By Nick Mulvenney
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Zlatko Dalic’s coaching career has mirrored his team’s campaign at the World Cup – a long, hard road to recognition and respect on the back of the hard currency of results.
The 51-year-old was mentored by Miroslav Blazevic, the architect of the young nation’s journey to the 1998 World Cup semi-finals, but made the decision in 2010 that moving to the Gulf was the only way to prove his worth as a coach.
Seven years on, he took over a Croatia squad in disarray and slowly rebuilt the unity that has allowed them to get the best out of their individual talent and reach Sunday’s final against France.
“I have always been an optimist throughout my time in the dugout,” Dalic said through a translator on Thursday.
“I look for positives in everything. We have had many problems, if I had created more problems, we would not be in the final.
“The culture of our national team was in tatters, with players boycotting the shirt. Now we are in the final and people are celebrating on the streets. If I played a small part in that, then I am very happy.”
Dalic has played a decisive role in turning around the culture of the squad, but he faced another challenge in Russia when Nikola Kalinic refused to come on as a substitute in the opening match against Nigeria, saying he had a back injury.
The coach acted decisively and sent the AC Milan striker Kalinic home five days into the tournament, leaving Dalic with only 22 players but renewed authority.
“It’s very sad that this has happened, but I’m not going to dwell on these things,” he added.
“From day one, I have celebrated solidarity and unity because the teams that didn’t have this have already gone home, they’re on the beach.”
Respect is a word that has peppered Dalic’s outpourings, and it was central to his decision to head to Saudi Arabia eight years ago and coach Al-Faisaly, moving on to manage two of the biggest teams in the region in Al Hilal and Al Ain.
“Throughout my career and in my life, I’ve always taken the harder path and had to fight for everything,” he said.
“I did not want to stay on in Croatia and be a middling coach, relying on handouts. Croatian coaches are not respected in Europe, even if we get great results, they look for brand names.
“That’s why I started at the bottom of the ladder. When Asia called I did not hesitate, I knew I would get to work with great players.
“I coached Al Ain, the Real Madrid of Asia, and we got to the final of the Asian Champions League. This should not be sneezed at, this is a major competition.”
Dalic returned to Croatia to take on the national coaching job last October after Ante Cacic was sacked, refusing to accept a contract until he had secured qualification for Russia.
On Sunday, he will test his coaching skills against Didier Deschamps, the captain of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning side, whose coaching career began at Ligue 1 side Monaco immediately after his retirement as a player.
“Nothing was given to me on a plate, unlike some coaches in Europe, who get big jobs on the back of their names as players,” Dalic said.
“I used to say give me a Real Madrid or a Barcelona and I will win titles, but now I am in the final of the World Cup.”