How Finland flop sparked Croatia’s journey to the World Cup final
Pyry Soiri proved the catalyst for Zlatko Dalic’s arrival and a national resurgence
Zlatko Dalic has steered Croatia to the World Cup final after taking over in chaotic circumstances. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty
Pyry Soiri is a name that will sound vaguely familiar to regular followers of the Croatia team but most others in the country - in particular those who have jumped on the bandwagon as they have made their way to a World Cup final - are unlikely to have heard of him. But the 23-year-old Finnish player with a Namibian father, who plays for Shakhtyor Soligorsk in the Belarussian Premier League, had a key role in Croatia’s ascent to the top.
It is probably safe to say that none of this - hordes of face-painted fans in Russia and in city squares across Croatia, heroic comebacks at the World Cup, speculation about Luka Modric winning the Golden Ball - would have been possible if it was not for Soiri.
In fact, it is easy to imagine that the team would not have qualified for Russia without him and surely no one outside Croatia - or, perhaps, the Middle East - would be talking about the coach Zlatko Dalic now.
Croatia met Finland at home in a World Cup qualifier last October, after three extremely poor and worrying performances. They had lost to both Iceland and Turkey away and managed only a 1-0 home win over Kosovo. The team had no identity, they were blunt in attack, erratic in defence, and even Modric, who was regularly their best player, could not shake them out of the lethargic, depressive state they found themselves in.
But the key men in the football federation, with the help of their loyal journalists spread strategically across the mainstream media, invested much effort in assuring the public that everything was going to be OK. They made sure to communicate their full support to the manager, Ante Cacic, whose contract had been extended that year, through all channels available to them.
Croatia were still topping the group, level on points with Iceland and two ahead of Turkey and Ukraine. They still had everything in their hands with two games to go and were preparing for the game in Kiev, which would seal their qualification regardless of other results. The match against Finland, a side that had no chance of qualifying, were seen as little more than a nuisance.
“Why are you being so pessimistic?” - Cacic asked the press the day before the game, trying to give the impression of being a man who knew what he was doing, but failing to do so. He produced an awkward grin and briefly turned to Modric, who was sitting next to him, probably expecting the captain’s body language to show signs of support. But Modric kept a serious face.
The next day the team again struggled to break through the not particularly impressive Finland defence, but things appeared to fall into place as Mario Mandzukic scored after 57 minutes. That seemed to be all there was to it; the journalists had their match reports finished and ready to file on the whistle, the fans at Rijeka’s small but not sold out Rujevica ground were already leaving, and those watching on TV just waited for another tedious and unconvincing performance to end.
But then Soiri, 10 minutes into his international debut after coming off the bench, beat Danijel Subasic to a long ball played behind the back of Croatia’s defence and scored.
Suddenly everything was upside down. Croatia now needed a win in Ukraine three days later in order to qualify for the play-off round.
That one incident, that one touch, made all the difference in the chaotic world of Croatian football. Cacic was fired the next day and the federation appointed his successor hours before the team were due to fly to Kiev.
Zlatko Dalic had watched the team on TV the previous evening; that afternoon he was their manager, having met his players just before checking in at Zagreb airport. Everyone on Cacic’s staff was fired as well - “or otherwise this wouldn’t be shock therapy,” Davor Suker, the federation president, kindly explained - except for Marijan Mrmic, the goalkeeping coach. Why him? “Because it would look frivolous to have just Dalic sitting alone on the bench in Kiev,” Suker said.
This is no joke - he really gave that as a reason. But somehow it all worked. Dalic, who had had an unremarkable coaching career in Croatia and Albania before leaving for the Middle East, where he was AFC Champions League runner-up with Al Ain in 2016, defeated Ukraine, easily dealt with Greece in the play-offs and proceeded to lead Croatia all the way to Sunday’s World Cup final.
That they have had a bit of luck on the way cannot be denied, but more than anything the squad have had guts and shown an incredible mental strength - something few at home thought they possessed.
And for this Dalic must be given huge credit. The talent of the players has never been in question but Dalic has been the first manager to get the best out of them since Slaven Bilic, who laid the foundations for this generation when he was in charge from 2006 to 2012.
Dalic took over with the players at their peak and managed to shape them into a proper, fearsome team; something that his predecessors - Igor Stimac, Niko Kovac and Cacic - were unable to do, or at least with any real consistency. There is just no way that they could have done all this with Cacic in charge, even if he had managed to qualify for Russia.
And it was a lad whose name has already been forgotten in Croatia who triggered the whole series of events. Pyry Soiri must not be forgotten in these days of glory and celebration. He deserves at least a thank-you note from everyone in the squad.