One of the great contrasts between the two teams contesting Sunday’s World Cup final will be in the rival dug-outs as Didier Deschamps tries to outwit Zlatko Dalic.
If Deschamps wins he will join Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer in an elite group to win the World Cup as both a player and a coach, having captained Les Bleus to the 1998 trophy.
Success for Dalic would still leave some people asking “Zlatko who?”
The 51-year-old has come from nowhere to lead Croatia to their first ever final. Dalic was not the first choice to replace Ante Cacic last October when Croatia changed coach ahead of the last qualifying group game against Ukraine amid fears they would miss out on going to Russia.
He led them to a 2-0 victory over Ukraine, setting-up a play-off against Greece, which was duly won. Dalic was born in Livno, now Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He is not one of the heroes of the great Yugoslavia team from the 1990 World Cup, and he watched the Croatian class of 1998 reach the semis (against France) as a fan.
“I was in France for the first three games as a supporter. Then I had to travel back to prepare for the next season,” he recalled Wednesday. He doesn’t have an impressive coaching history from back in Croatia where he never got a top job. He also worked in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
He took UAE club Al Ain to the final of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League in 2016, but they eventually sacked him and there is little else on his CV to suggest he would out-think the world’s top coaches in Russia.
His success has not always been cerebral. His leadership has come from the heart. He has earned respect for brave decisions like sending home striker Nikola Kalinic because he refused to come off the bench complaining of a back problem in the first group game against Nigeria.
Croatia have looked to be running on empty since the first knock-out round and three times now they have needed at least extra-time to win. They have drawn strength from an uncompromising leader, who has said “I can’t teach these players football. I am in charge of other things. They have accepted that. Maybe they didn’t have full trust at first but they have gained confidence.”
His walking-wounded centre-forward Mario Mandzukic has had to put in extra running because the squad is one striker short, but he found the strength to conjure up the winner in Moscow on Wednesday to send the side to the final.
Players will seemingly do anything for Dalic. When full-back Sime Vrsaljko picked his manager up and threw him down on the turf at the Luzhniki Stadium after the final whistle against England it seemed like show of affection from one of the many Croatian players who cannot believe they are one match from making even more history.
“Zlatko has shown confidence in us from the start when others didn’t. That is the secret behind our success,” defender Dejan Lovren said. This is not an easy time to coach Croatia.
The conviction of former Croatian football federation vice-president and Dinamo Zagreb chief executive Zdravko Mamic for siphoning off funds from the transfer of top players including Luka Modric had divided the nation’s football fans. Dalic has brought them together in an unlikely success story. They will all be behind him on Sunday when he completes an incredible month in Russia.
“Maybe the dear God gives us a chance to settle the score. But we don’t seek revenge, this is sports. We will concentrate to play the best game of the tournament,” he said.
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