Iron-willed Dalic a product of his own difficult journey

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic took on overseas jobs as he never wanted to be a "middling coach".
Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic took on overseas jobs as he never wanted to be a "middling coach".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW • Zlatko Dalic is a man who understands just how tough it is to climb to the top of world football from being a nobody.

But, in a humble coaching journey across clubs from Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he has never once lost faith in his abilities.

"In my life, I have always taken the harder path, had to fight for everything myself. I started at the bottom of the ladder," he said via a translator at the Luzhniki Stadium.

"I did not want to stay in Croatia and be a middling coach... I went abroad whenever it was possible to find a job."

It is difficult to imagine that Dalic is now the Croatia national team head coach who has taken his side to the World Cup final.

The 51-year-old had stints in charge of Saudi Arabian teams Al Faisaly and Al Hilal, and Al Ain from the UAE - clubs relatively unknown to those more familiar with top European leagues.

"We cannot sneeze at that. These are major competitions," Dalic insisted. "This brought me huge experience. This was a hard path but I believed in myself. When Croatia called, I never had any doubts."


In my life, I have always taken the harder path, had to fight for everything myself. I started at the bottom of the ladder.

ZLATKO DALIC, Croatia head coach, on the career path that took him to lesser-known football sides in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Dalic was appointed manager when Croatia had only a game left to salvage qualification for this World Cup. He led them to the play-offs, beat Greece over two matches, and has made history by improving on Croatia's third-place finish in 1998.

"The coach has created a special atmosphere," said Croatia defender Dejan Lovren. "He knows exactly how to interact with players and does it in a unique way."

Perhaps Dalic's brutal honesty is what works for him and the team. After Croatia's opening win against Nigeria, he sent striker Nikola Kalinic home for refusing to come on as a substitute.

Following the semi-final win over England, Dalic blasted the English media for "not showing enough respect" to his team when reports before the clash said Croatia were too tired after two matches that went to extra time and penalties.

He let his feelings be known, and accepts no nonsense from his players. In that regard, both coach and team are on the same wavelength and the results show on the pitch.

When Dalic took over last year, he thrust Luka Modric into the No. 10 role, to try to give the team more penetration, and it worked.

In the quarter-final against Russia, however, Modric initially sat deeper, alongside Ivan Rakitic, in order to accommodate an extra attacker. Croatia were overrun.

"We lacked a body in midfield," Dalic admitted later, acknowledging his mistake. He introduced Marcelo Brozovic as a screening midfielder, to liberate Modric and Rakitic, and his team controlled the game thereafter.

Against England, Croatia struggled when they allowed the English wing-backs Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier to push forward.

But crucially they were able to turn it around. Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic were pushed higher and with Modric and Rakitic clearly under instructions to feed them quickly, Trippier and Young suddenly had their hands full.

For a coach who is still relatively new to the team, there will undoubtedly be tactical tweaks as Dalic tries to find the best strategy.

But their success thus far stems from the players knowing precisely what is required of them.

It is all down to how Dalic emphasises a complete understanding within the squad, and that could be crucial tomorrow against an equally united France team.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2018, with the headline 'Iron-willed Dalic a product of his own difficult journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe