MOSCOW: Croatia’s Zlatko Dalic remembers exactly where he was when Croatia were creating history in 1998, making the world aware of their existence with a run to the World Cup semifinals.
He was an okay midfielder, not quite Zvonimir Boban, but good enough to play top flight football, even in the dusk of his career. Then, he was a player for Hajduk Split, his third stint at the club where he had started his career.
When Croatia qualified for France, he checked his calendar to know how long his post-season holiday would last and booked a flight.
“I was in the stands, cheering the team on,” he revealed after Croatia’s win over England on Wednesday.
“But I was still an active footballer, so I could only attend the first three games. After that, I had to go back. I still remember (Davor) Suker’s celebration after that first goal.”
Twenty years on, Dalic is the heart of another great Croatia side’s remarkable run in a World Cup, this time bettering the ‘98 team’s record by reaching the final.
In many ways, he is the unlikeliest man to have masterminded this campaign. His track-record before the Croatia job was nothing exceptional, though he had won titles in Saudi Arabia with Al-Hilal and Al-Ain, and guided the latter to the final of the AFC Champions League.
His win percentage in the Croatian league over three years (he last managed there 10 years ago) is a lowly 41. And he has been in charge of this team for just eight months.
Dalic even found time to joke about his supposed inferiority to his France counterpart Didier Deschamps after the England game.
“He already has a cup. I have nothing in my cupboard,” he said. But perhaps it is the unorthodox path that Dalic has taken and his hunger to learn that has got him where numerous fancier names have not reached.
“Throughout my career and life, I have always taken the harder path,” he said. “I had to fight for everything myself. I did not want to stay in Croatia and be a middling coach, live a life on handouts. So I went abroad whenever it was possible to find a job.
“I built a name. This was the hard part but I believed in myself. When Croatia called, I never doubted once — I knew we had great names and that I could do it. First of all, nothing was given to me on a plate, unlike some managers in Europe who can be given a club because of their name.”
When he started out as a coach, Dalic, as did all young Croatian coaches of his generation, looked up to Miroslav Blazevic, the man who had masterminded the miracle of 1998. One of the first things that he did after beating England was to invite Blazevic for the final. It is his gift to a man who he considers his teacher.
“I am not ashamed that I have learned quite a lot,” Dalic said. “My mentor, my tutor, was Blazevic. It has so transpired that I have now gone one step further. He was number three in the world. On Sunday, I will be at least number two. It was a great pleasure and privilege to work with and learn from him.”
Dalic knows that against France, the odds are against him. But then, that has always been the case and perhaps that is when he — and by extension, his team — are at their best. Croatia’s run to the final was a miracle, he admitted. He will know that he is one more away from an unlikely sainthood.