Zlatko Dalic says the UAE will always be close to his heart as his Gulf coaching spell helped shape his pursuit of World Cup glory.
Just 18 months ago the Croatian left the Emirates when a three-year stint as coach of Al Ain ended after he came so close to making them Asia’s best club side.
A missed penalty by Douglas was crucial in an agonising 3-2 AFC Champions League final loss on aggregate to Korean outfit Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016.
Now Dalic stands on the brink of the greatest achievement of all, having led his national team to a World Cup semi final against England.
But when the 51-year-old steps out at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow tonight, he will recall how his seven-year Arabian adventure helped shape this momentous achievement.
First with Saudi Arabian clubs Al-Faisaly and Al Hilal and then at Al Ain in 2014, where he was immediately under pressure to restore their fortunes after struggles with Jorge Fossati and Quique Sanchez Flores.
Dalic duly delivered with the UAE President’s Cup, the Arabian Gulf League title and Arabian Gulf Super Cup before Champions League heartbreak.
“I’m very happy with my time in the Gulf, it was fantastic, I learned and enjoyed so much,” he told Sport360. “I will never forget the Emirates, never forget Al Ain, it is my club.
“I spent three years there and won the Champions League, also reached the semi finals, and after that I came to the national team. It was a big change for me, but now I’m in the World Cup. It’s a dream, I’m so happy.”
After a struggle in qualification, Dalic was appointed in October and sparked Croatia into a second-placed finish behind Iceland with a vital win over Ukraine and subsequent play-off success against Greece.
“How it all happened, it is fantastic,” he added. “But this is life, this is what you work for.
“This is the national team, this is my country and this is the World Cup. This is the best job for me, forever.
“In the future I can be coach of Brazil or wherever, but this will still be the best job for me and I want to do well in this.”
Dalic is certainly doing well, matching his country’s best-ever achievement of a last-four spot in the 1998 finals, where they were beaten by hosts France.
Thank you for supporting my National team Croatia!🇦🇪🇸🇦🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/r4m4nqxtF1— Zlatko Dalić (@DalicZlatko) 10 July 2018
But, with players like Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, he always felt they could “surprise”. “I believe in the team,” he said.
Captain Modric, who helped Real to a third successive Champions League trophy in May, will be a key figure against Gareth Southgate’s men.
At 33, he is an example to every young footballer according to teammate Vedran Corluka.
“It’s all down to hard work,” said the defender of Modric. “After the game, before the game, he looks after his body. This is a professional player and every young player needs to look at Luka and how they need to look after their body and to be at this level.
“He won the Champions League, but playing for your club is something different to the national team. It’s about Croatian passion. It’s a special feeling to play for your country and Luka feels the same and wants to help us do well.”
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