The big guys went home and the workers are left. I will not accept bronze! It is a dream for us. It will be a pity to be in Russia for a month and not see Moscow.”
Where it all began
Before the World Cup commenced, Croatia were written off and labelled as “a team that might do well.” Who are they after all? A tiny European nation with a population of four million. The perennial over-achievers. The team possessing “great individuals.”
The revolution all began on a cold night at the Olympic National Sports Complex in Kyiv against Ukraine. Croatia were slated to be group winners en-route to their World Cup Qualification journey. They were dealing with the sacking of their coach Ante Kacic and the reigns were handed over to a little known manager with humble roots.
Zlatko Dalić’s first big managerial role came in 2005 when he was given the head coach role at Varteks and led his team to the final of the Croatian Football Cup during his first season. He then moved on and found himself jumping to various clubs including a year with Dinamo Tirana in Albania and a year with Slaven Belupo back in Croatia. In 2010, he moved to Saudi Arabia where he managed a number of different teams before managing Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates in 2014.
On the first game of his appointment, with two strikes in the second half, Andrej Kramaric hauled Croatia back on track and cemented their second place in the group. On October 19, Dalić named Ivica Olić, former Croatia international player, as his assistant manager, which has since then proven to be a masterstroke. Croatia drew Greece in the play-off round, and on November 9, Dalić led the team to a 4–1 first-leg triumph over Greece. In the return leg, on November 12, Croatia drew with Greece 0–0, and won 4–1 on aggregate, thus securing a place in the World Cup finals.
The right man for the job
Zlatko’s man-management had an immediate affect. In the game against Nigeria, Nikola Kalinić refused to come on as a late substitute, citing a back injury as his excuse (although he had used this excuse earlier during a friendly match against Brazil as well as the previous training session). This prompted Dalić to send him home on just the fifth day of the tournament stating he needed “prepared players.”
He even managed to improve a squad with world-class players. Perisic, a man rebuffed by Manchester United for a sum of five million or so pounds, has led the charge for Zlatko. His poached effort against England and his flick-on that helped Mandzukic seal the deal, add the gloss to what has been a brilliant World Cup for the Inter Milan man. Zlatko’s use of Perisic is a case-study in itself. In three different phases of the game, Perisic has played the role of a wing-back, a winger who switches flanks and a smart thinker who plays as an inverted striker. Against England, he executed all three roles to perfection.
Rebic has been another revelation. Eyes will be on the Eintracht Frankfurt man after the World Cup whose hold-up play, physical presence and eye for goal has been one of the standout factors for Croatia.
Linking this all together is the wizard Luka Modric. The man who Zlatko picks up and hugs after every game. Along with Rakitic, he has seen the best midfields in the World Cup and he has raised the stakes every time I have seen the duo play.
They have also been helped by a settled defense that has done remarkably well, given that mistakes are expected every time Lovren takes to the pitch. And most of all, they are commanded by a goalkeeper who is a colossus at the back.
Croatia dared to dream
In the thrashing of Argentina, in the triumph against Iceland, in the masterclass against Nigeria and in heated contests against Denmark and Russia, Croatia have shown the one thing that many a team has lacked – a desire to fulfill their dream. For to dream is everyone’s right, but to graft towards fulfilling it is a righteous fight.
When Croatian legend Davor Šuker bowed out against France in the 1998 semi-final, his tears made a nation weep. They had over-achieved then. Against the odds.
But on this night, Zlatko’s men have reignited our belief that the unthinkable is only a fallacy borne by men not rabid enough to tear away at their dream.
Moscow and France await the Croatians on Sunday. From anonymity to super-stardom, one game stands between a tiny nation skirting the Adriatic sea and a wild soccer celebration of epic proportions. They can almost reach out and touch it. So can we.