Zlatko Dalic: The man behind Croatia’s mysterious World Cup run
Zlatko Dalic the player wasn't good enough for international football. In a glowing era littered with stars, he was too mediocre to warrant a call-up. As a manager, it's a different story. Tonight, the 51-year-old will lead another golden generation into a World Cup semifinal. Who says you can’t dream twice?
The HNS, Croatia's FA, hastily turned to Dalic in October when its hopes of reaching Russia were seriously threatened. The Blazers were adrift, third in a group they had formerly topped. Ante Cacic was branded far too orthodox, gloomy and uncharismatic. His methods were hugely unpopular, even among his players.
To be fair, Cacic isn’t alone. A procession of tacticians desecrated the Croatian altar cleansed six years ago by Slaven Bilic. Igor Stimac and newly-appointed Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac were other culprits. Cacic only kept the tradition. In fact, the 64-year-old boasted the closest win ratio to Bilic's.
Dalic would probably have lost a popularity poll against any of his predecessors. He was largely unknown at home, despite three stints managing local sides. His fan base was sprinkled across the sandy regions in the Middle East. With Al-Ain and Al-Hilal, the 51-year-old clinched every domestic honour and eased through his Asian Champions League group four times in a row. He had the aura to match his technical expertise. He's hardly a Pep Guardiola or Antonio Conte but has a better balance than either. Dalic’s excellent communication skills proved pivotal. Two defeats and a draw from four games before his arrival turned into two victories and a draw. After sealing qualification, Danijel Subasic explained his boss' impact.
What has changed? He talked to us more than his predecessor and brought [out] the best in us.
Dalic didn't stop there. He took extra bold steps, lifting Luka Modric out of his comfort zone into a more attacking role. Ante Rebic, who wasn’t a favourite under Cacic, was invited in from the cold. Domagoj Vida drifted from centre of defence to the right. Now, Croatia has been near-perfect in Russia.
The approach is clear: quick, fluid passing, move the ball to the nearest man. It is the same recipe Dalic used during a successful time in Asia.
l insist that we pass. Every day we repeat pass, pass, pass and play with two touches. That is my strategy.
Croatia weren't near their rhythmic best in the tournament's opener against Nigeria. Even though the Blazers cracked the Super Eagles, it came through set pieces. Still, a confident Dalic predicted an easy ride against favourites Argentina. The 51-year-old remarks drew stern criticism from all and sundry. He was forced to swallow his words.
I didn't say that Argentina was the easiest opponent. I said that this was the easiest game for us. We have nothing to lose. We are playing against one of the best.
The result vindicated Dalic. Argentina was easily beaten. His second-string line-up was then too strong for Iceland, a team that finished above them in qualifiers. They’ve laboured since, sweating through penalties to edge out Denmark and Russia. England is next in the semi-finals. Dalic isn’t bothered.
England will be a tough opponent, but we have great respect. They have been following and analyzing us, and we will do the same. We respect them, but above all I respect us.
Victory for Dalic would see him go one better than Miroslav Blažević's debutants 20 years ago in France. That will certainly put him in contention for FIFA's Coach of the Year award. In the esteemed company of Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola and Massimiliano Allegri.