- Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic speaks to FIFA.com
- Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta await in World Cup qualifying
- "2018 was special and you can't repeat that every two or four years"
The 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ represented a milestone for Croatian football, a summer fairy tale that will likely never be forgotten. Under Zlatko Dalic’s stewardship they made it to the Final, where they succumbed to a 4-2 defeat by France in a spectacular encounter.
The team subsequently underwent a period of transition as stars such as striker Mario Mandzukic and penalty-stopper supreme Danijel Subasic decided to call time on their international careers following that particular highlight. However Dalic, who has been at the helm since 2017, remained, determined that his path had not yet come to an end.
The 54-year-old successfully integrated talented youngsters into the side and led the national team to comfortable qualification for UEFA EURO 2020, which will take place in the coming summer. Before then, however, they face another serious test when the qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ begins in March.
FIFA.com spoke to Dalic about the upcoming challenges, the difficulties 2020 brought, and coaching through the coronavirus pandemic.
FIFA.com: Mr. Dalic, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta are waiting on your to Qatar. What do you think about your group?
Zlatko Dalic: There are no easy groups because qualifying for the World Cup is a dream for every nation. We have a tough group but we accept our position as a favourite in the group - we're the best seeded team and we are current World Cup silver medallists. We truly respect all opponents in the group.
We've played against Slovakia in qualifiers and they know us very well - they proved their quality by qualifying for the EURO in play-offs. Russia was a very difficult opponent for us at the World Cup, there they beat Spain, which says enough. Slovenia is improving under the coach Matjaz Kek, who worked in Croatia and knows us very well, and our neighbours will be highly motivated to prove themselves against us. Finally, Cyprus and Malta are also among best teams in their seeding groups, so we're looking at a challenging group. However, we believe in our quality and we feel confident ahead of the qualifiers.
What are the challenges in these qualifiers?
Obviously, schedule will be very tight in March and September with three games in one week. It leaves almost no time for training, and with the long travels, it's very challenging for the players to play three so important games, especially with their club schedule also being quite exhausting. It will be important to plan very well and try to manage our resources the best that we can, to protect the players while going for the best results. However, it's the same for everybody, so we won't use that as an excuse.
The other issue is the fact that we have the EURO in the middle of the qualifiers, which is unusual, and it will also present a problem for all EURO participants. For instance, you are starting the qualifiers with one team, but it's possible that after EURO, some players retire from the national team, so you have to make important changes in the middle of the cycle.
What do you know about Qatar?
I had a privilege of working in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia and UAE, so I am familiar with the culture and people in that region. I have very nice memories of my time in the Middle East and still have many good friends there. Therefore, I am certain we'll have a great World Cup in Qatar because the hosts will do everything in their power to show us their great hospitality.
Do you think it will be a very special World Cup?
Yes, I think it will. Hopefully, the pandemic will be over, and we'll have a chance to enjoy the World Cup with fans from across the world. It will be a first World Cup in the Middle East, but also the first World Cup where fans could attend two games in one day - all the stadiums are so close to each other, and I think that will create a great atmosphere - something like Olympic games. Stadiums are going to be great, and again, I am sure the hosts will do a great job in organisation, security and everything else, to make sure fans have a great time.
You reached the Final in 2018. Is there a lot of pressure now?
I think people understand that 2018 was special and that you can't repeat that every two or four years. I think we had more pressure in 2018, when we knew it was probably a last chance for some of our senior players. Now, our pressure is to qualify - we want to be there, among the best.
Once we're there, we know that we have the quality, talent and self-belief to beat anyone on a given night, but we also understand that Croatia is not in the first row of favourites - that's reserved for the biggest teams, such as France, Spain, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, England, Italy, Belgium or Portugal. Of course, as we showed in 1998 and 2018, that doesn't mean Croatia can't make a historic run, but I don't think we have pressure to do that.
Some Croatian players retired after Russia 2018. Can you tell us something about your team right now?
Yes, our team changed quite a lot since Russia. Players such as Rakitic, Mandzukic, Subasic and Corluka are no longer with us, and we have talented youngsters coming in and taking on bigger roles. We used the UEFA Nations League in 2018 and 2020 to give a chance to several new players and we got through EURO 2020 qualifying cycle quite well.
Luka Modric is still our leader, and with Brozovic and Kovacic alongside him, we still have one of the best midfields in the world. Senior players such as Perisic, Vida and Lovren give us much needed experience, and we also have young guns, such as Brekalo and Vlasic, who proved their potential, so we feel pretty good ahead when it comes to our future.
Next year will be special as EURO 2020 will be played mid-World Cup qualifiers. What can your team achieve there?
We fulfilled our dreams in Russia - that was unforgettable for everybody involved, and for our fans as well. But it also gives us an extra motivation because we know how special it is to make the whole nation so joyful and proud. With the current pandemic going on, and so many lives lost, we understand that the whole nation will look at us to make them happy once again, and it's our obligation to do our very best to try to replicate that magic from Russia.
As I mentioned before - there are a few teams that are, objectively, ahead of us at the moment. But, we're pretty confident in our quality and we surely won't admit to anyone they're better than us until they prove that on the pitch. And that's very difficult to do, because not only we have the quality, but we also play with so much passion and togetherness for Croatia.
What is your overall assessment of 2020? A tough year especially because of Covid-19?
I said during our last matches in November that I can't wait for this whole year to finish. First of all, it is devastating that so many people across the world lost their lives. Also, so many people and businesses were economically impacted by lockdowns and other measures. And then you have football without fans, which is just not the same and it lacks that emotion that full stadiums provide.
Finally, with all these measures, before the games we thought more about the tests and who's positive or not, than about tactics, conditioning or anything football-related. It's just been a terrible year and hopefully, we will all have a much better 2021. I just wish good health for everyone.