Zlatko Dalic and Croatia
Zlatko Dalic’s entire 17-year playing career (1983-2000) was on local Croatian teams. His 14-year club coaching career (2004-2017) took him from managing teams in his country to coaching several clubs outside Croatia including in Albania and Saudi Arabia. But by 2017, he was back home and had been named national team coach.
Prior to his tenure Croatia (on its own as opposed to as part of the former Yugoslavia) had a golden generation of players which peaked at the 1998 World Cup in France, reaching the semifinals and crowning Davor Suker the winner of the cup’s Golden Boot with six goals.
In 1998, the Croatian National Football Team had Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, and Zvonimir Boban among their number. They progressed from Group H in the France World Cup, second to Argentina. In the Round of 16 they beat Romania 1-0, in the Quarterfinals they beat Germany 3-0, and they lost 1-2 in the famous semifinals—where French defender Lilian Thuram scored a brace—to eventual champions France.
In 2002 and 2006 Croatia left the quadrennial tourney at the Group Stage and then in 2014 they had the misfortune of playing in host Brazil’s group and losing an unfairly officiated match 1-3 to Neymar and company. Although the Croats bounced back from their opening game loss with a 4-0 win over Cameroon, they were subsequently eliminated by a strong Mexican side, losing 1-3. But the die was cast and it was obvious that from that moment on it was all about a new generation of stars emerging.
Then came 2018, under the guidance of Dalic, and via the auspices of the magic of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Sime Vrsaljko, Mateo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic, Andrej Kramaric, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic, Ante Rebic, Dmagoj Vida, and Daijel Subasic, when they put it all together to reach the finals. That achievement was made all the greater by the fact that after topping their group by defeating second-place group qualifier and pre-tourney favorite Argentina 3-0, they had to endure a Round of 16 penalty shootout win against Denmark after a 1-1 draw (a.e.t.), then another penalty shootout in a quarterfinals win against hosts Russia after a 2-2 draw (a.e.t.), and finally, a 2-1 semifinals win (a.e.t.) over England, before facing overall tourney favorites France, to whom they fell 2-4.
Under Dalic, Croatia’s second incarnation of its golden generation has an overall 32W-17L-14D record including a 2022 run of 5W-1L-2D in their last eight matches. Those wins include matches against France in Saint-Denis, Austria in Vienna, and Denmark in Copenhagen. This is no ordinary collection of home-grown talent. Now, though, they are an aging team, still very capable of great things, but only as long as its tactics and player minutes are managed well. And so Dalic has his marching orders—marshal his resources well and he can again achieve great things, this time at Qatar’s 2022 World Cup; mess up those coaching responsibilities and the golden moment will evaporate.
Croatia needs to aim for the top spot in their group because to progress in first place out of Group F they will have a potential meeting with a less formidable foe in the Round of 16 than they would likely have if they came in second. The difference might be huge as they are matched up with Group E which contains Germany and Spain. If they survive that match, they will likely meet either Portugal or Brazil in the Quarterfinals. The current strength of the respective teams involved at that stage will be hugely uneven and that may be as far as the Croats will make it. That progression at a World Cup is no small feat and is all Dalic needs to do to have honored his country’s national team during the Luka Modric era. Not a bad place to end up for a local boy done spectacularly well.
Photo: Zlatko Dalic, Croatian Team Coach, Dreamstime.com ID: 103609215, by Katatoia82.