Croatia trump even England in their jingoistic confidence
‘The future world champions’ have enjoyed a remarkable run under manager Zlatko Dalic
Croatia’s Luka Modric and manager Zlatko Dalic celebrate after their 2018 World Cup semi-final win over England in Moscow. Photo: Mladen Antonov/Getty Images
The Real Madrid midfielder also revealed in the wake of Wednesday’s semi-final win that he and his teammates had been motivated by the lack of respect shown toward the team by pundits and members of the British press, all of whom seemed to assume that Croatia would be second best in Moscow.
By the sound of things, he had better hope the French don’t have any Croatian channels in their hotel rooms. Brian Kerr used to tell the story of the coach he bumped into at some Uefa conference in the very late 90s who introduced himself as “X, from Croatia – the country that came third at the World Cup. ”
Their final placing at this one may not yet be determined but, as Aleksandar Holiga reported in the Guardian on Wednesday, confidence back home is not in short supply with one of the nation’s most prominent TV presenters announcing that England had been knocked out by “the future world champions,” while former national team coach and one time presidential candidate, Miroslav Blazevic, when asked about the semi-final win, observed simply: “we f**ked the mother of all the world”.
The football may be exciting, the team’s back story compelling but after all of the English guff, if Croatia carry on like this, it may yet prove difficult to make it to Sunday without turning slightly against the team that knocked England out.
Their coach, to be fair, is a refreshing change from Gareth Southgate. The Englishman is likeable and, as has been repeatedly pointed out, handled himself with considerable dignity over the last few weeks. But after the relentlessly earnest and measured tone of his press conferences, it was pretty entertaining on Wednesday night when Zlatko Dalic rolled in immediately after him and set about settling scores with those who had dared to predict an English victory.
“Those experts who said England would win; they are not experts at all because if they were they would have known that we are the better team (in all segments of the game, he said separately) and now we have shown it.”
Dalic had started by recalling his trip to France in 1998 to support the country’s last great generation of players; the one which finished third in that World Cup. He was a professional player back in the Croatian league at the time and had to return home to start preseason training before the semi-final against France.
He was reminded of that game and the potential of Sunday’s to serve as an opportunity for revenge and played along good naturedly as he suggested that “maybe the sweet lord is giving us the chance to settle the score”.
The religious reference may be a little more than a throwaway remark. Dalic, a 51-year-old born in Livno, over the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina is, like 85 percent of the Croatian population, a Catholic. During a recent interview he produced a set of rosary beads which he said were blessed in Medjugorje and which he claims to carry everywhere with him and sometimes cling to during games when the tension is rising.
He could be forgiven these days for believing that someone up there is on his side. He was a surprise candidate to replace Ante Cacic last October when, with the team having taken just four points from their previous four games and in imminent danger of missing out on even a place in play-offs for this World Cup, the federation’s president Davor Suker announced that things would have to be changed for the very last group game.
Dalic had worked with the under-21 side for a spell and so knew some of the players but the bulk of his managerial experience was at club level in Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Al-Hilal and Al-Ain respectively. He did well at the latter and the club narrowly missed out on an Asian Champions League trophy but, having previously turned down the opportunity to coach Hajduk Split, where he had spent a portion of his playing days as a defensive midfielder, he was far from a shoo-in for the national team job.
A few of the more obvious candidates didn’t relish the prospect of taking charge two days before a game in Ukraine that the team simply couldn’t lose, however. And so Dalic came in, shook things up a bit, most significantly by shifting Luka Modric further forward, something that relieved the team’s captain and biggest star of a little of the responsibility for driving the whole side and Croatia won 2-0. Greece were then beaten 4-1 in the play-offs.
The coach’s relationship with Modric seems strong although he insists he does not set out to be the players’ “friend”. He certainly showed that when he decided to send striker Nikola Kalinic home early in the tournament after the 30-year-old declined to come on against Nigeria because he said he had a back problem.
The move proved popular with Dalic, who earns around €550,000 a year, seen to have asserted his control of the squad. Few would question his authority now and while he himself credits much of the team’s success to the talent of the players at his disposal, insisting that his aim is to allow them to play the football while he looks after “other things”, he is clearly doing something right for they have achieved a level of consistency here that had eluded them for years and shown huge character to come from behind three times in the knockout stages.
His 14th game in charge will be a World Cup final, Croatia’s first. It is remarkable stuff. When he got the job, they didn’t seem to have a prayer. His only problem now is the ones back home who believe his side cannot be beaten. Perhaps they might learn a lesson from the English.