Zlatko Dalic, from angry Al Ain fans' mock airline ticket, to booking a place in the World Cup final with Croatia

Matt Jones - Editor 23:29 08/07/2018
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From managerial icons Hector Cuper, Joachim Low and Oscar Tabarez to fine footballers turned coaches like Didier Deschamps, Fernando Hierro and Aliou Cisse – the 32 teams at the 2018 World Cup have been led by some figures who truly belong to the pantheon of football legends.

Zlatko Dalic’s name, on the other hand, wouldn’t have been widely known outside of Croatia before the tournament – except for a few quiet, sandy regions of the Middle East.

Croatia’s nickname is Vatreni (The Blazers) and Dalic will don a metaphorical cloak of invincibility if the former Al Ain coach can lead his men into the World Cup final.

Invincibility is a concept that would have felt alien to him despite three trophy-laden years at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium from 2014-17 – Dalic’s exalted reputation quickly crumbled towards the twilight of his time in charge of the Boss.

This despite the fact he stabilised the club, returning it to success after a rocky eight-month spell under first Jorge Fossati and then Quique Sanchez Flores following Cosmin Olaroiu’s shock resignation and defection to fellow UAE powerhouses Al Ahli in July 2013.

The Romanian was previously worshipped, the club’s most successful manager in a decade.

Frenchman Bruno Metsu won back-to-back domestic championships, a Super Cup and the coveted AFC Champions League title at the helm between 2002-4.

Dalic won three trophies at Al Ain, but he was quickly turned against.

Dalic won three trophies at Al Ain, but he was quickly turned against.

Olaroiu won two Arabian Gulf League titles and an Arabian Gulf Super Cup between 2011-13, meaning he was always going to be a tough act to follow.

Dalic was walking into the lion’s den when he arrived in March 2014 – particularly after the farces of Fossati and Flores – but rapidly turned things around.

He led the club into the knockout rounds of the 2014 Champions League, the first time the Boss had reached that stage in eight years.

He won the President’s Cup two months after taking charge, beating Olaroiu’s league champions Al Ahli 1-0 in the final, then delivered the AGL title in 2014/15 and the Super Cup at the beginning of the following campaign.

A second Champions League crown was ripped from their grasp when they suffered heartbreak in November 2016’s final, losing 3-2 on aggregate to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Despite taking the club to such heady heights, that defeat proved the catalyst for a drastic plummet, with Dalic the protagonist.

He had helped Al Ain soar, but one disgruntled fan memorably printed a mock one-way plane ticket back to Croatia with his name on it during a league game as things soon soured. He was sacked in January 2017.

All that hurt and humiliation must seem a distant memory now for Dalic, who is on the brink of achieving hero status back home, having established himself as an elite tactician and motivator this summer.

France ’98 will be remembered for Croatia’s glittering debut on football’s grand stage, their golden generation richly deserving of their third-place finish – behemoths Germany and the Netherlands dispatched along the way.

Following 20 years of mediocrity, Croatia’s glow is now golden once again.

Rakitic scored the winning penalty for the second shootout in a row.

Rakitic scored the winning penalty for the second shootout in a row.

Dalic took over a flagging campaign and breathed life into it last October, two defeats and a draw from four games turned around terrifically with two victories and a draw securing a route to Russia.

He made bold moves. Captain Luka Modric was taken out of his comfort zone and pushed into a more attacking role which reaped immediate dividends.

Eintracht Frankfurt flyer Ante Rebic, who wasn’t a favourite under former coach Ante Cacic, was brought back in from the cold, and he’s been one of the unsung heroes of this campaign.

As Croatia have edged to the brink of surpassing their World Cup debut, something that has flown under the radar are the issues Dalic has had to deal with away from the pitch.

Striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home after the first game because he reportedly refused to come off the bench against Nigeria. There were even rumours that Dalic’s 38-year-old assistant coach and former Bayern Munich and national team striker Ivica Olic was training with the players in preparation for being named as the AC Milan misfit’s replacement in the 23-man squad.

Off the field, the fraud trial of Zdravko Mamic – whose brother Zoran (part of that 1998 World Cup squad) replaced Dalic as Al Ain boss – threatened to derail their World Cup blueprint, especially with captain Modric and centre-back Dejan Lovren also implicated.

Croatia's players celebrate after Ivan Rakitic's penalty sent them into the World Cup semi-finals.

Croatia’s players celebrate after Ivan Rakitic’s penalty sent them into the World Cup semi-finals.

All this drama, however, instead galvanised the squad, with Dalic the glue keeping it all together. But you would hardly have known anything was amiss off the pitch.

Dalic delivered one of the finest Croatia performances ever in the 3-0 thumping of Argentina in the group stage, arguably the finest performance of the tournament thus far.

Despite the epic result, Dalic was irked after the match when La Albiceleste coach Jorge Sampaoli failed to congratulate or even greet him at the final whistle.

“I have never left the pitch before shaking hands with the coach of the opponent whether I won or lost. I even gave him a Croatian kit before the game. Now I hope he will remember it forever.”

Dalic has certainly made a lasting impression during the course of the last month. Lead Croatia to a maiden World Cup final and even an inaugural title, and he is unlikely to ever be forgotten.

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