Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic reaches World Cup final via unlikely managerial route
"It is only 90 minutes to play for title, for history, for glory," Zlatko Dalic said ahead of his only previous international final, in 2016. "We now have a good chance to do our best, to do our job. My job will be to prepare my team to play football, to enjoy the final, to play without nerves, without any stress, and to give the best on our side."
It didn't quite work. The 2016 AFC Champions League final ended in defeat for his Ai Ain side at the hand of Jeonbuk Motors, with the Bosnian-born tactician sent to the stands, his star playmaker (Omar Abdulrahman) shackled and the striker he had been criticised for being overly loyal to (Douglas) missing a penalty.
Not long after, he was on his way to Croatia. It may not have had the ending he wanted, but Dalic is fondly thought of in the Middle East. Here is a rare example, not of a famous coach arriving in the region on a big-money deal, but a European manager who cut his teeth in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) before going on to bigger and, as it turns out, much better things. He leads Croatia to face France in the 2018 World Cup final on Sunday and has been receiving plenty of good-luck messages from West Asia.
Before this summer, his best work came with Al Ain in the UAE, arriving in 2014 to succeed Quique Flores and take over the country's biggest club. He lasted three years, which is quite an achievement in a region that is perhaps the quickest to fire managers in the world in the world.
Losing the 2016 continental final to Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea was the beginning of the end. Al Ain had lifted the first ever AFC Champions League back in 2003, when it was a much smaller and easier affair. By 2016, it had grown to a 32-team tournament with a two-legged final. When Dalic arrived, Al Ain had not made it past the group stage since 2006. With him, they never failed to do so.
Dalic knew the way he wanted to play from the start.
"In my career, my style is to score more," he said. "I am an attacker, I am not a defensive coach. I like offensive teams, I like to play football. I don't have the style to play defensively and just be strong in defence. OK, my strategy is that we must play defence -- but through attack."
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Yet the 2016 campaign started badly. Al Ain lost their first two group games and were on the brink of elimination when Abdulrahman scored the only goal against Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia. They then defeated Iranian, Uzbek and Qatari opposition to reach the final, where Jeonbuk lay in wait.
Dalic's main man was Abdulrahman, at that time -- perhaps still now -- Asia's No. 1 playmaker. "Amoory" had been offered a contract by Manchester City in 2012 and linked with all kinds of big European clubs. Back in 2016, if anyone had predicted that a member of Al Ain would be making a global name for himself less than two years later, then the smart money would have been placed on Abdulrahman, not the coach. But in the final the star struggled under the close attentions of Choi Chul-soon and did not have the influence he, or the coach, wanted.
Jeonbuk were no underdogs, an Asian powerhouse with strength, physical power and flair. They were happy to play football but were equally ready to roll up their green sleeves and get physical. Al Ain started brightly in the first leg in East Asia and took the lead just after the hour. Two late goals conceded gave the Koreans a 2-1 lead and a slight advantage heading to the UAE. Al Ain fancied their chances.
"I told you, I repeat: This is the most important game for me, the most important title for me," said Dalic. "Hopefully, if I do this, if I reach this title, tomorrow I will become a big coach."
At home in the oasis city near the border with Oman, Abdulrahman could not get into the game. Jeonbuk took the lead, but Al Ain's Korean midfielder Lee Myung-joo soon levelled on the night. A penalty for Al Ain just before half-time would have levelled the tie. Douglas, who had not been in the best of form, skied it. Then Dalic got involved with Jeonbuk's assistant coach on the sidelines and was red-carded.
In the end Jeonbuk, a little smarter and cooler, edged it. "The defeat is a big shock for everyone," said Dalic. "It's a big shock for my players, a big shock for me and a big shock for the fans." One disgruntled fan printed a large, mock airline ticket out of Al Ain.
Soon after the final loss, Dalic was flying home to take over Croatia. Now his attention is focused on France in Moscow -- though the 2016 loss is never far from his mind.
"With Al Ain, we were so close to winning it, the title all the people there want the most," Dalic told Emirati media earlier this month. "I still remember losing the Champions League final to Jeonbuk. It stays in my mind, always."
It may stay a little less after Sunday.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.