- Zlatko Dalic stayed on after World Cup Final to write Croatia’s next chapter
- Has led his team to EURO 2020 after period of transition
- He discusses challenges faced and the secrets to Croatia’s ongoing success
For Zlatko Dalic and Croatia, Russia 2018 will always represent a magical, golden summer.
But as the dust settled on that FIFA World Cup™, and their historic, unprecedented run to the Final, a question hung ominously in the air. ‘Where do we go from here?’ The fear, inevitably, was that the only way was down.
For the likes of Mario Mandzukic and Danijel Subasic, their talismanic striker and penalty-stopping keeper, the temptation to go out on a high proved irresistible. And amid those retirements, and interest from clubs abroad, Dalic himself faced the same quandary. “I understood,” he told FIFA.com, “that things couldn’t get any better.”
Ultimately though, a sense of duty – and gratitude for his privileged position – led to the Croatia coach staying on. Dalic has since dedicated himself to reshaping and refreshing a side that, despite the inevitable post-World Cup “comedown”, recovered to qualify for UEFA EURO 2020 by topping their section.
Now, with promising youngsters making their mark and stalwarts such as Luka Modric still leading by example, Croatia will arrive at the EURO just as they did in Russia: as exciting dark horses. With that tournament looming on the horizon, we spoke to Dalic about the challenges he has faced, the ways in which his life has changed and the reasons he stayed on.
FIFA.com: Mr Dalic, how satisfying was the achievement of qualifying for the EURO as group winners?
Zlatko Dalic: It's always fulfilling to reach your goals. It wasn't easy - it never is in qualifying - but we were at our best at the crucial points and I believe we deserved to top the group. Whenever we really needed to show our quality and pick up points, we did it, and that shows the quality, character and spirit of this group. I’m very satisfied because we managed to bring some new blood into the team, while keeping a high level of performance. What makes me even happier is the fact that we kept our togetherness, and had great support from our fans. That unity was the key for us at the World Cup, and it will be vital for us going forward too.
It hasn’t been straightforward since the World Cup, of course. Can you outline some of the challenges you’ve faced, and how you’ve gone about tackling them?
We saw a number of important, big-game players retire from the national team, such as Mario Mandzukic, and it was normal that the rest of the team from Russia felt something of a comedown after such an amazing World Cup. However, we tackled those issues by bringing in a few younger players, who are hungry, ambitious, and very talented - players such as Josip Brekalo and Nikola Vlasic, who were very important during qualifying. We also found an excellent new forward in Bruno Petkovic, so we managed to refresh our team with some new faces, while maintaining quality with experienced world-class players such as Modric, [Ivan] Rakitic and [Ivan] Perisic.
You mention the new players in your squad. Can you tell us a little bit about them and what they bring to the team?
I love what our young players bring to the team and it will be great for them to experience the EURO with the likes of Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, and others, because the future belongs to them. Nikola Vlasic scored three very important goals for us during qualifying, while Josip Brekalo is a talented winger and played in nine matches out of ten in 2019, which shows the trust we have in him. We have a number of players who are about to enter the best years of their careers - such as Kovacic, Petkovic, Livakovic or Jedvaj, all of whom 25 or younger and played a major role during qualifying. Their quality and attitude tells me that Croatia will still be in excellent hands even after some of our senior players like Luka retire from the national team at some point.
Were your World Cup experiences – the strength and spirit your team showed so often in adversity – a crutch to lean on in those tough times?
I often say that togetherness is the most important quality of this group and, yes, that was true again during the qualifiers. We had some unexpected setbacks, such as losing in Hungary and dropping points to Azerbaijan, but the reaction was always fantastic. For instance, after the defeat in Budapest, we won against Wales with a quality display, and then played a brilliant game in Slovakia, winning 4-0. The leadership of our captain (Modric) was also so important in dealing with tough times; along with other senior players, he gives confidence to the whole team.
Have you noticed a change in the way opposition teams approach Croatia – in terms of motivation and tactics – given your status as World Cup finalists?
That's an excellent observation because it's really true; for any opponent, playing Croatia is now seen as a huge game and they all play with a lot of energy, focus and desire to beat the World Cup finalists. We understand that and we prepare for it, but it still means we get everybody's best shot and that's not easy to deal with game after game. All the same, if you're a competitor, you enjoy that challenge, and you want to show everybody that you deserved your silver medals. And we have a team full of competitors who love to represent Croatia, and who understand the importance and privilege of playing for the national team.
How has your life as an individual changed since the World Cup?
My life completely changed. It has changed because everybody in Croatia knows me now - but hopefully I have not changed. My parents taught me to be humble, respect everybody and work hard. That's how I lived before the World Cup, and it’s how I live now.
You've expressed frustration that more hasn’t been done to build on the team’s World Cup success. What do you feel needs to be done?
I am mostly referring to the infrastructure and the relationship that government, state and local, has towards football. It is truly perplexing that the World Cup finalists do not have one proper stadium in Zagreb, which is Croatia's capital and where we play most of our games. Our football infrastructure in general is very poor and completely below the level our football deserves. Our fans, our team, our youth players, our coaches - we all deserve more investment in football, because it will be hard for us to keep pace with other countries who are investing a lot.
Do you feel Croatia are now through that transitional period after Russia and at your best again?
If you look at our World Cup Final starting XI, and then at our team at the end of EURO qualifying, you can see that we've changed quite a lot. We don't have as experienced a team as we did during the World Cup but, in some areas, we might be even better. If you look at our 4-0 win in Slovakia, that was as good a performance as we’ve had during my time as Croatia head coach – the World Cup included. That performance showed that Croatia will be formidable opponents for anybody, not only at the EURO, but for years to come.
The EURO draw has pitted you against Czech Republic, England and a play-off winner. What are the different challenges you expect in that section?
It's a tough group, but there are no easy groups at major tournaments. The game against England will be an especially great challenge. They have the big advantage of playing at home, but that will also bring additional pressure to them, which is not always easy to cope with. We managed to beat England at Wembley once, in 2007, and hopefully we can do it again. But we also understand it's not the only game in the group - we need to be ready for a very solid Czech Republic, as well as a difficult third opponent, whoever that turns out to be. Our goal will be to qualify for the next round and then try to recapture the magic from Russia in the knockout stage.
Do you see England as one of the favourites for EURO 2020? And are Croatia now in that group of leading contenders too?
On England, yes. They have to be - they have the quality and they'll play at home most of the tournament, including the semi-finals if they qualify. It's a huge advantage. I think Gareth Southgate is doing a great job with that team, and they have a lot of talent in their squad, as well as the desire and hunger to finally win something big again. Their clubs are doing superbly in European club competitions and England’s youth teams are having brilliant results as well, which shows their development programme is working well. However, other big nations have excellent teams too: France, Spain, Germany are always there, Italy and the Netherlands are back, Belgium have a great team, and as we've seen with Portugal and ourselves, there are other teams more than capable of beating anybody. We're not among the main favourites, but that doesn't mean much. We're coming to the EURO believing we can beat anybody, and that's true for eight or nine teams. That's why it should be a great tournament.
Finally, you’ve had job offers to go elsewhere since the World Cup. What convinced you to stay?
As I've said before, I am very grateful to be in this position. Even though I understood after the World Cup that things couldn’t get any better, unless we win the EURO, I felt I owed it to our team and our fans to stay, because those fans showed so much affection and love towards the players - and myself. There is no greater job for a coach than leading the national team of your country, and you can't put a price on that. I believe that other job offers will always be there, but being in this position - trying once again to bring unbelievable happiness to your country - is priceless.