The former Al Ain manager speaks to John McAuley about his side's success at the World Cup
Exclusive: Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic on his side's 'fantastic' World Cup run
Zlatko Dalic sits in a coffee shop in Sochi, not far from his team hotel, not far either from the Fisht Stadium, where on Saturday he will attempt to guide Croatia past Russia and into the World Cup semi-finals.
To within one match of the showpiece; within two of the trophy.
“I’m living my dream,” Dalic says, eyebrows raised, sentiment sincere.
All around him, television sets replay Croatia’s final group game against Iceland, where Ivan Perisic scored in the 90th minute to seal a 2-1 victory, ensuring his side advanced to the knockout stages as one of only two teams with a 100 per cent record.
To do that, Argentina were defeated 3-0 five days before, beaten and battered in perhaps the result of the groups.
"We were fantastic," Dalic says. “That made me very proud.”
World Cup 2018 second round guide and predictions: Croatia to prevail against Russia
Denmark last Sunday, in the last 16 and supposedly an eminently winnable match, was much more difficult. It was decided on penalties, after Luka Modric had missed from the spot deep into extra-time and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic shone in the shootout.
He saved three times, from Christian Eriksen, Lasse Shone and Nicolai Jorgensen, leaving Ivan Rakitic and Croatia one kick to continue their route through Russia. Dalic could not watch, sat alone on the bench, head in hands.
But Rakitic scored and Dalic took off, towards his family in the stands - his two sons and his wife - a rare outpouring of emotion, unrestrained, unbridled. Usually he strives to keep that in check. But these were not usual circumstances.
“I must remain calm, but here impossible,” Dalic says, watching back on a smartphone a video of that moment, shaking his head, almost embarrassed. “Everything was depending on this. We did not play the best game, but we showed our fight, our character.”
It has been shown at other times, as well. In qualification, when Dalic was drafted in with Croatia in danger of missing the World Cup and one last push for the play-offs needed.
So they came through Ukraine in Kiev and then their two legs against Greece. And then on to Russia.
Now Croatia are quarter-finalists, their stock on the rise. Dalic’s also. He was never first choice to replace Ante Cacic last October – something the former Al Ain manager willingly accepts – but he has embraced the challenge, even risen to it.
Once a midfielder who never represented his country but went on to coach their Under-21 side, he has concentrated on fostering a strong team spirit.
Keeping 22 players and a weighty support staff happy for 40-plus days in no easy task, but the sent-home Nikola Kalinic aside, that has been achieved.
Forged by that, and furnished by undoubted talent in the squad led by captain Modric and comrade Rakitic, Croatia have thrived.
His appointment initially questioned, and understandably so, Dalic has proven his pedigree.
“I get so many messages,” he says, looking down at his phone as it buzzes relentlessly. “I cannot reply to them all. But so much support from Croatia and from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
"It really gives me the strength to achieve something with my team. So many from Al Ain, where I spent three years and they helped me make my name.
“They gave me an important job, the experience, the support – money also, of course – but with them I built my reputation. I keep them forever in my heart. And I can feel them at my back.”
Dalic’s popularity is evident, even during the hour and a bit he has given for this interview. At various times, photographs are requested and obliged.
Even when Russian supporters take their pictures and ask who will win the must-win match against the hosts, Dalic replies: “I hope us, but I hope also for a beautiful game”.
The beautiful game has been good to Dalic, yet he wants more. Russia are an obvious threat - Vedran Corluka, the veteran Croatian who plays for Lokomotiv Moscow has helped dissect the home side - driven by playmaker Aleksandr Golovkin and an incredibly passionate home support.
For Sochi on Saturday, the expected 5,000-or-so-strong Croat contingent will be heavily outnumbered in the stands.
“They have everyone behind them, the whole country wants them to win,” Dalic says. “But my players have played in big matches, in big stadiums.
"We have done our work on them. Against Denmark, we did not expect Jonas Knudsen to keep throwing long-balls because he didn't play in the last six matches. But he did and they scored. We will be ready for Russia. I believe in my players.”
Belief in Dalic is swelling. Pressure also. The pressure to perform that comes from within, the pressure that presumably grows from outside as the tournament unravel.
While his time at Al Ain and Al Hilal before that does not compare to a World Cup quarter-final and a shot at a what comes next – how could it? - it has provided something to lean on.
At Al Ain, Dalic won the Arabian Gulf League, the President’s Cup and lost the Asian Champions League by a single goal on aggregate. Of course, the stakes now are higher. But, still, Dalic can draw on Al Ain.
“OK, it’s different now, but there was a lot of pressure there, especially when we went long in the Asian Champions League,” he says.
“But I had a good record: I’m the only coach in the history of the Champions League to get through the group stages four times in a row.
"With Al Ain, we were so close to winning it, the title all the people there want the most. I still remember losing the Champions League final to Jeonbuk [Hyundai Motors in 2016]. It stays in my mind, always."
Russia, then, provides the opportunity to make new memories. Al Ain and everything that went before has shaped Dalic the manager and to an extent Dalic the man, although this is fresh territory.
Given his expression when contemplating the quarter-final on Saturday, and perhaps a first semi-final for Croatia in 20 years, he seems to be revelling in the moment.
“This is my national team, this is my country, these are my people,” Dalic says. “That is why I give everything for this. I must give everything for this.”