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Inside the head of Croatian World Cup rebel Nikola Kalinic

Sunday 15th July 2018

In Croatia, Bosnia and part of Serbia, žaljenje softly translates to a man in pain, regret and depression. After the Blazers’ fairytale run to World Cup final, Nikola Kalinic's portrait should forever stick next to that word on Balkan's dictionary. 

Demons engulfed Zlatko Dalic’s team - enough to have deepened its glorious quest in Moscow. Among them high-profile fraud trial involving some prominent names. Notably Zdravko Mamic, Davor Suker, Luca Modric and Dejan Lovren. While Mamic, a former Dynamo Zagreb boss has been sentenced, the other three have cases to answer.

The entire saga led to huge animosity among many football fans and public alike towards both the federation and football in general. “Each of your defeats makes us happy, Split wishes you the worst!” read a banner on a bridge in Split after a defeat by Brazil in a friendly in June.

It was as though the entire Balkan people wished the Blazers doom. Football fans despised Suker and everything he represented. Dalic was a product of their 1998 World Cup hero. He too wasn’t pardoned by the masses. Despite turning things around when seemed almost impossible to qualify for the Mundial. 

However, the real villain wasn’t actually the fans nor the perceived traitors. It was an enemy within, Nikola Kalinic. The forward was sent parking for refusing to come off the bench against Nigeria. The game was Croatia’s first in Russia. With victory all but sealed, Dalic called up the AC Milan forward. He rejected the offer, complaining of a back problem. 

Kalinic's stance was clear. He was unhappy with Dalic’s methods. He seemed not to fathom the 51-year-old’s preference for Mario Mandzukic. Only in October, the 30-year-old was untouchable under Ante Cacic. He started eight games last year and even assisted Dalic with a goal in that massive 4-1 victory over Greece in the play-off. 

Kalinic felt a bit betrayed. He had been neglected since qualification was sealed. It wasn't an isolated case though. In 2008, he was agonisingly dropped for Mandzukic ahead of the European Championship. Four years later, Kalinic finally got a chance but ended up not kicking a ball. He wasn’t even considered for the last World Cup. 

Kalinic's action wasn’t strange to teammates – it had become an often sight. The Milan striker refused entry in a friendly against Brazil and didn't bother to train before the Super Eagles clash. Yet reports claims the team was willing to forgive had he apologised. His failure to do so irked veterans Modric and Verlan Corluka who turned on him. Dalic agrees. 

No. He did not call. I'm calm because I did everything to keep it from coming. Too bad, because Nikola would have definitely played here.

What a shame, Kalinic would have been part of the history. Without him, though, Croatia has blazed the trail to a historic final. Whatever happens against France on Sunday, Dalic and his men have gained immortal status back home. They will be celebrated as heroes who withered all the grim and dark clouds. Kalinic had his chance, he blew it.  

Imagine what it would mean for the 30-year-old, his career and family. Kalinic is currently at a crossroads. He endured an underwhelming loan spell away from Fiorentina who are desperate to offload. For his kids, they will probably grow up to read about this golden generation. In it, there will be the portion that discusses their dad's shameful moment of madness. They may forgive but never forget. 

He will forever be a žaljenje. 

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Toby Prince

If the sport has 11-men on each side, a ball and lasts for 90 minutes then I'll write about it. Simply put, I'm an unrepentant soccer freak that other freaks will, however, call a geek. I do find time for music when not watching the beautiful game, though and have been known to produce the odd track. 

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