MOSCOW • Croatia's fairy-tale run to the World Cup final is a footballing "miracle" built on a foundation of teamwork and unity which has seen them outlast sides reliant on brilliant individual talent, coach Zlatko Dalic said ahead of tomorrow's showdown.
Wednesday's 2-1 victory over England in Moscow, their third straight knockout match in which they had been forced to play extra time, sent the Croats into their first-ever World Cup final.
And Dalic said the mental resilience necessary to come through such tests was the result of the emphasis on playing as a team. It also indicated a wider trend at a World Cup where the likes of global stars Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi all went home early.
"For me, Messi is the best player in the world and Neymar is very close," Dalic told a news conference.
"But, at this World Cup, the star-studded teams relying on the big names are already on the beach. It's the compact, united teams fighting for something that are still around.
"It's been the strangest World Cup. Football has advanced so much so any team can have (a) well-organised defence, so there are no huge winning margins and the team is everything.
"This was our problem for 10 years, we had great individuals, but no unity and that's why I had to build that unity of purpose in the team."
Croatia are hardly a team of no-names, however, a fact that Dalic, 51, was quick to mention.
In Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, they have the midfield engines of both Real Madrid and Barcelona, while Mario Mandzukic, the scorer of their winner against the Three Lions, won the Champions League with Bavarian giants Bayern Munich and now plays for Italian champions Juventus.
"Modric has had a brilliant season with Real Madrid and here, he's still sprinting about the pitch in the 115th minute," said Dalic.
"I think he has been the player of the tournament, regardless of the result on Sunday."
He added that after devising tactics to effectively shackle Argentina's Messi, Dane Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane of England, his team were confident of containing France forwards Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.
"Croatia can still play better," Dalic said. "France are a very dangerous team but if we stopped Messi, Eriksen, Kane... we can stop Mbappe and Griezmann, too."
He also revealed that an invitation has been sent out to the country's celebrated class of 1998 to attend the final, with Croatia hoping to avenge their semi-final defeat by then-hosts France.
Dalic and Croatia's then-coach Miroslav "Ciro" Blazevic are good friends, after the pair worked together in the early 2000s at Croatian top-flight club Varazdin.
"I am in contact with Ciro, I want him to come for the final. I want them all (the 1998 team) to come," Dalic told Croatia's Nova TV.
"My heart is as big as Moscow. We will bring the trophy back to Croatia. We are ready, we have the quality, support also in Croatia and all over the world."
The Croatian Football Federation also confirmed on Thursday that it had extended a formal invitation to each member of the 1998 squad to catch the final.